If you asked popular culture if they’ve heard the familiar cliché, “The woman’s body is a temple”, majority of people would agree and further add that it is still relevant in today. So if this phrase is true, than why is the woman’s body so blatantly degraded in so many different aspects of our daily lives? Women’s bodies are constantly over sexualized from advertisements to everyday interactions. A patriarchal double standard has been engraved in the mind of today’s culture, in which many feminist artists have made it their goal to reclaim the female body and reverse the negative stereotypes as a form of empowerment.
One doesn’t have to try very hard to find examples of discrimination of women in today’s culture. The woman’s body has been placed center stage for the eye of the public gaze. Thus, with this gaze there has been this strict set of rules that have been placed upon women to define what the “ideal” body image is. So many women have bought into this notion that it is almost as if it has become a biological instinct in the minds of our society. Women are plastered across billboards and television screens scarcely clothed and in alluring positions. Majority of the time the meaning behind whatever the product being sold is lost as the attention of the viewer becomes completely focused on the body of the model. Ironically, the issue at hand becomes worse as these models are typically objectified and loose their title as a human beings all together. Female models have become these sex objects, in which people solely think about their bodies in parts and nothing else. This meaning, when a person claims that a women is attractive, the receiver first thinks about how the model must have nice breasts or behind. The idea of someone having an attractive personality or persona as a whole goes usually doesn’t even cross ones mind. Furthermore, these models are shown in these vulnerable poses furthering the idea that they are nothing more than mindless beings. It only justifies the degrading attitude our culture has developed. Thus, with these images plastered everywhere in public it is inevitable that the women of the world begin to pick up these subconscious messages.
Women of all races are victims of the over sexualization of their bodies, however females of color as especially targeted. This is because along with the over sexualization there is sometimes this exotification fetish that takes place. This meaning that women of color are looked at as these exotic creatures of beauty which can be interpreted as extremely dehumanizing. Coco Fusco touches on this subject with some of her artwork such as “Couple in a Cage”. People would take photos of this exotic pair completely dehumanizing them. At some exhibits the woman would expose herself for a certain price. Although, this may not seem different than the idea of women who are exotic dancers, the role that race and culture play make a significant difference. This is because the female in this scenario isn’t looked at as an attractive women, but a creature who has these sexual attributes to offer simply for the male or public pleasure. The fact that because of her race she is put in a cage on display says a lot in itself. Touching on the idea of exotic dancers as well, it is interesting to think where that title comes from. Once again women, who exploit their sexual attributes are fetishized as exotic. They are no longer looked at as a person but rather this exotic thing that has something “special” to offer for the pleasure of another.
The false guidelines of what makes a women appealing and socially acceptable has had a large effect on how females feel they should behave. Many women have adjusted how to behave not based on instinct but on what they are told by society. This idea that has developed in the heads of many is better known as Gender Preformativity. Although females are at focus here, this concept its not limited to only one gender. There is a set notion that many women feel they have to follow to define who they are as a woman. This meaning, a certain weight, certain clothes, certain activities, etc. However, all these “set guidelines” are simply a myth. Gender preformativity is up to the individual. Just because one likes to dress more “masculine” than the individual sitting next to them, does not make them any less of a female. It is up to the individual to illustrate to the outside world how they see themselves. There should be no “big brother” figure hovering over them telling them they should preform in any certain way, especially if those notions contradict the concepts that person is truly passionate about as an individual. Artists like Cindy Sherman have created artwork around this subject. Sherman has portrayed herself in hundred of different personas, exemplifying what she feels gender preformativity really stands for. Some of her caricatures are more classically feminine, while others are very masculine. The whole message that she and the concept of gender preformativity are trying to convey is that women shouldn’t feel boxed in my the over-sexualized eyes of the public.
Staying on the idea of the how the public eye effects how women feel about themselves is the notion of the male gaze. The male gaze is this socially constructed concept, in which women preform for male pleasure. The idea of what a man wants from a woman has been morphed into the notion of how a women should normally behave. In other words, it has become a trend for women to alter their behavior based on how males see them. For example, women trying to loose weight because they think men will find them more attractive, or growing their hair out because supposedly men find that look more attractive. It is this false concept that the male preference makes one women genetically more attractive than another. In result of this concept, women start to put what they actually want and admire on back burner and they strive to fit the stereotype of the male gaze. The concept of the male gaze is what fuels the fire to the patriarchal society in which we live. It gives men the superior power to dictate and pass off their opinions as if they are facts. Historically, philosopher Sigmund Freud could be considered the father of the male gaze with his theories on the vaginal organism. He discusses how females are “frigid” if they can’t orgasm during sex, putting all the blame on the woman. However, one realizes quite quickly that based off of genetics his theories are most certainly a myth. Males achieve pleasure based strictly on the friction created during sex while females have a specific spot in which they achieve pleasure. Most of the time, women have to use their imagination to achieve the same degree of pleasure as a male. Oddly enough, many females still play into his myth. Many women fake vaginal orgasms during sex to please the man. They completely forget about their pleasure, and almost turn themselves into objects in the process of doing so. Just because it is more difficult for women to reach pleasure than it is for men doesn’t mean they should fake it. They shouldn’t feel the need to give up part of themselves in fear than a man will judge them if they express how they truly feel. This whole notion of the myth of the vaginal notion is built strictly around the male gaze.
Many feminist artists have used these notions and concepts in their artwork to illustrate the bigger picture to the public eye. One of these well known artists in Hannah Wilkie. Primary themes that she conveyed through her artwork was to take back female imagery and sexuality from patriarchal bonds. Wilkie worked towards breaking down taboos and by doing so with a woman’s guidance and sensibility in a playful way. Wilkie’s work often dealt with the duality of pain and pleasure felt in relation to a woman’s biology and psyche, and provided a unique perspective previously unseen in the art world. She expressed the female body in a way that was beautiful, yet not meant to be overly sexual. Ironically, Wilkie dealt with a lot of critique since she was considered by many to be very stereotypically beautiful. Many let this influence their judgment on her early artwork as it is easy to become victim of the male gaze and over sexualize her self portraits. Wilkie is taking back the female body by illustrating to society the double standard of how when a male uses a female body it is culturally appropriate, however when a female does it its considered narcism.
Although future events in Wilkie’s life were quite unfortunate, they served as a great medium for her cause. Wilkie was diagnosed with lymphoma which took a tole on her body. She continued to photograph herself to show how beautiful she was even though the disease was taking over her body. It is important to note how she proves that the female body can still be so powerful and beautiful without being degraded and objectified.
Jenny Saville is another artist who illustrated in her artwork the same type of themes. One of her most well known art piece is that title, “Branded”. This painting brings the viewers attention to how women are perceived in today’s society and how that perception has caused body dysmorphia among a major population. The phantom-like words, “delicate”, “petite”, “support”, “irrational”, and “decorative” that have been scratched on the woman’s body and are denotative of cutting and self-deprecation. The connotative reasoning behind the paint-scraped words are the physical manifestation of the inner dialogue in Saville’s mind. The words represent what society thinks a woman’s body “should” look like. Thus, the title “Branded” is appropriate as her artwork illustrates how the gaze of the other forces many women to brand themselves with these social labels. In the foreground, the viewer is exposed to a women in a somewhat aggressive stance. The hands grab the flesh of her stomach in order to call attention a specific part of the body. This is an uncommon portrayal of a female because of the boldness of the stance and the confidence of a woman who by societal standards would be considered inferior or unappealing. The scale of the piece plays a vast part in this painting. This massive piece demands the attention of the viewer because of the size and the provocative angle of the woman’s body. The scale of the painting gives the illusion that the figure depicted is the one in charge of how they are being perceived. The figure in the painting looks down on the viewer as they are tiny in comparison. Hence, this relationship between the viewer and the painting is established in which the viewer becomes the vulnerable one. This is ironic because even though the figure painted is nude and in a state of vulnerability, she has the upper hand. “Branded” is so unique because Saville gives the power to the piece of art instead of the viewer.
Saville’s motive with this art piece is to challenge the traditional views of feminine beauty. Instead of covering up the nude figure, she embraces it by painting it in obscene proportions. Saville takes so much pride in the many shapes of women that she uses her own head on this unidentified, robust body. The subtle message she is portraying here is it doesn’t matter who’s face is placed upon this body because in the end women are nothing more than a human figure. Some have more obese bodies than others, but in the end that has no reflection of the person they are. If that is all people are physically, then Saville poses the question of why does it matter if someone is more than another?
Lastly, Barbara Kruger takes a unique approach by incorporating text into her artwork to shed light on the critique of the female body. The message behind Kruger’s work may be a bit more clear as she utilizes simple phrases paired with photography to match. Although the meaning of her phrases are obvious on the surface, they usually have an underlying meaning as well. One of the major themes she tackles in her artwork is gender stereotypes. One example of Kruger’s work that exemplifies this is “Your Comfort is My Silence”. The image in the background is a man holding a finger over his mouth in a “hush” position. She is addressing the stereotypical image of a women keeping quiet in order to please the male figure in her life. The eerie yet serious feel that her artwork illustrates shows how ridiculous this stereotype is that many buy into. Another one of Kruger’s infamous pieces is “Your Body is a Battleground”. The commentary she is making here is how the women’s body has been sold to the public. It has become a topic of debate for all to use as they wish freely. However, just as the prior piece, all of Kruger’s works serve as satires. She wants to make the viewer think twice about how foolish these phrases are and how so many people gullibly accept them.
From feminist theories to artwork, it can be clearly seen that the woman’s body has been through a lot in our culture’s history. Barbara Kruger had it right when she said the female body is a battleground rather than the inaccurate cliche claiming it to be a temple. Women’s bodies have been overly sexualized for centuries and it has been the task for feminists to illustrate to society the equality women deserve. The patriarchal double standard still exists today, but one can only hope that in the future it will eventually become a myth. Thus, it is an everyday fight to reclaim the woman’s body and fuel the cliche in a positive sense to show that the body is a powerful and beautiful temple.