There are many talks going on the internet about feminism and how objectification harms gender equality. You'd hear many women shout out their notions, their fight against sexual objectification, women empowerment, etc. in all aspects of society. But do we truly understand when can we tell a female model is being depicted as a subject or an object?
The female body back in "his"-tory
If one would want to trace the root of this branching issue, we can only look back further and return to Classic art era. Now, you already know that 'women artists did not exist before the 20th century' is a myth; a myth still permeating as fact today.
Apart from the unjust treatment of women artists in the past, the old school patriarchy that remains in power today also has committed another transgression to women -- the sexual objectification.
It is true that in art and literature, to some extent the creator objectifies, Classic art has long idealized the nude -- both male and female. The nude male symbolized power, victory and strength. Later on, Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man entered another preconception of the male nude: "The depiction of males was that of health, youth, geometric clarity and greatly influenced the depiction of the male form through out the Renaissance movement".
This glorified and going-upscale status of the idealized male nude cannot be said the same for the female nude. How classic art treated the female nude was entirely different. The female nude doesn't have a particular, stagnant preconception, apart from representing fertility and life-giving. Apart from that, women being portrayed depended on their social standing and the places where the men had placed them. One must remember that history is written majorly by men. Even though some classic female nude paintings began to show bolder, more confident depictions of the female body (such as Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus"), the beauty of the female body would later on transcend into a wish-fulfillment object.
The later periods of art does not treat the form and even the nakedness of women any better.
According to the BrightONLINE Journal said that the objectification, fetishistic approach to the female body and was even more hyped in the Victorian era in the 19th century. Women's hair and waistline were often highlighted, the objects being celebrated, for they represent women's sexuality that men find attractive.
The 20th century opened itself up to women of all walks and experiences, without the labels and preconceptions. Little by little, women were able to participate in almost every male-dominated environment. However, considering that we're still talking about this narrative in the 21st century, women's participation is not enough. How they are treated and being perceived should be addressed as well, and this really goes in the issue of objectification. A lot of people, both men and women have little to no clue as to how it takes place.
For photographers and artists: how to objectify and how to "not" objectify
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum defines objectification as: “includes denial of autonomy, denial of subjectivity. Not taking people’s feelings into account, but also treating them as a mere instrument”. This means you remove the woman's identity and put a different context, story or identity to something else. But, how can you really tell if an image is sexually objectifying a woman?
The Elephant Journal spelled it out with five possibilities. To objectify a woman is to get rid of the face, the most defining feature in a portrait. It is to completely remove it from the imagery. Objectification also ensues when the photographer or artist focuses on a single aspect of her body. Classic examples? The breasts and the bottom of the woman, often focused for hypersexualizing the body, usually in magazine covers. There's also visual distance when you're objectifying a woman -- something voyeuristic, where the subject is separated from the camera. Another is when the woman is posed as a powerless subject, she has no agency in the image. The biggest tell tale is when the woman subject becomes a mannequin -- in which the audience cannot learn anything about the person, or anything about her subjective self.
The fashion photography and entertainment industries are two of the biggest criminals to this. Think of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" music video, where the women are merely dancing and literally being sexually objectified as 'man pleasers'.
Nudity and sexuality in art is often a difficult topic to talk about in feminism. Some women believe that nudity empowers, some believe it harms the perception towards women. Quite honestly, there is a fine line between being confident and in charge of one's sexuality and identity, and being a mere object of an image. However, people cannot turn a blind eye and willfully ignore that women are sexual beings too, just like men.
Photographers, you can help your model to not get objectified by actually getting to know them, and allowing them to be comfortable with themselves.You can avoid committing any of the five possibilities aforementioned, by treating models not as objects, but as people. They are more than just how pink and pulpy their lips are, or how slim and shapely the figures are in tight clothing, or how doll-ish their faces look like with make-up.
Taking nude portraiture? Don't focus so much on her bust, or her bum. Yes, they are beautiful, but it barely respects the model. Focus on her totality, on how confident she is with her skin, how her nakedness coincides with her personality and true self. It's the sum of all the parts; how to not objectify is simply lust like that.
Her-story: rewriting the female form
We live in an era where things change rapidly. Now, more then ever, women are rewritting the history and standing up against the harm caused by objectification of women. The reason why we mostly talk about sexual objectification is that we simply cannot avoid it.
Everytime a newspaper or a magazine, or society in general, portray a woman as nothing but an object of sexual desire, we go one step backwards. Sometimes that one step is all it takes to put women down and set them apart from their feelings, their thoughts and who they really are inside.
The Huffington Post explains that in the perfect world we would probably find ourselves cast as either subject or object at different times with no gender issues. When it comes to society such as ours subject and object status is highly gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women utterly objectified.
According to Sexual Objectification Theory when a woman’s body or her body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire which can cause mental health problems such as eating disorders as well as depression. It's becoming more harder then ever for women to embrace their own skin as well as grow and maintain self-confidence.
One of many side effects of objectification is that the media is also trying to create a prototype of a perfect woman with flawless figure and face. Although, it would be much less time consuming to roll out of bed in the morning looking like that, it's perfectly okay not to be perfect. Real women have stretch marks, they have wrinkles, they are strong and beautiful inside out and certainly don't want to be objectified all the time. Luckily for us, there has been a great progress with this issue.
Many inspiring women have decided to stood up and speak up about their own experience and tell their own stories. British photographers Francesca Allen and Maisie Cousins are doing an amazing job celebrating women's body, pleasure and freedom. Hollie Fernando whose work has been featured in our magazine is creating beautiful art with a strong message behind it. She wants to help women embrace their true self and show the world what real bodies look like with no airbrushing in sight.
"In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act" -- Francesca Allen and Maisie Cousins
"I think it’s extremely hard to be a young person growing up these days with all the false advertising on what ‘perfect’ should be everywhere you look. Who even gets to decides that? " -- Hollie Fernando
Nudity can be empowering, but the way it is used in the media represents a big problem for the society. Women are usually presented as an object to be looked at, while men are the ones looking.
"Yes, society is becoming more comfortable with nudity. Though there is a long way to go. Feminism and body / sex positivity movements are helping to dismantle stigmas." --Jessica M. Kirk
We should help women feel self-assured and in control of their sexual identity. When we encourage them not to wear revealing clothes, because some people can find it disrespectful or take it as an invitation, we are also teaching them that what ever happens to their bodies its their own fault, because they brought it all on themselves by wearing clothes like that. And once again, we are sending them the wrong message.
All human beings, regardless of sex, deserve the respect for who they are, and not what society tells they should be. Not being perfect in a world like this, means you are brave enough to show your true colours and embrace all the things that make you, YOU.