In a recent interview at The Consensual Project, I was asked if I’d ever seen any “…videos, images, or sound bites that have provided [me] with valuable sexual health information.” I recounted this experience:

There is one video I saw, when I was about 21, that stands out in my mind even today…  The filmmaker asked about 40 women to stand naked, side-by-side, on the edge of a stage.  The camera captured the appearance of their bodies from about the neck to the knees, no faces, just bodies. (I don’t know if it was ever publicly available, but if anyone can send it to me, I’d be thrilled.)

Think about how rarely you actually see a new (near-)naked body that is not a model or the equivalent (actress etc).  With new sexual partners, perhaps.  And if you’re straight, this is (probably mostly) going to be the body of the other sex.  At the gym perhaps?  But you’re not supposed to look, so you probably don’t look closely.  I realized when I saw this video (it probably lasted all of two minutes), that I had never really seen women’s bodies outside of the mass media. I didn’t know what women’s bodies looked like.  And I had been comparing my body to that of actresses and models.  I realized that day that things about my body that I thought were horrible deformities were completely normal.  Even though the bodies in that video were all different, they were also very similar, and my body looked just like theirs in some cumulative way.  From that point on, I knew I wasn’t gross.  A simple lesson.  And so important, but a really hard one to encounter in a powerful way.

I was reminded of this story when I saw a photograph by Spencer Tunick.  Tunick specializes is getting large numbers of naked people together, arranging them, and taking pictures.  Most of them seem more polished than raw, but this one, featured at BoingBoing, seems to reveal bodies in some of their variety and similarity simultaneously.  It’s worth a good long look at each body; each is a precious point of push back against mass media’s representation of the female form.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.