The naked female body has been restricted by social constructs throughout history.
Societal rules have always determined the perception of the naked female body. Earlier this year, Playboy published the slogan “Naked is normal” on the cover of their iconic erotic magazine. The omnipresence of nudity in our digital era was previously the reason editor Cory Jones stopped publishing nude photos in the magazine in October 2015. Creative director Cooper Hefner stated in February 2017 on Playboy’s social media that the company will resume their naked publishing. According to Hefner, “Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn’t a problem. Today we’re taking our identity back and claiming who we are.” The discussion surrounding the naked female body and her relationship with eroticism is ongoing. The female form has been depicted and viewed for centuries, but it’s rarely accepted. Let’s take a look at the perception of the female form over the years.
In the prehistoric era, it’s presumed the presentation of the female body had a cultural and spiritual purpose. Some of the first artifacts that depicted the female body were small clay forms of thick women’s bodies, otherwise known as Venus figurines. These figurines would ensure fertility, or encourage the population to have sex. This spiritual meaning of the naked female form is evident in different religions in which eroticism and the body are associated with divine powers. Think the Roman Catholic Church’s frescoes of deceased angels or the Greek goddesses.
The ancient Greeks and Christian artists used the female form in their art, even though the depicted female nudity wasn’t meant to be viewed by women themselves. Many paintings, such as the infamous painting of Gustave Courbet’s Sleep, were painted not for a woman’s fantasy but for a man’s. Women were not even allowed to entertain sensual or sexual fantasies. In Sexuality: Social and Cultural Constructs of Women Represented Through Art author G. Clarke notes that “Western religion, especially Christianity, discourages women to think of sex, to discuss sex, and teaches the negative aspects of female sexuality; that is to be hidden away never to be discussed, and thus never to be understood.” In addition, the mere woman in Christianity was sometimes even regarded as the ultimate evil; thus, the vagina was compared to “the yawning mouth of hell.” In popular culture this is now referred to as the vagina dentata.
The vagina dentata is in sharp contrast to the female body as a muse in erotic art and porn. The best-known image of a naked women is, after all, the imagination of the (male) artist of her as a pleasure object. Titian’s Venus of Urbino shows an expression of virginity and chastity. While she portrays an erotic fantasy, she’s also the embodiment of the moral code at the time. The meanings in the imagination of the female body differ over time, but what is noticeable is that the meaning of the naked female body never turns to the woman herself and her body, which is objectified. The woman is either an embodiment of fertility, a divine being, a lust object or an evil source. But rarely is her body a representation of herself.
In the last century there was a sudden change when female artists took matters into their own hands and deliberately chose how their bodies were imagined in art. For example, in the 1970s some (Western) female artists criticized female oppression, gender and power structures via their art. Art historian Lisa Tickner calls it “vagina iconology.” Tickner sees the use of the female genitals in art as a political protest against the norm, rather than an erotic gesture. The work of American artists such as Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago and Hannah Wilke were seen as controversial. They displayed the female form as a power symbol and the icon of the vagina would be the symbol to overshadow the phallus. Schapiro and Chicago were heavily inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe when they created their womb-centered art. Chicago’s installation art The Dinner Party depicted 39 mythical and historical women at a triangular table. These artists challenged the viewer and used the female form as a protest. No longer did male artists, society and the church decide that the bare woman was a sign of evil or pleasure. At last it was the woman who gave her body a meaning.
This trend continued from art collectives, to women-friendly porn, discussions on censorship of “nudity” on social media platforms, to even the untouched celebrities in the infamous Pirelli calendar who weren’t stretched or manipulated into unrealistic ideals. In 2016, #freethenipple trended on Twitter and Instagram, where many users protested against Instagram’s censorship. Instagram’s Community Guidelines state that they will remove anything “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive.” While some photos can be seen as a breach of these rules (think full-frontal nudity or butt selfies), others are slightly less obvious and sometimes more abstract (think close-ups of amorphous skin folds or pajamas and sheets lightly stained with spots of menstrual blood). It seemed that bare-chested men weren’t flagged, but images of topless women were deleted. The ordinary elements of the female body — whether the photos revealed female nipples, body hair, fat or blood — were thus seen as a taboo.
Young artists such as the photographer Arvida Byström and her friend, digital artist Molly Soda used that opportunity to produce the book Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram. Soda’s reasoning behind the book: “We wanted people to think about who is controlling our experiences online. We’re curating our digital experiences to fit into these ideas of ‘safety.’ We approach these tools thinking that we’re in control when we’re not.” Soda points out that it’s not the platform but the users who are censoring: “Ultimately images are getting flagged and removed by people, so there’s a very human aspect to it, where people are at odds and have different interests invested.” The book is an accumulation of their efforts to push society’s boundaries on the perception of the female body via their digital art and the number of photos they themselves, and their followers, have had removed from Instagram.
The naked female body is still not normalized. A nude selfie is often seen as sexual even if that’s not the intent. Nude selfies clearly reflect what many women miss in the imagination of their bodies by others. The internet and the naked selfie enable women to establish boundaries and promote body positivity. It is ultimately about self-determination about their image, and a sense of control.
The female body is constantly policed. In our digital age, nudity is available everywhere and easily accessed, but it is still not always accepted. It is time to recognize that the naked female body does not only belong within art and eroticism. Playboy was right. Nude is normal.