Is being naked a potentially radical and fulfilling act? Of course. What about posting clothing-less pictures of yourself online? Not so much, especially if you are a woman. Such photos are likely to reinforce the sexist status quo by portraying the female body as an objectified lump of passivity in need of judgement by trolls and everyone else. So why did I include pictures of me wearing only a g-string in my recent book, which will soon be available in both digital and print formats? (http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5981-feminist-figure-girl.aspx). Good question. I thought long and hard before putting such photographs in my manuscript, but have since gone back and forth. Did I do the right thing? Am I a narcissistic nitwit instead of a daring feminist? I fear these positions are not mutually exclusive.
I am more interested in nakedness than nudity. Both terms were famously defined by art historian Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude (1956): “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition [i.e. gracelessly removing a sweaty bra in the locker room]. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed” [i.e. lying in a farmer’s field while fondling your junk]. If you are not into stuffy British scholars, you might consider the similar separation of “good naked” from “bad naked” by George and Jerry in a Seinfeld episode called “The Apology”:
“So she coughed.” “Coughing? Naked? It’s a turn-off, man.”
“Everything goes with naked.” “When you cough there are thousands of unseen muscles that suddenly spring into action. It’s like watching that fat guy catch a cannonball in his stomach in slow motion.”
“You spoiled spoiled man. You know how much mental energy I expend just trying to picture women naked?” “But the thing you don’t realize is that there’s good naked and bad naked. Naked hair brushing – good. Naked crouching – bad.”
Men have often distinguished the naked from the supposedly more natural nude body, preferring the latter over the former. This learned cultural ideal—Jerry must teach it to George—is in keeping with what film theorists refer to as the “male gaze.” The pleasing elements of the human (mostly female) body are typically determined by the point of view of heterosexual white men, at least in contemporary western culture. The implied viewer—that is, the spectator assumed and hailed—is coded as a straight white man in much visual culture. Anyone who does not quite fit that category (most people, even white men) must reject or renegotiate dominant viewing practices in order to take up a more satisfying position, or else simply accept and internalize the male gaze. It is possible to do both things at once. Challenging the male gaze can nevertheless be difficult, especially when looking at ourselves, and even more so if we identify as women. There are relatively early examples of (partial) resistance, as when Edouard Manet displayed his painting of the Olympia in Paris in the late nineteenth century. This self-possessed female figure is naked, not nude, gazing back at the implied male viewer, while assertively placing her hand over her genitals.
Feminists have attempted to reshape the representation of the female body while addressing a wider array of viewers. Artist Judy Chicago made Red Flag in 1971, an image of menstruation that would likely cause Kenneth Clark to barf up his Yorkshire pudding. I showed this image during my first year of teaching university without giving it a second thought. Only later, I learned that some students were appalled and horrified by bloody tampons. As a naive young professor, I laughed again when I projected the well known photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip shoved up his butt. I love that picture and find it hilarious but the students complained. These examples suggest that simply showing the supposedly “forbidden” aspects of female or gay bodies can reinforce rather than break standard viewing patterns.
Some feminist scholars refuse to portray naked female bodies, arguing that the sexualization and objectification of those bodies is inevitable. Others continue to experiment, searching for unique representational strategies. I, for one, insist that it is possible to resignify the naked female body, starting with my own body. I finally decided to publish naked pictures of myself because I care little about those who unquestioningly occupy the dominant viewing position, interpreting all images of women in sexist ways no matter what the circumstances. I say fuck those guys. They are not the boss of me.
For my book I selected images of myself being painted by my friend Gill the night before my figure competition. In many of the pictures made by artist Patrick J. Reed, I am “bad naked.” Defying Jerry Seinfeld, I am not combing my hair, pushing out my ass, or cupping my breasts. For the most part, I awkwardly engage with friends as I prepare to compete, without thinking about external spectators. I saved the ugliest pics for the book so the ones posted here are admittedly a bit more flattering. In any case, you can be the judge. Feel free to judge your own viewing habits at the same time.
I recently discovered a number of feminist web sites that strive to reject the male gaze, offering alternative visions of the female body. One site features images of Haley Morris-Cafiero (http://www.haleymorriscafiero.com). By producing photographs of herself being looked at in public, often by other women, she reveals the social act of looking and its effects. My favourite site, however, was created by the Australian actress Caitlin Stasey. She posts nude pictures of herself and other women, designed by and for women. I find them amazingly effective but the site has been criticized (http://herself.com).
Would you consider posting pics of yourself on herself.com? I sure would. Recent photos of me would look very different from the pre-competition ones above, taken over three years ago. I now weigh 20 pounds more, have had a baby, and could joyously display my puckered surgery scar. Perfect. I am going to contact Caitlin right now.