The Guardian, Wednesday 3 September 2014
It’s not always, or only, about sex. For me it was a liberation from the body anxiety that afflicts so many women
A few years ago, shortly after ending a long relationship, I asked a photographer to take some nude photographs. I know her well, so it was not as daunting as posing for a total stranger. It was not even the first time I had posed without clothes, but on this occasion it definitely had something to do with being single and not needing male approval.
Nude pictures, in other words, are not always, or not only, about sex.
There is a big difference between photographs taken for private and public consumption. This should not need to be said: pictures taken for a magazine or to publicise a film have a very different purpose from intimate photographs that are intended to be shared with close friends or partners. Our bodies are an important part of our identity, a fact that is often overlooked in a culture that is queasy about them; it is hard to imagine a moment in history when images of women’s bodies have been so plentiful, yet also the source of such extreme anxiety. If you are a woman, exploring your feelings about your naked body has seldom been more difficult. When you take your clothes off in front of a photographer, you risk deciding that you’re too thin, too fat, too pale, too brown, or just too old.
Amid this cacophony of critical voices, one reaction to the theft of “nude pics” – the tabloid shorthand makes them sound so much worse, doesn’t it? – has been to ask why any woman would pose naked. The implication is that the singers and actors concerned have “asked for it” if the pictures are stolen, which is as fine a piece of victim-blaming as I’ve heard in a long time. Apparently, the punishment for “vanity” is publication, and some newspapers that didn’t publish the stolen photographs offered a handy guide to where on the internet they had appeared.
This is not just to misunderstand the meaning of privacy. The body is a feminist issue, if ever there was one, and the struggle to own it is never-ending. I first posed nude in my 20s, when it seemed important to me to explore the meaning of nakedness. As a young woman, I was acutely aware of the vulnerability of the unclothed female body; a naked woman might be decorative, stretched out on a chaise longue in high art, but she might also be a potential victim of male violence. For a time I looked at men’s magazines, which appeared to be the only source of representations of women’s naked bodies, but all I found were pictures taken for the pleasure of male readers.
So I decided to pose nude myself, to see what it felt like. Could I take off all my clothes and feel not just unembarrassed but powerful? It was surprisingly easy, perhaps because I was reading so much feminist material and I felt as if I was throwing off years of conditioning. I didn’t do it for publication or any reason other than curiosity, but I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve escaped the body anxiety that is so common among women of all ages.
When I did it again, three or four years ago, I was a lot older and it raised different questions; I’m a size 12 but the body gets less elastic over time, no matter how often you go to the gym. It was about being comfortable in my skin as an older woman who continues to see herself as a sexual being, regardless of cultural messages to the contrary. This time I wore high heels for some of the pictures, something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in my 20s when I rejected many of the traditional trappings of femininity. I don’t think I’m supposed to say this, but I was delighted with the result.
There is another factor to consider here. On the one hand, commercial porn and Page 3 push images of women that are passive and degrading; on the other, reactionary religious leaders tell women they have to cover up. Somewhere in between, ordinary women and celebrities alike struggle to feel OK about themselves, worrying about showing too little or too much. Stealing intimate private pictures is a new front in this battle, but the women have nothing to be ashamed of. Posing nude, in my experience, is one of the ultimate feminist acts.