It is no secret that institutions around us are both products of and governed by several forms of patriarchy. In this imbalanced existence, men have had a long history of taking away the agency of bodies that exist outside of their own biological political imagination thereby in some ways unilaterally dictating what is ‘appropriate’ and what isn’t. It isn’t simply restricted to just the physical medium. An opinionated woman is dismissed as ‘loud’, a female scientist is stereotyped to have given up her femininity and in most positions of leadership, women are consistently taken less seriously than their male counterparts. A key idea of the feminist movement carried out at an individual level by women across the world in their own small ways, is to reclaim this lost agency.
The depiction of a woman in art makes for an interesting study in this regard. Central to this depiction is the idea of the ‘male gaze’. Conceptualised by Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ Mulvey’s idea of the gaze stems from experiencing visual art as a means of deriving pleasure. In the context of the male gaze, there is an implicit sexual undertone to this ’aesthetic’ pleasure. In all forms of media around us, we are often confronted with the sexualisation of women.
In conservative and patriarchal setups, this brings up an interesting paradox. Though the demand for consumption of this objectification through the media is high, it is often accompanied by stern judgement. The same outfits that crowds cheer for in movie halls– elicit groans and condescension in real life. In both cases, however, the perception of a woman’s body is reduced to how people react to it. In many ways, this reinforces the idea that external control and influence is what is paramount when one is determining what bodies are as Butler would put it “grievable”. In that, the effective existence of the body is simply diluted to the external recognition of it. The transcendent nature of objectification has led to it being an entrenched part of mindsets across different socio-cultural backgrounds. Yet today, we see an increasing number of attempts to challenge the existing order of things.
One such method, which has been widely adopted by social media influencers, is the art of posing nude. Proponents are likely to point out how this allows the artist in question to reclaim agency over their body, but the move has been met with some opposition. The counterclaim, of course, is that these women are merely giving into the idea of the male gaze. Self-objectification is still objectification and is likely to elicit similar emotions in men. A question about agency here can be then whether this is a reclamation at all? Are we simply building a body that caters to the larger power structures or are we in some ways subverting it? To put it plainly– is this a move that is playing directly into the hands of the oppressors?
However, social media is a difficult space to navigate. What must be outlined is that such a move, while having several theoretical implications,takes immense courage. Women who pose nude often meet with unsolicited comments, body-shaming, and harassment at the hands of strangers on the internet. It is important to realise that posting a picture, even on a public forum, is not equivalent to consenting to any of the above.
Emily Ratajkowski in her article Buying Myself Back When does a model own her own image? Talks about the implications of the lack of agency in the modelling industry. She speaks candidly of instances when she had been objectified simply because she was willing to pose nude or the fact that a photographer had taken pictures of her many years back and was now publishing them without her consent. In cases like this, I think the idea needs to be probed deeply- is there then an innate sexualisation of women that tips the scales, which means that nude modelling can perhaps never be a way of reclaiming back your agency. The act of covering up has often been ingrained as a means of curbing choice because the act of uncovering is often in the hands of the men.I think in some ways the debate has to veer away from the perceptions of a nude body to the cost of it? If we were to weigh the value of nude art, what is the cost of it when it comes to women getting access to their own bodies? Even if there is sexualisation, is it harmful to the cause? These are questions worth asking, ones that are perhaps too difficult to answer .
Women’s bodies have been the field of debate for a long time(of course regulation is the key to continued marginalisation). Be it the raging debate on abortion or the ludicrous claim that ‘ nudity is befitting of a classless woman’. Serena Williams among many others has been in the spotlight often– not for her splendid game of tennis but for her body.Her intersectional identity, that of an African-American woman coupled with a build that goes against normative societal perceptions of slim beauty have made her a common target for trolls. She is repeatedly shamed for her body and her emotions are regularly publicly invalidated as hysterics. Ariana Grande was at the receiving end of a series of vengeful comments that declared her breasts undesirable. Emma Watson has come under fire for wearing clothes that were too revealing for a UN ambassador. The list goes on.
The question then is not which viewpoint holds more credibility. Rather, it is about who is in the position to have an opinion on a woman’s body and why is there an opinion that needs to be made in the first place. The very fact that a body needs to be perceived in order to be validated is one that is rooted in a long history of oppression because often the public conception of this perception would be rooted in the hierarchy that governs that social order. The cost of bodies or nude bodies in this case should not amount to a debate in the first place. But the fact is that sexed bodies exist in political paradigms. They become battlefields of theorization and discourse. They need to be perceived and dissected and fought against and maligned so that the status quo remains. So the conclusive answer to nude bodies and agency is- who is deciding what the body does?
Aryaman Sood is a third year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University.