Adam & Eve committed the original sin when they ate from the tree of knowledge. Their first action after acquiring knowledge was to fashion clothing to cover up with. Until knowledge we were naked. Why with knowledge did we cover up? The fact brings new truth to the old saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”
Was it because we are mammals with animal instincts and the sight of genitalia makes all the blood rush out of our heads and deems us incapable of any other task at hand? What about the human being’s capacity for imagination? Do we really think a couple fig leaves or swaths of fabric will deter physical attraction or distraction or sexual objectification? When something is clothed isn’t it immediately more mysterious and desirable? The fact of the matter is that nudity has become taboo, constantly sexualized, surrounded by stigma, and generally an unacceptable public state since as far back as Adam and Eve or earlier.
Fast forward thousands of years to 2015 and nudity is still a contentious issue that always garners attention yet does not have a comfortable, healthy place in our culture. Social media networks Facebook and Instagram are systematically curating the way we consume the female nude through their Public Guidelines that do not discriminate against images of violence, scars or topless men but will remove an account if a photo of a woman breastfeeding her newborn child is published.
Leaked photos of naked celebrities have led to catastrophic levels of slut shaming in the media while simultaneously leaked sex tapes made international stars out of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian etc. We are confused by nudity. We are fascinated by it and give it a lot of attention while we shame it. It would seem we are completely conflicted when it comes to processing the female nude. Why is the female nude always sexualized? What is shameful about a breastfeeding mother? Why do we make celebrities out of homemade porn stars? Why is everything naked about sex? How ironic is our obsession with sex in an age where over population is the root of every environmental issue? Just a few questions to consider as food for thought.
Thousands of years after the demise of nudity as a normal state, through the experiences of world wars, an industrial age, the creation of the internet and so much more, shouldn’t we by now, being the self-aware species we are, have figured out a mature way to be comfortably naked with one another in an unbiased and respectful manner where our bodies are always subjects with agency not sexual objects? To be sure there are a few major obstacles in our way.
Humans, us, in our most natural of states, somewhere along the line became ashamed of our bodies. The way naked bodies are treated publically in contemporary western culture is with shame or as commodity. The female nude is made constant use of in art, sensationalist advertising & pornography and is almost always filtered through and presented in light of the male gaze. Indeed, the only public spaces where nudity is deemed acceptable are in the worlds of Internet porn, ‘sex sells’ advertising, and on the walls of art galleries. Through these few heavily curated nude-friendly public spaces the female nude is being systematically objectified and in turn seriously bolstering the epidemic of insecurity ravaging generations x,y and z. We have become a culture of hypocrites regarding our naked selves and I want to know why. How did we become so conflicted? Why are we so ashamed of the female nude while simultaneously obsessed? Why can’t we just be?
Perhaps it all started with the fall of Cleopatra, the last ruling Queen in a matriarchal society. She was the last powerful female figure to have enjoyed the tutelage and example of a great number of strong female roll models. Her city, Alexandria, was the most modern of its time. Women and men held the occupations that kept life rich and society running. Women were free to own property, sign legal contracts, divorce, adopt and inherit. Home and work were shared responsibilities between husband and wife. It was not surprising that Cleopatra was such a wily politician and clever Queen as the environment she grew up in was one where women were free to be educated and powerful.
After her devastating defeat at the hand of the Romans in the great battle of Actium the Roman Empire spread and grew like wildfire along with their customs and values. The ancient Roman idea of women was that they should love their husbands, bear sons, work in wool, and keep good homes. Married women of the time could not own property, but essentially were property to be traded from father to husband. The man was considered the head of the household and women could not vote or hold office or divorce. A wife was under the same laws to her husband that his children were. Perhaps it was at this time in history, around 30BCE, that the patriarchy took hold as women’s agency was legally and culturally taken away from them. In a society where a wife is under the same laws to her husband as their children and other property she is no longer a free agent of her own life. Perhaps it was around this time that women began to be objectified quite literally. Woman as property is woman as object; to be bought, owned, sold, looked at, traded, controlled, fetishized, stolen…
With this fever of misogyny taking hold the systemic objectification of women’s bodies began to be an acceptable practice. An object by definition is a thing external to the thinking mind or subject. The sexual objectification of a body is the judgment of it as a completely separate entity from the mind of the subject. In turn, the sexually objectified subject learns to view herself through the eyes of those looking at her. This leads to a complicated relationship of the subject to her objectified self. She learns to see herself through the sexualized male gaze and subsequently puts more worth in her own body than her mind.
Beginning with the victory of the Romans 2045 years ago straight through to today the objectification of women has been constant. Let’s take a look at nudity in advertising.
The first examples that come to mind are the ever nude and ever controversial PETA campaigns. In one ad a reclining, nearly nude Pamela Anderson is presented with butcher cuts drawn and labeled all over her body with the slogan, “All animals have the same parts.” Here we have plastic, blonde, Barbie Pam posing as raw butchers meat in an effort to shock people into vegetarianism. In another PETA ad with the slogan, “Hooked on meat. Go Veg,” a young woman is presented with her wrists tied to meat hook and her stomach gutted and bleeding amongst slaughtered pigs in a slaughter house. I get the shock factor and the message, but why were all the models in these ads women? Why is the abused, objectified, exposed woman an effective object for advertising? These ads have sex appeal. They are totally sexist and have sex appeal. They are all looking through the male gaze. They may work toward their intended message of pro vegetarianism but they also desensitize the viewer to violence against women and the treatment of women as pieces of meat while further reinforcing beauty and body stereotypes.
High fashion and perfume ads often make use of the female nude.In 2008 designer Tom Ford took the practice to the extreme in a campaign by convicted pervert and celebrated photographer Terry Richardson. The campaign featured fully dressed male models and completely naked female models. In one image a perfume bottle is shot full frontal shoved right up against a woman’s naked vagina. In another photo one woman is naked on her back in the grass with a naked man mounting her and two fully clothed male models standing and watching.
The implications of these images are glamorizing the objectification of women and further nailing home the idea that a woman’s worth is in her ability to mirror the male gaze in the nude. She has no agency. She is no more than a body to be molded and used as seen fit. Again, the female nude is being presented as a piece of meat in the name of product sales. The female nude in advertising is a public space for nudity in our culture that always treats the female nude as commodity traded for money aka the female nude as object.
In Internet pornography, the second of the three public spheres where nudity is socially acceptable, the female nude is dissected and splayed out in an almost clinical way. The new ideal woman or type that is consistently featured in modern films is a young, white, blonde, thin, completely waxed doll type with fake nails, hair extensions, color contact lenses, heavy make-up and often with surgically enhanced breasts, lips and labia.
She is a quintessentially unreal real-life blow-up doll. This severe attention to detail can be attributed in part to the development of high definition camera equipment and unforgiving extreme close-ups. Directors no longer make use of the old filters of the film world where it was common practice in sex scenes to fog up the lens to get a soft look. With today’s equipment every nook and cranny is presented in extreme detail. There’s nowhere to hide. So, in part, we can blame technology for the extremity with which the modern female nude is being presented in porn. But this is a question of style as well. High definition close-ups don’t have to be the main shot in every modern porno, but that is often the case. Why? Is it because once you go HD you can’t go back? Once you get the extreme close-up the soft focus shot no longer stimulates? How hardcore can we get before we have an epidemic of impotency on our hands because there’s nothing left to pervert?
There is a generation of kids today who are experiencing sex for the first time online. They are learning about sex on a screen and often interacting sexually more with a screen than with a real person. This 2D virtual sexual stimulation and education leads users down a rabbit hole of desensitization. They need more and more hardcore content as they become desensitized to the videos that once turned them on. This translates into real life as similar hardcore experiences are then expected of the real life partner who may not be object enough, considering she is a real person with her own desires and agency and pubic hair and flaws. Being raised on porn puts a human at a disadvantage to developing a normal relationship with a real woman as they often expect her to be the same hairless, labia-less, 5-minutes-to-orgasm type that he or she has encountered on screen. Often blowjobs and anal sex will be expected as normal first date activities as well. Once again the objectification of the female nude leads women to view their bodies through the male gaze which in the space of internet porn is an extreme, hardcore, fake, performance driven, high definition lens.
In the third public space for nudity, namely art, contemporary players like Richard Kern, Richard Prince & Jeff Koons have made great successes of themselves by objectifying women in their art.
Richard Kern is a photographer/filmmaker whose work has been displayed in reputable art galleries all over the world and the sales of his prints and books have made him a rich man. All of his work is pornography masked as art. If it were on porn sites it would be labeled as “barely legal.”
Kern has objectified young girls so extremely, most notably in his series entitled “Up Skirt” which was a collection of photographs taken up girls’ skirts. Not only did he reduce all his subjects down to their genitals, but he also got away with celebrating sexual assault disguised as art. Kern directed a film entitled “Sewing Circle,” named after a traditionally female setting, in which women are shown sewing up each other’s vaginas. He manages his perversions within the art world because the objectification of women is something we are all used to. Rape and sexual assault are manifestations of objectifying the female nude, separating the body from the mind.
Richard Prince is an artist who has made millions of dollars by taking photographs of other photographer’s photographs. Prince’s photograph of Garry Gross’ photograph of a totally nude, completely made-up, ten-year-old Brooke Shields all but erased Gross’ ownership of the photo but also objectified the subject on more levels than can be understood.Gross paid Shields’ mother $450 to take the naked photo of her daughter. Prince himself said, ““Brooke as the subject becomes an indirect object, an abstract entity.” In his article on Prince’s work, Grag Fallis wrote of the piece, entitled ‘Spiritual America’, “When (Prince) took the picture of the picture he was photographing one object depicting another object, all of which had been sparked by a mother treating her living child as an object. Prince then displayed his recreated object in a way that emphasized its objectness.” Need I say more?
Jeff Koons, yet another rich, white, man making art objectifying the female nude did a series entitled “Made In Heaven” in which he displayed photographic self-portraits engaged in sex acts with Italian porn star & ex-wife Cicciolina.
She never looked at the camera while Koons always did. This celebrated artist stripped his porn star wife of her mind. This work is so objectifying I don’t even know where to start in my critique of it. I mean, you can see for yourself. It’s a joke.
These works by three celebrated contemporary artists all make objects of the female nude.
The Objectification Theory was put forward by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tori-Ann Roberts as “a framework for understanding the experiential consequences of being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body. Objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This perspective of self can lead to habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states, and diminish awareness of internal bodily states. Accumulations of such experiences may help account for an array of mental health risks that disproportionally affect women; unipolar depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.” I would add cutting and suicide attempts to this list as well. The negative effects of the objectification of the female nude are deep seeded and wide spread. Why is this systemic oppression of women something we continue to propagate? What’s the harm of allowing women the room to be self-agents, grown, intelligent, natural, beautiful in their own way, not sexualized, and naked? How can we get back to something akin to the balance of Cleopatra’s time? There is a great pressure on women to be beautiful, young, to be mothers at a certain age, to be keepers of the home, and also to be breadwinners. A lot of the time we are dealing with these pressures alone. There is a serious lack of contemporary female role models and supportive communities for women to flourish in. Something’ got to give.
Have I depressed you enough? My goal with these examples is to leave you with an understanding of the negative effects the objectification of the female nude has on women’s self-esteem. With this new awareness I hope to inspire open minds interested in celebrating diversity and rejecting stereotypes. On that note let’s move into the inspirational half of the talk.
A subject by definition is a thinking or feeling entity, or the central substance or core of a thing as opposed to its attributes. The subject is the heart of the matter. My name is Jennifer Toole. I am a photographer best known for my nude work taken on medium format film with no retouching. At a recent exhibition of my work a visitor to the opening party said something to me that was the inspirational seed for this talk. He came up to me amidst my collection of big nudes and said, “It’s remarkable how you’ve managed to show these women as subjects in your work, not objects. Each one is owning her space and challenging the viewer to confront her thoughts.” He hit the nail on the head. I set out to present the female nude as a subject with agency. The onslaught of content objectifying women needs to be combated with an oversaturation of media content celebrating women in their natural body states, not sexualized, with attention given to their voices. Starting from the bottom of this movement I aim to combat the oversaturation of objectified nude female images in public spaces with images of the female nude as a subject with agency.
I began to do my part in this movement by launching Herself.com, a new online project I was invited to work on by actress and angel in her own right Caitlin Stasey in January of this year. The aim of Herself is to provide a safe online space for women where nude female subjects are presented through the female gaze and given a voice. Along with each photo spread each participant is interviewed extensively on their backgrounds, experiences in the workplace, relationships with their bodies, relationships with their lovers, dreams for the future, political and religious points of view and more. The result is documentation of real women raw in their images and thoughts, out there on the Internet for women and men to ingest and digest, beginning a shift in how the female nude is viewed. Herself is an ongoing project that will hopefully eventually be the largest collection of female shot female nude photography in the world. Please allow me to introduce you to a few of the subjects I shot for the Herself project.
This is Milena. She is in her early twenties and just beginning to explore her desires to be with women instead of men. Back home in Brazil, same sex relationships are still heavily discriminated against and Milena and her beautiful girlfriend were spending their summer in Toronto to make some money and get to know one another better. I went over to their apartment quite early one Sunday morning to get that gorgeous sunrise light. Milena was unabashed in the nude and we got some incredible photos. Her goodness and kind soul read strongly on film.
This is Casey. She is a porn star and a proud feminist. She stated in her interview with Herself that, in fact, “Feminism and porn go hand in hand.” This quote caused quite a stir online and lead to a further interview for her in i-D Magazine. We shot in Redondo Beach down in L.A. at the condo I was staying in. It was a beautiful day as per usual and the condo view was spectacular. Casey is used to being in front of the camera and we got the shots we needed very quickly. Then I made tea and we cozied up on the balcony and had a great talk about the project, its necessity, health, and the safety of the porn industry in L.A. Casey is an incredibly smart, opinionated and strong woman pushing the all the boundaries she can.
This is Chelsea. When we chatted about where to do our shoot we decided my place in Toronto would be best. So she came over one sunny afternoon nervous and bubbling over with positive energy. She was so full of life and happiness in person that the sadness that came through on film really surprised me. This photo is so raw in its essence. It was shot in my tiny bedroom. I was actually doing my best to balance a tripod on my bed while wielding my Fuji645. I couldn’t be happier with the results. Vogue Italia ended up published this image.
This is Demi. I didn’t know her at all before we embarked upon this photo shoot. She came by my place at dawn and we walked down to the water. I reluctantly asked her, “I’m not familiar with your boundaries or thirst for adventure, but Ontario Place is beautiful and deserted. Would you be opposed to a bit of early morning trespassing?” Much to my delight, Demi was down. We threw our stuff over the fence and climbed over. We had the whole theme park to ourselves aside from a couple of security guards we successfully ducked. This shot shows Demi as the true queen she is; confidant and strong and looking forward to the future.
This is Laura. The day we met up to shoot was the same week she had discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant. The weight of her decision was heavy in the air on this day. We had a serious talk about the future, options, and different scenarios. Laura wanted to shoot on the train tracks by her house. Amidst all the stress, worry, and seriousness we got this shot. In her heart Laura is a warrior. She was pregnant in this photo and is eight months pregnant today, happy, and healthy.
This is S. She grew up hating herself and believing she was ugly because she had body hair, wasn’t white, and wasn’t blonde, the things all her dolls were. As we can see here she is an incredibly beautiful and powerful woman. I went over to her high-rise condo for our shoot. She just happened to have a pet snake called Snakey Wakey. Of course we had to give Snakey Wakey his modeling debut. He was very well behaved.
This is Raechl. She was so excited to be a part of the project she drove up to Toronto from Michigan to shoot. We met up before dawn and drove to the rose gardens at The Ex which were in full bloom. We did encounter the gardeners during our shoot but they realized what we were up to and left us to it. The morning mist amongst the roses made for glorious light and scenery. Raechl was liberated. It was her first photo shoot ever and it was nude. I think it opened something up in her, changed her somehow, and gave her a new sense freedom. After I sent her the photos she wrote me back saying, “I am a goddess. How could I have ever doubted that?”
This is Alexis. She is a voice actress and puppeteer. I went to her place for this shoot and her fiancée had laid out a table of delicious snacks for us. They were in the marriage planning stages and their vibe was very exciting. Alexis was firm in her resolve to take part in this project. She believed wholeheartedly in the message and was proud to give her beautiful body and mind to the mix. An interesting fact about Alexis is during her development only one breast developed so she had plastic surgery on the other to even things out. She’s a bionic woman! And a brave one too.
This is Candice. Lethal Lady V is her stage name. Candice is a dominatrix. I went to her condo for our shoot and she was just getting off of a very frustrating two hour long phone call with Rogers customer service. She was all riled up and not mentally ready to shoot in the slightest. I played with her adorable puppies while she got herself made up. I stressed the fact that make-up wasn’t necessary and she replied, “This is as naked as I get, honey.” Fair enough. This was her first nude shoot as well. She was nervous, but she is also an incredible model so once we got shooting things were golden. In her condo itself there was a balcony under construction and her dungeon. I asked if there was anywhere else we could shoot. Candice mentioned her rooftop pool. “Won’t there be security cameras and people?” I asked. “Everyone’s at work and school,” she replied with a smile. So up we went and it was glorious. We captured her strength, her pain, her beauty, and even her vulnerability. What a woman!
I hope you have now experienced the difference between the female nude as object or subject from my examples here. Let’s try to move forward celebrating the female nude in all her agency and diversity. Let’s be aware of the ways she is used as commodity and reject them. Let’s take every opportunity to reclaim how we look at the female nude and realize when she is being filtered through a harmful gaze. I would like to invite you all to continue this conversation with me. I can be reached online through my website jennifertoole.com or on my Instagram @jentoole. Many thanks to The Museum for offering me this stage and thank you for listening.
This is a transcript of a talk Jennifer gave at The Museum on April 26th, 2015.
Go, Jen! All well said.
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Beautiful and brilliant. Thank you for this. I have much to think about and reflect on.