I just attended my first life drawing class, with a female nude. The first thing someone will say when you tell them this is usually "Oh my gosh - she was actually naked?" as if female nudity were not something we were bombarded with on a daily basis. Yet the nude female body is readily available in the public domain, just a flick of a newspaper, a click of a mouse, a glance-up-to-a-top-shelf away.
So why is the idea of a real life female nude so shocking to people, if the unclothed female is, on the face of it, a pretty run-of-the-mill phenomenon for us here? Surely the nude female body is so overexposed that a prospect of yet another should elicit no more than a mild expression of interest. And yet. If one considers the contexts in which female bodies are shown, it quickly becomes apparent that the female body is not overexposed, but actually underexposed. This isn't a call for more Page 3. But it is a call for people to wake up and realise that the naked female body is really nothing to do with sex.
What struck me about the model in the life drawing class was how unsexy she was, despite being completely naked. This isn't an insult; and assuming that it is shows just how embedded the naked girl = sex link is in our minds. I don't mean that she wasn't attractive, she was. I just mean that her naked body, posing for a portrait, did not have sexual connotations; her naked form was not "hot", it was not provocative, or tempting in any way. It simply was, as all our bodies simply are. After all, we are all naked, all of the time, under our clothes.
Our bodies are our own, and a part of us. Each is completely unique, and each is an extension of our humanity. That simple fact is not just forgotten, but deliberately ignored by the lads mag horde. Our bodies tell the stories of our lives just as our faces do; through posture, movement, expression, and the scars, dimples and wrinkles we pick up along the way. So why, if this is true, are we constantly told what female bodies should look like? Why are we bombarded with only one image- the sexy female body- of what female nudity is really about?
For female nudity doesn't have to be sexy. It can be, of course, but this it is not an intrinsic fact about it. Our naked bodies, just as we can be, can also be humorous. They can be sad. They can be mysterious, elegant, beautiful, powerful, vulnerable. They are as varied as our personalities and our moods. We know this- body language- and yet we don't know this.
It seems to me that we are so obsessed with the naked female body as always equating to sex and attractiveness, that the prospect of the female body stripped of these falsehoods, is actually shocking to many. The sexy female body is the norm, and I suppose there is a certain comfort in these images, which have only one connotation. In focusing only on one side of a woman's humanity, her sexual side, these images actually make it so flat as to destroy it entirely, making women into two dimensional objects. Thus contexts such as life drawing, in which the bodies of women are underscored by art and expression, not sex, are slightly scandalous. Other contexts of female nudity, even ones tied up with our basic biology, are even considered offensive, such as breast feeding in public.
Thus I would argue that we don't need less nude or scantily clad women in the media. On the contrary, we need more, but we need them in a much wider range of non-sexual contexts. By having only sexualised nude or partially dressed women on display, we are creating damaging ideas about what female bodies are for, and what therefore women are for. Our bodies are so much more than sex. They carry us through our entire lives, and sexuality is only a fraction of our lives as a whole. A woman does not shed all other aspects of her personhood by removing her clothes. To automatically equate the naked female body with sexuality is surely to reduce a large part of being female to mere sexuality, which is incredibly damaging.
I struggled through my first life drawing class. I couldn't understand why I wasn't able to capture the essence of the model on my smudgy page; I couldn't pin down a good likeness. The teacher approached me, and told me that my preconceptions were holding me back. I was drawing her as I thought she should look; I was drawing legs, hips and arms that were in my mind, not in my eye. My own deeply embedded stereotypes about the naked female were quite literally blinding me to the reality in front me. It was only when I abandoned these entirely, that I was able to see her as she really was, and something of her, which was so much more than sexy, began to appear on my page.