It was a spur of the moment decision when I signed up to do life modelling for Exeter’s Art Society. Egged on by my friend, who was adamant that I was not ballsy enough to be naked for two hours in front of a room of people, I agreed to do it the following week to prove him wrong. Instantly regretting this commitment, I began constructing ways I could potentially wriggle out of it, and thought the best option would be to tell them I’m on my period.
Wrong. Apparently plenty of people model menstruating. In awe of their bravery, in my head it became illogical to dismiss this opportunity. It then became the greatest evidence that I had overcome a difficult relationship with body image. It served as a reminder that I deserve to love my body, and eat three meals a day, without the consequent self-loathing that consumed my teens.
I deserve to love my body without the self-loathing that consumed my teens
My friends label me the ‘angry feminist’ amongst us (all in good humour, they love equality too), but I did not consider the gendered implications of getting my kit off for money. After the session, I was in a state of euphoric empowerment, and I wanted to share this with the world. Apparently lots of people were not ready for this in-your-face level of body positivity. I posted four images online of a student’s abstract drawings of my naked body with a caption explaining my happiness. The likes came streaming in, and I had messages from people I hadn’t spoken to in years congratulating me on this confidence that had unsettled their previous perception of me.
But, I also received a torrent of abuse. I had friendship requests from friends of (regretful) past lovers, keen to get in on a piece of the action, interpreting the post as a sexual invitation. My protective parents called me up hysterically, and had concluded that I had had a mental breakdown or that I must be so into my overdraft that the next stage of money-earning will be prostitution. No, mum and dad, I merely am comfortable in my own body for the first time in my life, and this feels priceless. No negative reception will ever detract from the way I feel about that experience.
The post was reported for ‘nudity’, which made me keel over in laughter – has no one ever seen a life drawing before? It is hardly a modern phenomenon; I’d like to see you report Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man for obscenity. It seems the arbitrary platform of publication is what triggers such reactions. I realised that the problem must lie within the individual who finds the naked form offensive, and not to the person who embraces it. But, this huge dichotomy of reactions is indicative of an appalling problem on a much grander scale, of the world beyond my 400 Facebook friends. I was warned relentlessly that I would now be unemployable, and was terrified to Google my own name in case that was confirmed to me. Screenshots would ruin me, I was told. I spat back that I would not want to work for an employer that detested body positivity.
I’d like to see you report Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man for obscenity
Social media is an undecipherable collision of feminism and misogyny. On the one hand, campaigns demystifying taboos such as menstruation and public breast feeding gather awareness and reduce discrimination, but the backlash – from the infamous ‘meninists’ – ruin public perceptions of feminism and terrify women into retreating back into a powerless position.
Campaigns like #freethenipple and Rupi Kaur’s photographs of periods are concerned with the social, cultural, political, and economic limitations placed upon women. They work by undermining the essentialist notion that our bodies are indicative of our potential or signify our value as individuals. It’s about freeing women of the utter degradation they both receive and feel when they publically feed their child, when they delayer clothing, when they stain clothing with menstrual blood.
Social media proliferates inequality relations in its instant ability to broadcast pretty much anonymously. The internet holds such a manipulative power that it can transmit invasive photographs of women eating on tubes and imply that a female’s hunger is a public indecency. Telling the world that women should restrain their bodily functions – this is one of the clearest examples in which misogynistic social media promotes unhealthy body image. Further, social media perpetuates the troubling gender politics behind bodily objectification. Photographs of women revealing their flesh, in their profile pictures for example, can cause absolute outrage. Amongst teenagers particularly, this form of slut-shaming can destroy self-esteem overnight. A girl may post a ‘provocative’ photo online, and her reputation will be ruined within a few hours, and she’ll not want to face school in the morning.
This leads to the debate concerning the difference in active and passive objectification. Actively choosing to be observed by the male gaze is argued to be empowering, while submitting to it propounds oppression. This fine line itself is sexist. Why can’t women be read outside these continual binaries? My decision to life model was neither motivated by sexualisation, nor by a ‘militant’ feminist agenda. The maturity and casual stance of my observers indicate that the body doesn’t have to be outrageously offensive. I was under this collective gaze to prove to myself that everyone, regardless of gender identification, deserves to be body confident.