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It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that on no less than four occasions over the last week I have stumbed across news stories regarding the concept of women in the altogether. First of all, there was the widely-publicised story of Kim Kardashian – and this is a story perhaps best tempered by remembering that most of what passes for “celebrity culture” flies clean over my head – and the size or shape of her rear end, as photographed in a shoot for Paper Magazine. Next up came the equally somehow controversial story of how Keira Knightley, an actress who inhabits the exalted climes of the Hollywood A-List, came to complete a topless photoshoot of her own for a magazine on condition that they didn’t apply the soft-focus filters of Photoshop to her afterwards.
Whilst these two stories have hogged the headlines in terms of this particular genre of story, two others have also been of interest over the last few days or so. Firstly, there’s another topless photoshoot, this time featuring the model Lara Stone, who gave birth to her first child earlier this year and whose shoot was also completed without the conventional post-shoot application of Photoshop. And finally, there was the – slightly, but not much, older – story of Aleah Chapin, an artist who has somehow or other caused controversy with a series of realistic paintings of naked older women, which so upset the art critic and renouned silly old fool Brian Sewell that he described her work as, “repellent… a grotesque medical record.”
In the case of Kim Kardashian, most of the commentary on the subject has been focussed upon her bottom, which veers some distance from the standard practically non-existent buttocks so beloved of the fashion industry. There is, we might consider, an unsettling undertone to all of this. Larger and/or rounder backsides have long been associated with over-sexualisation, particularly in the case of black women, the portrayal of whom as sexual beings in the media has long been far from flattering. Kardashian, however, is white – half-Armenian, to be precise – and the combination of her body shape and the colour of her skin seems to have left the press in something of a fluster.
The conversation surrounding Keira Knightley has, of course, had a somewhat more deferential tone to it. After all, Knightley is a “serious” actor and not a “celebrity” whose name is best known as a the result of a career in reality television. In addition to this, Knightley has been explicit in stating the conditions under which she agreed to be photographed in the selected state of undress, and for an actor of her prominence to say, as she did, the following:
I’ve had my body manipulated so many different times for so many different reasons, whether it’s paparazzi photographers or for film posters. That [shoot] was one of the ones where I said: ‘OK, I’m fine doing the topless shot so long as you don’t make them any bigger or retouch.’ Because it does feel important to say that it really doesn’t matter what shape you are.”
is an explicitly political statement, especially in the light of the recent leaking of photographs of varying degrees of explicitness of various celebrities onto the internet. “Because it does feel important to say that it really doesn’t matter what shape you are” shouldn’t feel like a statement that anybody should ever make as a halfway controversial public statement, but such is the nature of the strange times in which we live that it should be the case.
An industry has built up around the shaming of women regarding their bodies. Of that there can be little doubt. From the Daily Mail’s wretched “Sidebar Of Shame” to trashy magazines which highlight lumps and dimples of celebrities from photographs of them that are usually taken in unguarded moments, it had been commonly assumed that this was another manifestation of sexism through a very twenty-first century lens. Indeed, the conversation regarding Kim Kardashian can easily be viewed through that prism (as can the Lara Stone story, when we consider that most of those who commented upon it seemed more interested in the consistency of her nipples than anything else) but might the fact that all three of the aforementioned women emerged from their experiences in front of a camera without digital adjustment with their reputations enhanced for being themselves hint at the possibility of a change in attitude when it comes to the human form?
Of course, the elephant in the room that houses all of these stories is that all three of those at the centre of them were women. It remains a truth universally unchallenged that men simply do not experience the drip, drip, drip of expectation regarding what they should or shouldn’t look like to anything like the same extent that most women do. And while it is true that, to some extent at least, the market in celebrity-shaming might be interpreted as having been created with a female audience in mind, to over-emphasise this would be to apparently ignore the fact that many men seem to objectify women all the time. Most men know that there an ideal of our form which exists, but the pressure on us to conform to it is easily ignored, because, put plainly, it exists to nothing like the extent to which it does for women. Men, for example, are treated to very little of the paranoia-fest that is the hair removal industry, a luxury that few to no women are ever afforded.
What the media says and how we react to it, however, only tells a part of the story of our love-but-largely-hate relationship with our own body images. It may not be terribly helpful to express unkind opinions about the bodies of celebrities, but an argument – a weak one, but an argument nevertheless – could be made for saying that those in the glare of the attention of the mass media are part of a large circus from which they benefit, financially, at least. But even this fundamentally flawed argument doesn’t apply to regular members of the public. Our body-image issues have little to do with whether we’re going to appear on the right-hand side of the Daily Mail website’s homepage, or even, often, about what other people think of our bodies. Our body-image, it often feels, is much more about what we think of ourselves.
Perhaps the biggest signifier that this is the case comes in terms of where critcism of our own bodies comes from and where we target our own criticisms of the human form. Now, there can be little doubt that there are plenty of people out there who are quick to criticise the bodies of others. Cruelty can often seem to be a near-inherent partof the human condition, in that respect, and there may well be some weight to the theory that the pornographisation of our mainstream culture has led to the raising of a generation of socially stunted man-children for whom the “perfection” that they seem in the pixelated videos of people acting out the most intimate act that anybody can act out in front of a camera has led to an insane level of entitlement and disturbingly high expectations of what the human body should look like. On the whole, however, at a granular – or, if you prefer, anecdotal – level it usually feels as if we are, generally speaking, usually far more critical of our own bodies than we would ever be of those of, say, friends, or even lovers or partners.
And this is where the work of Aleah Chapin becomes so valuable. Some of the criticism of her work has been that it is too “photo-realistic”, but to criticise her body – no pun intended, there – of work for that reason seems – to me, at least – to be missing a fundamental point. The idea of having a body that is “invisible” is not something that is likely to trouble the likes of Kim Kardashian or Keira Knightley for the time being, but for older women changes to the form that come as an entirely natural part of the ageing process are still treated as “problems” to be “solved” by the majority of the fashion and cosmetics industries, an issue that is compounded by the fact that, for some at least, to look at a female form over the age or thirty is to invoke an irrational display of squeamishness.
Chapin herself states in the above linked article that, “When you get past a certain age you become invisible – and that’s a whole other problem,” and it’s true. Where is the conversation of the bodies of women over a certain age – an age which, as an aside, seems to be getting younger and younger with each passing decade, in spite of exponentially increasing concerns that many people have concerning the sexualisation of children – which talks about them in a tone that isn’t sneering? It often seems as if there isn’t one, to any significant extent – at least not in the media circles with the sort of circulation figures that might be able to influence people’s thinking on the subject. But perhaps it’s time to cut the media from this entire conversation altogether. Perhaps it’s time for a new approach.
It is occasionally said that when we look at of ourselves we see everything that we consider to be wrong with us, but when other peope see us, they everything that they love about us. When we look at the loves of our lives, we see many things. We see their physical form, of course we do, but we also see the story that got them to where they are today, we see love, care and the attention that they offer us. We see a bigger picture. And where they may be bumps and lumps, lines and marks, we don’t see the desecration of an ideal of the human form, we see a fully rounded human being, with whom we have a degree of intimacy that allows us to see each other naked, with all of the implied vulnerability that this confers. In other words, we see other people in a way that it can sometimes feel as if we wish we could see ourselves. We’re capable of offering this to ourselves. We’re just conditioned not to. After all, we’re still living in a world in which it causes surprise that Keira Knightley could be photographed with no top on without recourse to Photoshop afterwards.
Perhaps we should start to consider our own imperfections as “features” rather than “flaws.” Perhaps we should focus on celebrating the humanity of our bodies rather than denigrating perceived flaws in them. Perhaps we should care less about the opinions of those with a vested interested in keeping us a little bit paranoid about our own appearances and the appearances of others. Beauty, we tend to believe, comes in many different forms, including in terms of the human body. Or at least it does when we look at the human body of somebody that we really care about. Perhaps it’s about time we extended that viewpoint to ourselves. It may seem optimistic to say it, but if we were to do that, there’s a chance that, in a generation or two’s time, it might no longer be necessary for those who do find themselves staring into the lens of a camera to have to say that “it does feel important to say that it really doesn’t matter what shape you are.” Because it shouldn’t. It really, really shouldn’t.
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