I happened to create a scandal last year.
Well, it didn’t explode over the internet, neither did media houses run any sensational headlines and stories on it. Instead, this scandal confined itself to the boundaries of my social circle yet managing to leave some people furious; some more shook than the others.
The trigger was a simple one. I put up, on my social media account, followed by both friends and family, a picture of myself smiling in a skin-coloured, lacy bra dawning a nose ring. Soon after, I received a panic-call from an older cousin saying that someone had hacked my account and posted an obscene picture of me. Momentarily, I bought it, but soon realised that they were talking about the same photo, a product of a random photoshoot my roommate and I decided to take on. Appreciating the concern, I clarified the actual story and the call fell silent – like I had made them awkward about being related to a rebel. In response, I heard that from the ‘nature’ of the photo, it just seemed like something someone with evil intentions would do. Evidently, the photo hadn’t gone down too well with a few.
Calls over calls and non-stop texts later, I could see a theme:
- One, specifically a woman, needn’t be nude and display nudity to be empowered and (feel) liberated – so she shouldn’t do it.
- Nudity is more social than it is personal.
This got me thinking about how nudity fits in this discourse of liberating oneself and being liberated to start and end with. And by ‘nudity’, I do not refer to its literal meaning of being totally bare.
With that as a basic premise, let me pen down what I have been able to explore so far.
It would be solid to assume that people view nudity as a way of challenging the years of control that misogyny and patriarchy has had over women. The simple logic of the popular spring applies here – that it springs back with the same intensity you hold it down with.
Women have been forbidden from doing what they want to for so long that now they’re going to seize every opportunity they can access to exercise their will; they’re going to liberate themselves from the shackles of the conservative. Liberation here is a response instead of a proactive state of being. The problem with this narrative is that it leaves little space for women to actually make autonomous and grounded choices, and even in its best case, it leaves rather too much room to question whether this response is justified and proportional to their individualist experience at subjugation.
It becomes important to question why nudity is not seen for what it is – a bare body, instead of being viewed as a sexualised object. Why is it that when we see a bare bodied woman, we innately assume that she’s doing this to look and feel sexy instead of just being… bare?
John Berger, a celebrated art critic, talks about the ‘ways of seeing’ a woman and how she sees herself in ways that she needn’t – ‘from the male gaze’ as Berger describes.
Berger had a very simple idea to substantiate this – power for men is extrinsic, acquired from something external of themselves. Men can’t be born this way because as meaning-making animals, we define what power is for us. But what we can vouch for is that men are raised to consider their decisions as impactful and thus, more important than women. A man, for example, is implicitly conditioned to being solely responsible from the earliest instance of securing his family’s future, doing good, etc. If he is able to fulfil this and more, he deserves to be valued in society, and is allowed to claim power and strength. If he isn’t able to, he’s weak and is socially placed as less appealing. This is just the socio-economic aspect of it. These roles expand over several spheres of sexual, temperamental, physical and moral, Berger notes. Noticeably, being solely responsible would mean a natural tendency for him to be autocratic – as a decision maker at home or at work, a guide, in bed, and as a figure of absolute divinity. These ‘manly’ qualities not only imply that he calls the shots for and by himself but also for everyone inferior to him, specifically women. This worth and power ‘earned’ enables him to exercise power over others and that’s when he’s validated.
For women, the case is obviously different. Power is intrinsic to her, acquired from within, and credited by the way she views herself. This is especially problematic because a woman’s image is defined by her ability to satisfy patriarchy, she can’t intrinsically claim to be valuable or view herself as powerful when she defies patriarchy. It’s bad enough that women are seen as incapable of claiming power outside of patriarchy but even in light of rectification, what deteriorates their case is that they never have access to making choices and thus, the inability to claim autonomy over things that are theirs makes them socially powerless.
The fight for women’s liberation started with the recognition of inequality between men and women and not because within an equal status quo, women wanted superiority; seconded by women’s inability to even access liberty and sustain satisfactorily.
This leaves her catering helplessly to a system where her power is limited to what she can do for herself. Say, help her husband run the house (note how her husband still runs the house while she just helps – a classic example of gendered roles being more implicit than ever), pretend to be happy in oppressing relationships so she isn’t deemed self-centric and problematic. So, her value and consequently the power she can assume rests on how she appears to society.
Power here is deemed as the ability to be valued and validated, have a respectable social standing and consequently be successful in society. Who doesn’t like every adjective mentioned above? Broken down further, following a system means one belongs to it and belonging to something bigger than oneself – it’s a way to succeed and to be protected. This actually tells us why we are scared to go against systems – we will be demonised, isolated and tried. Plus, we lose a chance to be valued and successful.
Everyone who recognises inequality and doesn’t shun it forces oppressed individuals, even if they are the ones oppressed, to settle for less, preventing women from being liberated of her set misogynistic duties and just be who she wants to be.
This is a rather effective way to understand why nudity is shunned despite the fact that men like nude women. Well, here’s the thing – man’s extrinsic nature of power and woman’s intrinsic nature of power creates a symbiotic relationship where women are naked at the mercy of the man’s whims. The discourse around nudity still stays at ‘you don’t have to be nude and display nudity to be empowered and (feel) liberated’ because of the very reason that all of us assess a woman’s ability to hoard power, based on her ability to stay subordinated and authorised by men. So it isn’t shocking that all of us view nudity, and more fundamentally, a woman’s body with a man’s eye. Consequently, a woman’s bare body can never be just bare, it is symbolic of her attempt at pleasing men.
We make the same mistake externally, as we always have implicitly, by restricting women through questioning, shaming, judging and ridiculing their choices – such as the choice to be nude, which is a form of ideological repression. When soft power is used to influence personal matters, individualistic autonomy and liberty are breached. Here, one must really question at what point do we actually achieve the goal of liberating the woman?
Liberty in nudity for women would mean letting them decide what nudity means to them – is it fabricated from the patriarchal practices of the past; is it a method to shun and rebel against these practices; or is it a way of embracing one’s body with all its so-called ‘imperfections’; or is it simply about being naked with no other objective whatsoever? Our determination to label and evaluate each woman’s liberty based on our learnt ideals, in fact, strips several women of the ability to feel liberated. It rather pushes back the whole system of redefining and revolting against enforced ideas. The struggle would never stop, liberty here would still stand more social than personal and we’ve lost purpose again.
Hell, it’s going to be very hard to start viewing liberty in nudity as a personal issue given that our society revolves around sexualising it for the male-gaze. The actress in the blockbusters is okay with her objectification because she knows, to be worthy of fame and love, she has no choice but to run on the whims of the male-gaze that has engulfed us, her audience. The maker’s engulfed mind and the audience’s is going to love the skin show and the sexiness of the provocative scene and so the maker further goes on to lighten her skin, remove her stretch marks and finally, ready her as a delicacy for the several gazing men, women and everyone in between and beyond; she gets to substantiate her value and worthiness as it gives her the power of feeling belonged and valued by the society – a power she has now successfully won. Shockingly, we accept nudity on screen better than we would in a smaller gathering because we sympathise with artists for not having the liberty to choose otherwise. Yet, we don’t advocate a women’s liberty to pick what she wants to do or wear.
When we question nudity as a product of liberty, we question how a woman could feel comfortable enough to be naked when so many men are watching her. The male-gaze finds it appalling to assume that the most watched creature on this planet – a woman – could be liberated enough to be bare and unfiltered, caring less about the male-gaze and her ability to seize power by being valuable to men. We reduce the legitimacy of her liberated actions by projecting our conditioned insecurities onto how she must conduct herself. The fear and kick we get out of seeing an ‘imperfect’ woman who has full potential to disappoint the male-gaze is humongous; the fear held by people concerned about her acceptance in the society and the kick felt by those she dared to go against by making her own liberated choice, redefining what liberty and her nude self means to her.
Pragati Sambrani is a second-year undergraduate student of social sciences from Christ University, Bangalore. A learner by the day and night, she is most delighted when you give her some tea, chaat and conversations she can braingasm from. Pragati aims to be a policy researcher and analyst, carving her niché in human rights, gender issues and environmental sustainability.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*