In the year I was in the 2nd-grade of junior high school (8th grade in the US), Madonna released a photography book, “Sex,” which caused quite a sensation in Japan. On TV, I saw a few photos, in one of which Madonna was kneeling over a long mirror placed on the floor, pleasuring her sex with one hand while the other hand supported the weight of her white body.
I had known two of her albums, “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer,” which my sister listened to on a cassette tape repeatedly and woke me up every morning. I had no idea what she was singing about, except for “virgin,” which I got from Virgin Mary to represent a pure and holy woman. Combined with her name and “prayer,” I somehow interpreted that maybe she wanted to be saved by Christianity. Whatever the lyrics meant, I found the voice and the tune hard to overwrite in my head.
At 14, I had little idea of what kind of “looks” I wanted to achieve. On this side of the world, young female singers wore bows, frills, laces, puffy sleeves, padded shouldered jackets, and the wildest they got was a mini skirt or short-cut jeans. Madonna, on the other side of the world, wore a bodysuit with pointy bras. I admired her for her transcendent aesthetics. It seemed to me that Madonna chose to dress and undress rather than being told to do so.
Predictably, Izumi’s boyfriend saw Madonna as no more than just a female body and blabbered about her book as if it was an expensive porn magazine. So I rebuked him that “Sex” was beautiful art. He sneered, as usual, teasing me with a lie that maybe I wanted to have my nude photo taken. I told him it was a pity he couldn’t distinguish between art and porn. He shut up.
Sometime later, he brought “Sex” to school. He said his father bought it and asked if I wanted to see it. I took it as his renewed attempt to humiliate me. So I said I was excited to see it, and we sat side by side to open the book. Many of the photos were even more explicit than the mirror one I had seen. I could sense him observing my reaction in my profile. I could hear him breathe next to my ear through his perpetual sneer. As we turned pages, some photos involved BDSM, which term I didn’t learn until many years later. I was determined never to flinch, to stand by my “‘Sex’ is a book of art” remark, and even exclaimed words of admiration here and there. When we finished, I thanked him. He was tense behind his weasel-face. I returned to my seat triumphantly.
I didn’t intend to gain his respect through this interaction. He probably shared the story with other guys to laugh at me behind my back. But I was fed up with boys in school objectifying every single female body for their pleasure. It depressed me that a women’s body was a separate entity from the individual. I was starting to believe that like we couldn’t control menstruation and puberty, we had little choice with how our bodies existed in the world. But Madonna didn’t release “Sex” or wore the pointy bra bodysuits to please men. And her music was definitely not about her desire to be saved by God. Instead, Madonna celebrated her body through artistic expression and her music was an affirmation of women’s needs and desires. I didn’t start to dress like Madonna, but I was beginning to respect the burgeoning desire in myself.