Minus the City: Nudity is Empowering But…

“Send Nudes LOL.” We have apps like Tinder and Snapchat to thank for this iconic method of 21st century flirtation. It’s been memed, employed en masse by an army of stereotypically straight white guys and received by pretty much every girl between the ages of 16 and 25. Despite the full body cringe incited by this message, it still raises the question – to send, or not to send? In order to answer this question we’ll need to strip (ha) the problem down to its bare bones.

The best things in life are done naked. Bubble baths, skinny dipping, streaking and sitting around after a shower sans clothing are all great nude activities. Since this is the “Minus the City” column, I should also mention the majority of people have sex naked, too. Nudity is a natural part of life, and hanging out in your birthday suit is essential to establishing a positive relationship with your physical self. How we feel about our bodies plays a major role in our mental health, self confidence and the relationships we have with other people.

Unfortunately, nudity is not so simple for women. In fact, it’s a highly political thing to take part in. We live in a world where women were once jailed for exposing their ankles and certain U.S. cities prohibited women from wearing shorts in the mid-20th century. Even today, girls are sent home from school for an exposed bra strap, which sends the clear message, “your body is offensive and your education is not a priority.” There’s a duality to the message society sends women about nudity, though. There are certain “types” of women whose nudity is not only accepted, but expected.

The feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s utilized nudity as a tool of defiance and active subversion, and the new wave of 21st century feminism has also incorporated nudity, but in a much different and perhaps less effective manner. The freedom of self expression is essential to liberation, and this includes the expression of sexuality. We say nudity is liberating –– and it is –– but we promote our bodies without understanding what it means to express sexuality or comprehending how complicated self ownership really is.

Enter the trusty Colgate liberal arts education to help us grasp these complex topics. I recently read John Bergman’s “Ways of Seeing” for an introductory studio art class I’m taking this semester. His commentary on women in art and the European nude genre put precisely into words the complicated relationship between women and physical body that I have felt and lacked words to describe for so long. 

Accompanied by modern photographs, advertisements and Renaissance era nudes, Bergman explained, “A woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because … how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Bergman goes on, saying these dual roles of surveyor and surveyed are so deeply ingrained in women, that they cannot walk across a room without being painfully aware of what they look like walking across the room. The awareness of appearance haunts us like a phantom limb. And it is this awareness that is the root cause of self-objectification. The unconscious understanding that how men perceive us determines our treatment and our standing in life prevents us from taking full ownership of our bodies.

Back to the nudes, though. If nudity is empowering, how can a nude photo not be empowering? Is it not a part of the path to sexual liberation, to being able to express sexuality and ownership of our physical selves? The tricky thing here is that one is an action and the other is an object. Being naked, that is solely for the naked person. No one else gets to experience the action of your nudity and your body but you. A photo is an object, and as the subject of it, you become an object –– something to be possessed, and not by you. It is not an act of sexual empowerment, because embracing sexuality is about embracing and pursuing desires, not about being desired. Objects don’t desire, objects are the desired.

Whether or not you choose to send the nudes (no judgment either way), consider that no matter the situation it is an act of self objectification. Until we live in a world where a woman’s body is fully her own, I’ll stick to my “send nudes” memes. Btw, u gotta kik?