There’s a period of time in high school that I’m not particularly proud of and, remarkably, it’s not the time I wore sparkly blue nail polish to prom: it’s when I wore my Playboy Bunny T-shirt. I’d half-forgotten about that thing until I read Playboy is selling official “Playboy Bunny costumes” in honor of their 50th anniversary. My knee-jerk reaction was to laugh. I mean, what a ridiculous costume. Do women actually feel sexy dressed up in a corset, cottontail and bunny ears?
Then I remembered I used to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the Playboy Bunny logo. I was 16 years old. I lived in suburban Connecticut. I had never even seen pornography before. Dad hadn’t installed the internet at our house yet, so there’s nowhere I would have seen porn (unless, maybe, I snooped in my brother’s room).
I didn’t understand it then, but I do understand now, that lack of understanding is what makes Playboy their money. The coded message of the Playboy Bunny logo wasn’t that I watched porn (I didn’t, obviously) or that I supported the mainstream porn industry (which I knew nothing of). No, the coded message was something a lot more relatable and innocuous: When I wore my T-shirt, I was telling people I was sexy and fun.
I barely had any concrete sexual experiences at 16. I had never performed or received oral sex. I was still a virgin, of course. But, still, for an “everything but” girl, I had a reputation among my freaks-and-geeks friends as the wild, slutty one. (Or not-slutty slutty one, as it were.) I’d made out with a bunch of guys. I’d streaked. I’d gotten busted at a party making out with a guy in the parents’ bedroom. And I really liked the attention that I got from doing those things. It made me feel noticed for once. Valued, even. And the more attention that I got for being the (not-slutty) slutty one, the more I wanted to encourage it.
At 16, I didn’t understand the psychology behind what I was doing. But recently, I read a Los Angeles Times interview with Gloria Steinem that tied it all together. Steinem was asked to comment on young women who post scantily-clad pictures of themselves on Facebook, but her response could have just as easily applied to me:
If men could get public notice by taking their clothes off, they would be taking their clothes off! The culture still rewards women for certain types of behavior, and it’s not surprising that when [they're] young, they think it’s in their interest.
Twenty-six-year-old me would tell 16-year-old me, though, that being seen as “sexy” or even “slutty” isn’t something to hinge your self-esteem on. Twenty-six-year-old me would tell 16-year-old me that it was OK to be proud of my writing, or my grades, or being a good friend — that the world was not as cruel as high school and I wouldn’t be ignored forever. Twenty-six-year-old me would tell 16-year-old me to read Female Chauvinist Pigs and Enlightened Sexism.
With 10 years more perspective, I see my Playboy Bunny days with a different set of eyes. I honestly don’t know where I stand on porn or sex work, but I know I don’t like lots of parts of it — especially the narrow standards of beauty they promote. Now, I understand there’s porn out there starring black women and Asian women and obese women and women with one arm and one leg. I am aware that “porn” is a huge umbrella. But Playboy magazine, in particular, glorifies blond-hair-and-big-boobed Barbie dolls — an unattainable beauty standard for 99 percent of American women — and I hate that. I hate it.
At 26, I can now see that Playboy was selling their Playboy Bunny T-shirts in suburban malls (I think I bought mine at a Hot Topic?) because they wanted to inoculate the youngsters. Their business depended on getting teen girls like me to be chill with their products. If I wore a Playboy Bunny T-shirt because I thought it made me sexy and cool, it’s unlikely I’d forbid a boyfriend or husband to subscribe to Playboy or visit a Playboy Club or give the company money in any other way. And when I think back on how I gave the company $25, or whatever, of my money because I thought I was being “cool,” I feel stupid.
I’m still into being (and being seen as) sexy, fun, wild, non-slutty slutty, maybe even slutty. I’d even accept the label of “sex-positive feminist” if pressed. (I mean, it’s not like I’m shy about my sexuality or anything.) But I feel way more secure with myself than I did at 16 and I’m not going to appropriate someone’s logo to convey that, especially now that I have a better understanding of what Playboy stands for in the grand scheme of things. I wish I hadn’t needed a corporate label to validate my sexuality, or even my identity, when I was such a young sprite— but all I can say is that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I also wish I could tell you I threw the Playboy Bunny T-shirt away or maybe threw it in a “Freedom Trash Can,” à la the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant. I wish I’d had some feminist fairy godmother — Ariel Levy, perhaps? maybe Susan J. Douglas? — swoop in and say, “Bitch, please! Use your brain!”
Alas, that’s not the case. I ended up throwing my Playboy Bunny shirt away because it had developed some nasty brown pit stains. But by then, I didn’t want a new one.