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How Bettie Page became the pioneer of sexual freedom

“I never was the girl next door.”

Unapologetic and unabashed, clad in a risque bikini with her jet black hair cascading down her back and bangs accentuating her long face, a brazen and playful smile complementing the jutted out pose, Bettie Page or the Queen of Pinups, is considered one of the biggest icons of women empowerment and the sexual revolution. Being a fascinating figure for the heterosexual male gaze, Page has also served as a symbol of liberation from inhibitions, self-love and body positivity, having a remarkable influence on young girls and women, making them a lot more accepting of themselves and their bodies. Although this beauty passed away in 2008 at the age of 85, her legacy continues to be celebrated today, making her one of the most posthumously influential people in the world. A pop-cultural icon, she has not only been the inspiration for singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Madonna but also for various avenues such as fashion, film, comics, shows and more, popularising the “Bettie bangs” and bondage culture. 

Mark Mori directed a wonderful film named Bettie Page Reveals All in which Page serves as the narrator. Page, who can be considered a symbol of resilience, self-confidence and determination, had a very difficult childhood, being subject to constant abuse at the hands of her father. Despite being bogged down by neglect, abuse, poverty and oppression, Page managed to rise above the ashes, managing her responsibilities while graduating with top marks and earning a college degree at Peabody College before being the successful self-made icon she would subsequently become. Fun fact, Page was voted “Girl Most Likely to Succeed” at her high school which foreshadowed the immensely successful career she would soon embark on. Page had married William E. “Billy” Neal in 1943 but divorced after a brief conjugal period of four years in 1947. It was 1947 that changed the course of her life completely. 

In the 1940s, with the advent of laws that made nudity and pornography a criminal offence to prohibit them, “camera clubs” came into ostensible existence. Under the pretext of promoting artsy photography, they sold pornography under-the-counter. Page had an encounter with NYPD officer and avid photography enthusiast Jerry Tibbs who advised Betty to style her hair with bangs in front; this later became an iconic look for Page. Tibbs helped her make a pin-up portfolio free of cost. Soon, Page entered the wondrous world of “glamour photography”, where she became one of the most sought after camera club models due to her bold poses and lack of inhibition which was a rare find in the erotic industry. Having worked initially with Cass Carr, Page gradually began working with Irving Klaw. The latter was responsible for Page’s popularity as a bondage model. 

“I wasn’t trying to be anything. I was just myself.”

Clad in sexy lingerie, Bettie Page would even comply to “special order requests” that were usually hailed from high-profile socialites, judges, doctors and more. She would indulge in various fetishistic positions which included “oops-I-dropped-my-panties” scenarios or that of abduction, slave-grooming, bondage, spanking, handcuffs and more. The preference lay in “passive” helpless girls who would stare on like a virgin nymphomaniac. Page shone through in these crude postures; she would oscillate back and forth between being a playful minx to a “stern dominatrix”. Despite being restrained or ball-gagged, the look in her eyes would subvert the general expectations that people had from the models; she was always in charge irrespective of the kind of clandestine feature she posed for. As Buszek said, “she was a partner in the process, not someone who was being exploited”.

Seductive and bold, Page came to be known as ‘The Queen of Curves’ and ‘The Dark Angel’, having won the title of ‘Miss Pinup Girl of the World’. However, Page quit modelling shortly after due to the “concocted witch-hunt” that was a result of society’s orthodox and repressive McCarthyism towards sex and nudity. A teenage boy reportedly died of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation and then-Senator Estes Kefaveur, a radical opposed to the “indecency” projected by nudity and gambling, and his committee, drew an expansive link between her bondage modelling and the boy’s death, trying to convey Page’s contribution in “juvenile delinquency”. Shortly after, page vanished from the face of the modelling industry causing a severe blow to Klaw’s business. She became a devout Christian, attending church services. As Page has been quoted saying in the film: “I don’t even believe God disapproves of nudity. After all, he put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden naked as jaybirds.”

Page appearing in S&M and bondage reels by Irving and Paula Klaw. (Credit: Irving Klaw)

Page’s retirement, however, ushered in a new dawn of a sexual revolution in the United States, where people began raising their voices against the “repressive sexual authorities”. With the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s as well as the sexual revolution, Page has been credited for being the flagbearer of the latter, propagating the tenets of being a sex-positive feminist. An actual badass, Page never believed in concealing her bodily imperfections. She loved embracing her own flaws which were quite revolutionary and ground-breaking. She served as a perfect foil to the common mentality where women had to be the epitomes of perfection. Her unconventional beauty included “imperfect teeth and a slightly droopy eye” and curvy stature,  which made her even more desirable. Exuding raw charm and confidence, Page was a different kind of sexy. 

“I love to swim in the nude and roam around the house in the nude. You’re just as free as a bird!”

Bettie Page championed the cause of nudity. She loved embracing effort bare all not only for the sake of her profession and others’ entertainment but also for the sense of freedom and empowerment she derived from it. She wanted “to be remembered as the woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form” and boy, she did. She had been arrested for public indecency while posing nude on a beach. She refused to let the court of law bog her down and pleaded not guilty until she wore them down. Page also firmly disapproved of calling a woman’s body indecent. It was quite an irony to see how women’s bodies were used as commodities to please the heteronormative desires but would be shunned if used for personal pleasure. Page, who was the perfect example of a “virgin nymphomaniac” with the look of sex and innocence in her eyes, became the symbol for female sexuality triumphing over anxiety and insecurity. Embracing the female form the way it is was quite alien to women before Bettie Page showed them the way. As Angelica Luna had been quoted saying to The Atlantic, “Step down, Marilyn. You had nothing on Bettie”. 

Bettie Page was soon “penniless and infamous” before her sudden resurgence which throned her as the queen she is. Her comeback story is inspiring and reeks of vibrance, exuberance, resilience and strong will. Despite the insurmountable obstacles that adorned her path, including her 10-year saga with schizophrenia, sexual assault as well as tumultuous personal life, Page managed to stay afloat in this vicious industry, with pride and courage. She was quite shocked and overwhelmed to know how celebrated she was even today. “It makes me feel wonderful that people still care for me… that I have so many fans among young people, who write to me and tell me I have been an inspiration,” she once said.

Page, who was also a talented artist, was her own hairstylist and often made her clothes and bikinis during shoots. The scanty and risque bikinis were quite scandalous and unseen at those times, disrupting the taboo norms, Bettie continued being the renegade, indulging in whatever she felt comfortable in: “I never kept up with the fashions. I believed in wearing what I thought looked good on me.”

Powerful and charming, Bettie Page defines brilliance. “Young women say I helped them come out of their shells,” she was quoted saying. The world, especially women, owe a lot to Page for being the pioneer of feminism and sexual freedom. Page’s carefree smile and mirth in her eyes, displaying her well-endowed pubic hair or while being bound, exudes sensuality and courage and the courage to embrace the body. Bettie Page should be relentlessly celebrated for being a product of rotten childhood trauma to a lovely and confident body that refused to be exploited by the male gaze and being an inspiration for women all over the world. 

“I was not trying to be shocking or to be a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to change society or to be ahead of my time. I didn`t think of myself as liberated, and I don’t believe that I did anything important. I was just myself. I didn`t know any other way to be or any other way to live.”