Of all the essays contained in Ways Of Seeing, it is the two that focus on female form that are the most interesting from a personal point of view. One is simply a set of imagery: 1970’s adverts juxtaposed beside modern photography, challenging and mundane presentations of women plus classical images of the female form, nude or provocatively clothed. The other is a verbal dissection of how men have painted women, process of visual manipulation that has taken place over hundreds of years. This ties in with the second of four BBC documentaries on that same subject, which was broadcast on 15 January 1972.
The conclusions of both are damning:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relations of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
This essay postulates the portrayal of nudes for hundreds of years as an example that women in paintings are rarely, if ever placed there for anyone except men. It is they who stare at the female form, covet it, with the woman always aware that she is being painted simply to be objectified. There was a period where the use of mirrors became popular, supposedly signifying the perceived conceit of women, with truth as anything but:
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
For many decades both before and after these essays were written, it is very easy to cite and demonstrate the influence of the ‘classical’ nude in popular culture, and to be able to read into this a back story that men continued the process of objectification of their own desires. Except, in the last thirty years, there has been an undoubted change in how this takes place, if it does so at all. Actualisation has, in many situations, become unacceptable, both socially and morally. However, it would be a fallacy to believe that with so many key positions in advertising and media still dominated by men that there is as yet an end to such practices in sight.
What has altered are the means by which such practices take place, the methods in which the imagery is delivered to the ‘consumer’ and what now passes as objectification in the first place. Tastes have rapidly evolved since the 1970’s: add to this that racism, sexism and segregation were commonplace forty years ago, and have been slowly eroded as acceptable practice. However with the recent rise of fascism as a popular flag to stand behind and the controversial stance of the current President of the United States, these seemingly outdated ideologies are currently very much at the forefront of public consciousness.
Women as objects however remain a subject of contention, especially when one sees popular icons such as Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé take to social media as their own stylised variant of the classical nude. Are these women making a ‘sight’ of themselves, or are they perfectly aware of the significance and impact their naked forms will have on those who consume their brand? Somewhere between the 1970’s and here women have gained significant power and influence in many areas of society: equal pay and conditions however are still a long way off for many, key management positions in many industries notably lacking a diversity in employees.
It is not simply the female form that is expanding away from the realms of objectification. Sexual culture has changed beyond all recognition, with thanks undoubtedly due to the expansion of the Internet: terms such as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘slut shaming’ live alongside female and male cosplayers, fetishists are a breath away from Hentai. What the Internet offers us as consumers is a breadth of choice in consumption which is both staggering and concerning, where lines often blur with such speed as to be impossible to discern. At the heart of all these things however is imagery: for the first time objectification extends beyond the desirable, and into areas which were previously inaccessible or even culturally taboo.
All body shapes and types can be found online: as fashion houses continue to rely on unrealistic physical proportions, more and more individuals celebrate and embrace body diversity. For each conventional porn site there’ll be somewhere else to celebrate every kink and desire… with this extending into the darker, depressing depths of depravity. In the past all these things undoubtedly took place, it is just there was no one platform to show them to an audience with such immediacy and impact. This is why, more than ever, it is vital to understand the truths in what is presented to us as ‘seen.’ Images can lie, and that is a fact that many young and vulnerable individuals need to be reminded of, often on a daily basis.
As a depressing example of this of particular relevance, there’s been a marked increase in the number of young girls asking for labial surgery on the back of viewing online porn, believing their own bodies are somehow deformed. This, like it or not, is a direct consequence of the standard imposed on actresses in said profession. It is proof that, wherever you look, someone will decide a benchmark for visual acceptance that is often utterly unrealistic. In their own way, whenever an actress poses nude and attempts to justify this as an example of ‘my body, my rules’ they forget about the negative influence their perception of beauty and empowerment may have on those simply and immediately swayed by visual stimulus.
However, despite this, there must remain a freedom of expression in this regard, to extend to every single person who chooses to use their body as an extension of personality. Social media has gone a long way towards allowing that extension, and undoubtedly it has created a generation who are more capable of communication than the one which preceded it. Of course, this expression has not come without consequence, and that is probably a discussion for a different place. If we are to focus on the issues with body image, is it fair that this is automatically associated with simply the female form?
It is now just as common to find the male body objectified not simply by women but other men. In fact, any physical shortcoming is fair game in the modern world: however without due thought and attention this can and does backfire. The company who considered making body lotion bottles in the same varied shapes and sizes of their audience failed to grasp a key factor in why this process is inherently dangerous. How we see ourselves is often vastly different to how we are perceived by others. The classical nude was painted as a reflection of beauty at that time, and would as a result become a benchmark for what those creating the images desired. Trying to second guess the complexity of imagery in the rapidly changing world is considerably more difficult.
What we can do, as viewers, is to attempt to address the wider themes at play. Undoubtedly there are those celebrity women whose ‘brand’ dictates an almost constant exposure to media scrutiny. On the flip side, it would be unwise to take a certain actor’s desire not to do interviews or photo shoots as a sign of integrity. The truth is undoubtedly found at a differing point in each individual case. No longer can we accurately use history as the means by which certain truths are illuminated. The past remains where we should begin the journey, but not all of the answers can or will be found there.
However, there is one ability that is clearly absent in many people’s mindset: acceptance. Allowing freedom of expression and individuality has always been an issue: questioning the might of Catholicism, the elimination of slavery, allowing women the vote, accepting gay marriage… all of these events have come at considerable personal toll to all those who fought in opposition. Yet, without that concerted effort, life would not be as refreshing and confusing as is undoubtedly the case. The price one pays for liberation is seldom grasped at the time: for many older people, the past remains the only place where they feel truly safe.
The next time you are presented with an image that could be considered as provocative, try and interpret why that might be the case. Half the battle in understanding is the ability to grasp why one person finds an image offensive and the other doesn’t. Berger suggests at the end of his essay on nudes that if a male reader were to substitute their own image for those of the countless women across the ages, and then to consider what another person might think of the resultant picture, there would be a very different set of feelings at play. This concept works for an awful lot of current imagery too, and makes for an exercise in enlightenment like no other.
In the end, like it or not, it is rare for an image now to be just that, simply encompassing the moment. Parents use their children’s pictures as news on Facebook, female streamers post provocative images of their bodies to garner views on Twitch… and the list goes on. Everybody has a reason, and no two are ever exactly the same. If you are to truly understand the Internet’s depth and breadth, then every picture should be studied with at least some measure of care, before any immediate conclusions can be drawn.