Why self-portraits shape our perspective on the female body

Is the nude really necessary in art? The body has been investigated by artists for centuries, but the sexualization of our bodies has turned this art form into something incomprehensible and unacceptable. But is that justified?

One day I found a box with nude self-portraits of my parents

Since the second year of my photography study, I started taking self-portraits as an exploration of my identity and my body. I got interested in feminist topics and soon I fell into the body-oriented work of the feminists in the 1970s. Ever since I cannot let my self-portraits go, although I am still figuring out what place these portraits take into my art and how I can communicate through it. This is my search for a new perspective on the body, on identity and on feminism in the 21st century.

In December I was in Spain and decided to work again on my self-portraits (Project SHOW ME SOMETHING REAL) A few years before I found an old Polaroid 35mm film roll of my dad and thought it might be interesting to shoot with that film. Not many of you know, but my dad frequently photographed my mom and himself nude. He learned photography from his best friend Jacob, which unfortunately I never met because he died of aids when I was five.

A few months after my dad died, I found a box with nude photographs of my mom and dad. These were self-portraits taken on a beach somewhere I don’t know. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and for me this was also a very important discovery in my own development as an artist. My parents gave me the courage to investigate the nude and soon after, I started photographing my friends and myself naked. A few months later I placed a call for male models and then I became hooked on this subject.

I remember the day that I asked one of my new roommates to take my portrait. Naked. In the snow.

She must have thought that I was totally crazy, but she did it anyway and this picture is still very dear to me. My ex-boyfriend who is also a photographer helped me at the time to further investigate my self-portraits. When I was graduating from the Fotoacademie, the self-portraits faded into the background. Until last year, when I asked Carlos to photograph me naked in a playground in the middle of the night. This culminated in my latest project THE GAME.

A lot of people often ask me why I photograph myself naked and if this is necessary to communicate my message. It is always difficult to answer this question because it is not about nudity. For me, the body is a tool. Just like a lot of other artists who investigate gender and identity through the representation of the body. In order to understand this fully, it is best to start by explaining what role the body plays in contemporary art. Here are some passages from a book called ‘The body in contemporary art by Sally O’Reilly:

‘The body is our interface with the world, and our senses its line of communication. In contemporary art the body is a signifier of lived experience as well as a medium of formal and aesthetic inquiry. It is more likely to be considered the place where rationalism, psychological disarray, natural functionality and cultured desires converge. The body has become recognised as the principal arena for the politics of identity.’

‘The body can be used as a political tool, with bodies that challenge received ideas or highlight the problems of marginalised or oppressed societies or subcultures, through confrontational or empathetic means. It is used to explore the impact of the body in social and commercial situations or the moveable boundaries between nature, the body and technology and many more. The difference between the body and the figure is that figurative artwork tends to reside in the realm of the optical, whereas that involving the body requires a wider consideration.’

‘One of the most influential episodes for the body in contemporary art, was the feminist work of the 1970s, when the traditional nude completed its metamorphosis from objectivized or metaphorical image into a confrontational and self-conscious subject. The body at this time was regularly employed in aggressive acts of self-definition and audience provocation, as in the work of Valie Export, who trashed numerous social niceties with the aim of readdressing gender imbalance and misrepresentation throughout society. It is perhaps this legacy of protests and transformation that attracts many artists to live art and explains the diversity of artists today.’

Questions about using the nude in art is a nonissue

Still, you could ask the question of why the body has to be naked. Well, if you want your message to be universal to all men of all times, you have to get rid of clothing. This is because clothing ties the subject down to time. A specific time when that kind of clothing was common or popular.  Some artists dress figures in simple clothing which feels already more like it could be taking place in the past present or future. Using nudity, the artist can show human beings in a way that focuses the attention on the figure and the subject instead of irrelevant matters like how their shirts are buttoned and whether they are wearing stylish clothing or not. So it

You can also turn the question around: why not naked? Artists can use flowers, sunsets, and mountains as artistic tools to express feelings and ideas, but when we use the human body we have to have a reason for that. In a blog that I recently read, Brian Yoder points out exactly why this is a nonissue. If the goal of art is to express ideas about the nature of humanity and our role in the world, then it would be natural to expect that the natural human form would be among the most powerful tools to express that.

The body is a tool to investigate the politics of identity.

Recap. The body has been used as a tool by artists for ages and although it is a nonissue to discuss why this body has to be naked, there are enough reasons to use the body as a tool to express your thoughts in your art. So let us get back to the subjects of my art practice. I am interested in the representation of the male and female body as well as the complex relationship between gender roles and power relations and its impact on society.

I am interested in questions like: why do we only see female bodies in arts and media? Where is the male nude and what is the female gaze on the male nude? How is female sexuality constructed and how is this different from that of men? What is the origin of this power imbalance between genders? How can men and women learn from each other in order to understand each other better? Why are most artists in museums men and why are most nude models women? How can we create a more harmonized, free, and empathic world without preconceptions and misuse of power?

I know that even though these are just questions, it can be experienced as something provocative. I also read in between the lines a little dissatisfaction with the balance between men and women, or between male and female energy in this world. Maybe this is what my mind feels at this moment and what I want to explore in my projects through the body. I think this is the most honest answer I can give.

The self-portraits that I make are basically an investigation into the representation of the female body. My body. The origin is my discomfort with the objectification of my body and the power imbalance that I feel. I try to figure out with these self-portraits how I want to present my body and what kind of different meanings it can have apart from a sexual meaning.

It is an investigation of my identity as a woman and how I can or need to place myself in this world.

What I am doing here is maybe more complex than you might think. For example, showing your body as a woman evokes a lot of emotions and thoughts. The female body can evoke strong sexual feelings in others. Sometimes that even leads to my body being in danger. In that respect, my body is far from neutral. It also isn’t free from judgments. These days, the body is subjected to an unrealistic beauty ideal. In some countries, it is normal for women to undergo plastic surgery in order to get the body shown in magazines. By the way, I am saying ‘body’ here, because it is as much the male body as the female body that is subject to this beauty ideal. A few years ago a documentary was released about men who have a six-pack constructed with plastic surgery.

But it gets even more complicated if women choose to represent themselves in an attractive way. Wearing make-up, short skirts or sexy lingerie is regarded as sending out a certain message. Women showing their bodies in a sexual way can be seen as offensive and misogynistic. And it’s not just the men who judge like this. On the contrary, women also judge. If you are not careful, you risk being considered a sex object forever. The sexual body is something complicated. Whether you are the one watching or being watched, the sexual body seems to be a sin. A sexual sin that is singled out as damaging to the body. Again, I say body here, because I feel this is something universal.

I do not want to trivialize the problems that women are experiencing as a result of this sexualization of the female body. I do think that the sexual male body also experiences problems but in a different way. The male sexual body is often seen as the active and dominating body that damages other bodies. But if the male sexual body is not dominating, we consider these men as weak or feminine. Moreover, we rarely talk about female sexuality and the female gaze on the male body. Bodies, whether it is male or female, are being judged on what they do or show or what they don’t do or don’t show. In any case, it just raises a lot of questions.

If I show my body in a sexual way, what does this mean? Do I objectify my body? Or can I also acknowledge my body is sexual?

And if I acknowledge that my body is sexual, what can we expect from the other who might experience sexual feelings? How should we communicate about these feelings?

I think in our current society these questions are very relevant. You do not even have to follow the news to know that, for example, the female body experiences a lot of (self) judgment and a lot of violence. It is maybe harsh or political to say this, and some people might feel offended by this, but for me as a woman, this is the reality I live in. This might be more of a personal thing, but I feel it’s my duty to say something about it, to start a dialogue, to create more understanding and to empower people to investigate their perspectives and more than anything else, their behavior.

The beauty of my art, I think, is that I investigate a subject from multiple angles. I do not only investigate how my body relates to this world. I investigate the male body as well, because I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about the male body. I would lie if I would say the origin of my work has nothing to do with a certain discomfort of how we treat each other. On the other hand, it is really more of an investigation into understanding where this discomfort comes from and to start a social dialogue. So please feel invited to talk with me, to mirror me, to tell me how my self-portraits, this text or my perspectives make you feel. Or even better, talk with your friends, with your partner – or anyone else you like to talk to – about your bodies, what they mean to you, how you would like them to be seen and treated and how this relates to the subjects you care about.


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