It starts when you’re extraordinarily young; there is sexualization of your body when you’re a girl. You may not realize it until you’re in school where dress codes urge you to cover your shoulders and thighs. When you’re standing next to a shirtless boy and you can’t wear just your sports bra and shorts in the 100°F heat. Women’s bodies, especially nude bodies, have been a cause for concern since Adam and Eve first donned their leafy clothing with the intent to keep their morality intact.
For some, it’s astonishing to see the expression of female nudity in a non-sexual manner. After all, isn’t the point of female nudity for male titillation? Why would you reveal your most intimate parts if it’s not for (male) attention? Instead of asking why someone wants to show or see women’s breasts if it’s not sexual in nature, ask who has the right to say what women’s breasts are for, and where and when they can be seen and by whom. The policing of women’s bodies has nothing to do with our (moral and physical) protection and everything to do with power and money.
As women, we are rarely allowed to exist outside the view of the male gaze. This is especially true when it comes to the naked body. Men do not experience this in the same way as women, but can still be subjected to the male gaze (that is another article for another day). Women’s bodies exist for heterosexual male consumption. When women use or show their bodies in a way that doesn’t align with that concept, it is deemed obscene and tasteless. For example, a woman doesn’t cover up to breastfeed her child. People, mainly men, will become so completely agitated because this woman is revealing herself, yes, but not in the way they want to see. It’s disgusting to see a child latched to a nipple, but if it’s a grown human, well that’s quite all right. However, if we’re shown a male having his nipples licked by cats (hi, Schmidt from New Girl), it’s supposed to be hilarious. And it is! We, as a society, don’t tend to view male bodies as inherently sexual, unless there is proper context.
Women’s bodies - generally nude or semi-nude bodies - are regularly used for capital gains. Nothing drives profits like a woman “ready” for sex. The problem with women owning their nude bodies is they can no longer be sold. The terms “male and female gaze” began by describing characters in film. However, a quick way to see the difference is to look at ads.
Compare Victoria’s Secret ads with Aerie’s (disclaimer: Victoria’s Secret is currently trying to change their image to be more female and diverse-oriented at the time this article was written). The female model in a Victoria’s Secret ad is, obviously, scantily clad in their most luxurious bra and underwear set or with the latest negligee. As the brand does sell those items, it is wonderful to see the pieces on models. The models, however, are supermodels. The average woman does not see herself in these women, and this is not even taking into account the airbrushing and Photoshop. These models are typically placed in front of a dark background or are seen rolling around on the beach.
Now take an Aerie ad; the models look like your next door neighbor or even the associate in the store hoping to sell you that particular piece. The models are participating in activities in their photos, i.e. camping or lounging around the home. As a consumer, you can see the pieces in movement and see yourself in the model wearing them. The women aren’t just mannequins to show off the lingerie, they’re telling you a story about the model and the life you can lead in the pieces. If you haven’t been to or heard of either store, as a woman, you’re more likely going to gravitate toward Aerie for your everyday shopping. You’re connecting with the ads.
If you’re a man shopping for his female partner, you’re most likely heading to Victoria’s Secret because you find those models more attractive and entertaining. The male gaze offers sex and bodies, the female gaze offers a lifestyle.
We as women have the right to use our bodies in a way that is deemed empowering by each individual and not be viewed as sex objects. Living in a society which tells you that showing your intimate body parts is (male) attention seeking and that your worth is inherently less by being more open to self-defining through nudity makes this choice difficult and sometimes a lonely journey. Personally, I find everyday empowerment through my body, specifically my nude body. Enjoying little moments each day such as cooking, cleaning, reading, or even writing this piece while nude, has allowed me to see my body as it actually is: just a body. It gets me through the day, through sickness, through fitness, through life. My body can do wonderful things that don’t include sex or being sexy (but let’s face it, it does that well too). There is nothing shameful or offensive about naked bodies. Society will keep telling you that it is so you will keep buying clothes to cover it and products to change it. This article does not take into account skin color, sexual orientation, or body size. As a thin, white woman, I know I am perceived as an acceptable body more than others and my body was weaponized differently by society.
So, why is it important to show women’s non-sexualized nudity? Continuously seeing our bodies as sex objects or tools for capitalism keeps us comparing our bodies to each other and buying all the wares to make it better. If we’re concerned about how we appear in society, we’re too busy to fight the patriarchy and our station in society. We know the exhibition of nude bodies isn’t the true issue, it’s how society can keep their control on us, on women. My nipples aren’t the problem. Antiquated views on naked bodies and society wanting to continue selling our bodies are the problem. The threat that female self-defined nudity presents is determined by society, but can be changed so that people understand that the offense to morality is misogyny, not nudity.