“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
Everywhere I go I see the naked body. And if it’s not naked, it might as well be. I see it trying to sell me beer, I see it objectified, manifested to look like something other than a human form. I see it backlit, swathed in a sheer fabric for effect, up against a wall, or lying on the bed. And it just so happens that 99% of the time these bodies are female bodies.
When it’s not for advertising, pornography, or some unsavoury cocktail of the two, nakedness is taboo in the majority of Western culture. The body when it is bereft of cultural inscriptions is very much a foreign concept for most of us in the modern world. A mother giving nutrients to her child by feeding her from her breast is deemed ‘inappropriate’, and yet we’ll freely gaze at a prepubescent girl wearing nothing but low-cut jeans as she is plastered across a five-story building. But I’m not here to write about the cultural contradictions we’re likely all already aware of.
It’s the ‘feminist’ reaction against the onslaught of media objectification that I find really troubling. Since when does our retaliation mean further sexualising, stylising or manufacturing women’s bodies, all while working under the guise of being ’emancipatory’?
Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid supporter of ‘freeing the nipple’ and sexual empowerment and expression. But for me, the main issue inherent in our obsession with the female body is our inability to separate sexual features from every day, bodily functions. I’m talking about functions of human bodies that may not be glamorous or spoken about, but are, in most cases, the reason you’re alive today. I’m also talking about that little feature of the body that sits between the ears and inside a skull. I’m talking about a woman’s control centre that, despite what some might think, isn’t the ovaries or uterus, but her mind . Sexuality is clearly a significant part our individual make-up, but it’s not the only one, nor is it a universal concept.
Which brings me to what appears to be the most spoken about new website of late, Herself.com. Caitlin Stacey, former Neighbours star and actress on more recent TV shows like Please Like Me, has this year launched a website that aims to unearth female sexuality, sanction the plethora of female body shapes, and open up a broader feminist dialogue. The website is structured around photographs of nude female participants, each of whom have a profile where they answer questions on topics like sexual development, and what it means to feel proud of one’s body.
I hate it when feminists lambaste other feminists who are trying to spread what they believe to be a positive message. In fact, when I saw this website for the first time and instantly noted the issues I had with it, I had serious pangs of dismay. I wanted to love it. I toiled over the idea of expressing my distaste for the whole thing, fearful that I’d be palmed off as a prude with underlying issues with seeing the naked form.
I soon realised, however, that just like any significant conversation, critique is essential. If there’s one thing I learned from my creative writing major (yes, I learned something), it’s that constructive criticism is your best friend, and so I put what I learned into practise.
Aside from the fact that Stacey perhaps unintentionally has created a website that very much reads to me like self aggrandisement, the key issue I have is the manner in which the naked bodies are portrayed. As I scrolled through picture after picture of women teetering on the edges of cliffs, posing on podiums and with snakes draped over their shoulders, my mouth was agape in disbelief. Were any of these pictures really any different to something I could see in GQ magazine? Was it art? Who were these women? The representation of worth for these women was first and foremost founded their corporeal sexuality. Second to that, perhaps, were their views on sexuality. Surely, the step towards true liberation is an inverse of these two ideas. The photographs are undeniably sexualised and stylised, and as such, only add to a mass of media content that continues to disregard the functionalities of the female human body, and draw attention away from what might actually be going on in their mind.
Left: Caitlin Stacey from Herself.com Right: Miranda Kerr
Left: ‘S’ from Herself.com Right: Rihanna from GQ Magazine
Left: Model from GQ magazine Right: Demi from Herself.com
I can’t shake the feeling that Stacey has misguided motives. The fact that she has the means and recourses to put forth a website, and yet has produced something of this nature, is what I would consider deeply disappointing.
The fight against patriarchal rule is not going to be won with our clothes off. It’s going to be won with our minds. It’s going to be won when culture undergoes a deep shift that equalizes the genders in terms of sexual desirability. It’s going to be won when women don’t feel the need to assert our worth based on the shapes of our bodies, size of our nose, of length of our hair. It’s going to be achieved based on the strength of character, passion for justice, and sense of empowerment from within.
Late last year, I read a moving article posted on The Daily Life website by news journalist, Tracey Spicer, who decided to go on a mass beauty cull. She stopped dying her hair, wearing makeup, and spending hours in the bathroom each morning. She stopped focusing on the way she looked all the time and instead channeled her energy into enjoying time with her daughter, working, cooking, or just doing things that gave her a sense of fulfillment. And, miraculously, over time she began to care less about the way she looked. It wasn’t necessarily about her liking the way she looked naturally, or even ‘loving herself’, it was plain and simple; she tried not caring as much.
I’m not saying to forego all aspects of personal upkeep. Obviously health and hygiene are imperative, but what I take to be the most poignant part of Spicer’s anecdote is her rechanneling of energy. Think of all the things womankind could accomplish if they were unfettered by this preoccupation with physical appearance. Have we ever stopped to consider that it is perhaps partly due to our self-perpetuating mania around beauty and attractiveness that feeds into a broader cultural issue? Maybe if our mothers, or our mother’s mothers stopped giving as much of a damn, the daughters of today would spend less time body-monitoring, and more time studying, learning and making a real change in the world.
When I was a teenager I was obsessed with appearance. I know this isn’t an uncommon narrative by any means, but it dogged my mind and plagued my mental health. I was insecure, negative, and incredibly disparaging. I saw the school counsellor for most of my High School life, and what I remember most from those hour-long chats I had in Rose Village (how twee, I know), was the constant talk about body image. Every week, my counsellor would ask how I was going, and I would weave her stories, tell her feelings, explain to her situations that all invariably led back to one core theme: appearance. If I could go back and tell my 16 year-old self one thing it would be to stop fucking thinking about appearance all day, every day. If there’s one single upside to my teenage mentality it’s that in a school full of girls, my competitive streak was transferred from wanting to be the prettiest, to striving to get the best essay score. I may not have been kissing many boys on the weekend, but I sure as hell wanted an ATAR above 90.
As I’ve gotten older, my fixation on appearance is becoming more and more diluted. The voices inside my head telling me I’m not skinny enough or tall enough or tanned enough are slowly being muted. And I’m relishing in this newfound freedom. Where the greatest compliment someone could give me used to be about the way I looked or dress I wore, it’s now hands-down relating to my ability to string words together and form an opinion. Want to make a girl’s blush go deeper than rosy cheeks? Tell her she’s funny. But not in the condescending, ‘You’re funny for a girl’ kind of way. Tell her with earnest. Want her to really remember your name? Tell her you value her opinion. Because it’s compliments like that, which are unfortunately given few and far between, that really stand the test of time.
So, when well-meaning websites like Herself.com, which claim to be championing feminist ideals, try and impose on me that the route towards agency is still gained through the approval and appropriation of a foreign, male (or female) gaze, I can’t help but disagree. And don’t tell me that it’s not about the male gaze. The only reason the aesthetics of most of the photos are appealing is because of an engrained idea of beauty that has been doctored by centuries of the male gaze reigning supreme. I can almost guarantee that it wasn’t a woman who first said, ‘Hey, you know what would look really beautiful, a phallic-like snake around your neck!’
If some women are finding the site consoling, empowering, or it’s helping them understand different aspects of their own sexuality, then I think that’s fantastic. And I’m so sure the website is doing just that for some people. But all I know is that if I saw this website when I was 16 years-old, emotionally quite mature but sexually confused, struggling to come to terms with an adolescent body, and stiflingly jealous of the pretty, thin, blonde girls at school, I highly doubt seeing Stacey, or any of the featured women with their tops off, would’ve made me feel any better.
Want to know what I find really empowering? It’s watching women who’ve made an indelible mark on today’s social, political and cultural landscape stand up and talk about their success. It’s watching TED talks by women about women, Lena Dunham interviews, Malala Yousafzai’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, or Julia Gillard’s slamming of Tony Abbott for his misogynistic views. It’s watching shows like Broad City where women slander and curse and make crude ‘unladylike’ jokes, it’s reading Tina Fey’s excerpt from her book Bossy Pants about her relationship to food and weight, and taking note of the badass way in which Zadie Smith holds herself in an interview. It’s anything that Lorde wears, Bjork promotes, or Amy Poehler jokes about.
And it’s anything that Clem Ford writes. Ever.
The best part about these women is that I don’t care if they’re naked or thin or fat or tattooed or young or rich. I don’t fucking care what they look like. What matters for me is what they’ve done, who they are, and how they can teach me to be the strongest voice for feminism, and the best possible social justice advocate I can be. And that’s the naked truth.