In the past weeks, I’ve focused on the normative beauty expectations that govern women’s bodies and bodily habits. I was excited to see a recent article at the Huffington Post on one Minneapolis photographer’s attempt to challenge those norms. Matthew Blum, assisted by his wife/partner, has begun the Nu Project (warning: website NSFW), a multipart photography project in North and South America, in which he attempts to document real women’s nude bodies. All volunteers, the “models” represent a spectrum of bodies—different ages, shapes, weights, heights, skin colors, breast sizes and so on. Although Blum admits that he hasn’t fully achieved the diversity he envisions—relying on volunteers means he can’t seek out the “type” of women missing from the project—the photos do present a variety of bodies. As he explains the project, “The things that I had seen either used models with typical model bodies or average people who were made to look extremely unimpressive. I figured there was a way to treat women (of any size/shape) like models and photograph them beautifully, respectfully without a lot of sexual under or overtones” (quoted from HuffPost). Projects like this may encourage more women to appreciate their bodies, and because Blum refrains from sexualizing the women, the presentation resists objectification. Blum reports that many of the volunteers say participation has helped them see themselves as beautiful.
But do projects like this produce social change? That is, do they actually challenge our deeply held beliefs about beauty? And what happens when we consider representations of stigmatized male bodies?
The cultural effect of projects like this isn’t totally clear. For example, Tiina Vares (2009) held focus groups to study how older men and women responded to depictions of sexually active older women, specifically the character, May, in the film, The Mother. Her findings are surprising. Participants, male and female, recognized a gendered double standard in aging—specifically that sexuality among older men is accepted while sexually active older women (and their bodies) are stigmatized—and also clearly understood that the “ugliness” of the older female body was a social construction. Despite these insights, many of the older women in the groups rejected May’s body as ugly and saggy—even those women who resisted describing their own bodies as unattractive suggested that the nude female in the film should stay covered. Significantly, the men in the focus groups were much more open to the nude figure, and saw potential for a movie like The Mother (or other representations) to change the stereotypes associated with aging. So, the results are mixed—depictions of nude, non-normative female bodies seem to have different effects on different people.
What happens when the stigmatized body being represented is male? Although men are not subjected to the same public scrutiny as women, we are seeing more pressure on men to conform to a number of bodily ideals. For example, the cultural preference for large penises is well documented. Pop culture is full of small penis jokes, denigrating the less-endowed as unappealing, impotent, and feminine. Studies have shown that even men with average sized penises often believe them to be too small; the result of this insecurity can be relationship and sexual difficulties, psychological problems, and risky (generally unsuccessful) surgeries. While there are very few examples, outside of pornography, of male nudes in contemporary society, a recent article by Jared Del Rosso (2011) looks at how men present themselves on a website devoted to penile insecurity, focusing specifically on their experiences of sharing personal nude photos.
While the men consistently describe feeling anxious and self-conscious when their penises are on display in the real world, they find pleasure and empowerment in displaying photos of themselves on the website. They identify the experience as therapeutic, often referring to the “safe space” of the website. They also explain that, although they are revealed, the technological mediation and the possibility of anonymity on the internet make this public/pubic disclosure more comfortable. There are clear similarities between these men and the women who choose to participate in Blum’s project. But we learn something else from Del Rosso’s study—the feeling of empowerment men gain from this public exposure may be limited. That is, while some took this sense of self-confidence with them into the real world, others did not. Some continued to feel inadequate outside the virtual, mediated realm of the site. And while Del Rosso does not specifically address the cultural effect of representing nude, non-normative male bodies, I think we can safely assume that their reception would be equally as mixed as the reactions to May’s nude form.
Ultimately, I think that we must push for expanded representation—we need to see a diversity of bodily forms. But representations alone are not enough. I am not sure what else we need—perhaps to deemphasize the social significance of the body so that one’s physical being (weight, skin color, height, shape, age, ability etc.) does not determine one’s life outcomes. I’ll begin taking suggestions on how to proceed with that transformative project now…
Del Rosso, Jared. 2011. The Penis as Public Part: Embodiment and the Performance of Masculinity in Public Settings. Sexualities 14(6): 704-724.
Vares, Tiina. 2009. Reading the ‘Sexy Oldie’: Gender, Age(ing) and Embodiment. Sexualities 12(4): 503-524.