Is the human body something to be ashamed of? Certainly, we have rules to govern how much skin one can show on the street, but should it be regarded as taboo for a subject of art? I think intent and taste are so important to determining appropriateness.
There’s a huge discussion going on in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Models like Cameron Russell are detailing experiences they’ve had with producers and agents who coerced them into doing sexually explicit photos or outright being sexually assaulted under the pretense of work. It can be extremely tricky, especially when a photo shoot can involve the expressed intent of creating provocative or sensual imagery, either for marketing a product by visually associating it with sex appeal or revealing the human body for the sake of beauty in art.
When planning a photo shoot that might involve any degree of showing skin, I feel it is best to fully disclose and discuss it before the photo shoot. Where the shadiness begins is when a model shows up on a set expecting to pose fully clothed and finding only sheer lingerie or less. Of course she has a right to be upset and concerned!
There are plenty of models available who are willing to pose nude. One need only search for them online.
Nude model Leila Lowfire described the artistic appeal of nudity in photography, saying, “Nudity is something very simple, there are no big accessories, no fancy clothes, just a body and light. As the model, you can only communicate through looks and poses. As the photographer only through angles and light. What makes the art in the end is when all those things blend in and create a certain mood.”
A photographer should not, in my opinion, try to persuade a model to take her clothes off and do nude photography if she’s never done it before and hasn’t had time to consider all of the ramifications. It’s just creepy.
Seasoned nude and fetish models have made the conscious decision to bare all. Trying to turn a TFP fashion shoot into a nude shoot is just asking for trouble. The model will likely sleep on it and then wake to contact the photographer requesting that he delete the images to avoid embarrassment or social stigma. Where it becomes confusing it when the purpose of the photo shoot is to do something vaguely “sexy”, then trying to push boundaries on the fly. I’ve had models suggest doing nudes in such scenarios before, but here’s the thing: I didn’t pressure them with the idea out of left field — they made the decision of where, when and what to do.
I think many people today do not have a problem with showing their bodies as long as it is THEIR decision and EMPOWERS them rather than being a violation type of situation. For example, someone sharing a selfie sent to someone special that was never meant to be distributed for mass consumption. I once had a woman who requested to do tasteful nudes because her ex-boyfriend had playful, naked photos of her that she did for him that he was then threatening to post online as revenge for breaking up with him. We did the photo shoot and she preemptively shared these beautiful, artfully created images that were more sensual than revealing. Why? To get in front of his threat to exploit her and remove his ammunition to shame her, so to speak.
When doing a photo shoot where the subject is disrobing, I believe professional photographers have a duty to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I will turn my head and body to allow someone to position herself, especially if the image is implied (nipples and groin covered) rather than full frontal. It’s a matter of respect. Especially if the photographer is a man, the focus needs to be on capturing the photo, not getting a free show and drooling over someone. I’m usually too busy focusing on making sure the lighting and posing portrays her in the best way since it is a waste of time and effort to just snap away on photos that won’t make the final edit.
Look, if I just want to see naked girls, I can go online where it is difficult to avoid them popping up unexpectedly. There are plenty of Harvey Weinsteins out there who use cameras as props to convince young women to give them a cheap thrill. As one of my buddies once put it: “A trip to the strip club with souvenir photos”.
I do love it when I find a model who has no problem doing edgy work because it is usually interesting work to view. But I think it is reasonable for her (or him) to expect a minimum level of professionalism during a photo shoot. Bottom line: “Weinsteining” is more about power than sex. Using one’s position of authority to convince models or actresses that it is actually in their best interest to do things they’d rather not is about the thrill of seeing what one can get away with.
Knowing the decent or morally correct actions to take requires empathy with those impacted, self-awareness and self-discipline to put the needs of others ahead of the wants of oneself.
Men and women were both born naked. Society, however, mostly reacts to female flesh. Men can walk around topless and nobody gives a shit, even if some Bubba pushing 300 pounds is showing off a C cup of bouncy breasticles. A flat-chested woman steps outside without a bra or shirt on? Obscene! Someone arrest her immediately!… How silly. Ironically, on television and on film, naked women are almost mandatory to sell tickets, yet male frontal nudity is still taboo.
There are other inconsistencies. The traditional cheerleader outfit is designed to be sexy, often prominently showcasing a high school girl’s legs in a super short skirt, occasionally accompanied by sleeveless tops with plunging necklines. Downright wholesome. Yet the same schools will send a girl home and force her to change clothes if her choice of attire gives us a glance of her bra strap or confronts the horrible reality that she dared to bring her breasts to school! Again, nobody cares if a dude peels on some skin tight jeans that bulge in the front.
Of course, if we’re going purely by how much flesh is showing, explain to me why a bikini can be perfectly acceptable to wear on a public beach yet someone will absolutely freak if the word “lingerie” is used, despite it often covering more skin than a two-piece swimsuit. Probably the context: Lingerie is the gift-wrapping used to present the sexualized flesh. When a woman greets her husband in the home after a hard day at work and she’s wearing a nightie, the subtext is that the article of clothing that conceals the flesh will soon be wadded up on the bedroom floor.
Maybe I just have too open of a mind, but I think American society could get along just fine with unrepressed displays of the human body. I find it incredible how some people act as if the flesh is vulgar when this is the way we enter the world, presumably the way God made us. Shame is a human construct. Eve’s bare flesh was just another amenity of paradise until she was tempted by “the snake”. Nudity is bad, right? Yet they’ll feast on a visual diet of violence and cruelty in popular culture. Our capacity to inflict horrific mauling upon another’s body will be celebrated as downright heroic in cinema and political propaganda.
Depictions of the bare human body are not limited to Pornhub and HBO, but there are glaring differences between Europeans and Americans, who could be considered “prudes” by comparison.
In his travel blog, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, the author states the obvious: “Europeans are, compared to Americans, more comfortable with their bodies and with sex.” He gives examples of this across Europe, then recalls: “In (American) culture, a popular children’s TV host is routed into obscurity after being seen in an adult theater. A pop star dominates the news media for days after revealing a partially obscured breast for a fleeting moment during a football halftime show. During one particularly moralistic time, statues of classical goddesses gracing our nation’s Capitol were robed. And, because my travel show includes naked statues, it actually has to be shown only after 10 p.m. in some American towns… I’m not saying we should all run around naked and have Playboys lying around in the doctor’s waiting room. But I have a hunch that children raised in America, where sex is ‘dirty,’ are more likely to have problems with sex and their bodies than those in Europe. I suspect there is more violence associated with sex here than there.”
Bingo. I really think he’s on to something there.
Compare the US to the extremely conservative parts of the Middle East where women feel societal pressure to wear Burkas to cover their bodies from head to toe. I don’t want to generalize and portray all Middle Eastern women as oppressed and all Middle Eastern men as violent religious extremists. However, it seems clear that repressing sexuality causes truly deviant behavior in other ways. I’d much rather live in a world where the human body “is considered a divine work of art worth admiring openly,” as Stevens puts it, than one where wearing a skirt in public earns a female imprisonment.
American conservatives, in particular, play this game that is a vicious, unhealthy cycle of desire and repression. I once had bosses at a television network, all staunch Republicans who would ogle the babes delivering the day’s propaganda on Fox News. The content on our “men’s channel” was strictly PG-13 with shows that include bikini girls and attractive females working out in the gym. The execs would endlessly pivot back and forth between wanting the models on our TV shows to be way sexier and then reeling their sex appeal way back. It was positively schizophrenic, the result of guilt caused by satisfying what they craved to see yet society telling them was morally wrong to indulge in viewing.
Remove sexuality completely from the conversation and there’s the pure functionality of clothing (or lack thereof). Wearing fewer clothes in the summertime makes absolute sense from a physical comfort standpoint. It’s not always about giving a show to titillate someone. We always seem to find ways to MAKE it about that, however.
The fact that many Americans freak out when a mother nurses an infant in public says it all. There’s nothing sexual about the act of feeding a newborn, yet there is a bare breast just begging the rest of us to get turned on while we gawk at it. How immature and silly! Quit staring and mind your own damn business.
As a photographer, I often see images in the popular culture where the female model will incorporate the familiar “hand bra” in an image. Her nipples are covered, yet the breasts are still eroticized by being in view from the front, the side, or bottom under a shirt. My opinion is that this is more sensual to behold than topless models strewn across page two of a British newspaper. My theory is that the “naughty bits” are left to the imagination of the viewer. Those partially obscured breasts will almost always be perkier in my imagination than they will be in a photograph.
Good taste often has to do with intent. Whereas a male photographer and female photographer may have a sexual chemistry going back and forth between them (and I guess, the same for a lesbian photographing a female model), the shoot can take on a wholly different vibe when two heterosexual women tackle nude photography. I endeavor to find a middle ground between the model feeling safe and there still being an electricity between us.
Nude photos of Pop star Rihanna have been published with such regularity that they fail to intrigue me anymore. They’re simply beautiful expressions of her physicality rather than elicit objects of desire. Consider that one of the biggest news items in recent times was “the fappening”, when dozens of actors and singers had their iCloud photos hacked and their personal nude smartphone phones proliferated across the web without their consent. What made the images so in demand was not the nudity itself but rather the fact that it was available to consume when these women desperately wanted to keep them private. Modesty was not the issue, obviously, since they had playfully taken these photos, but rather, fear for their livelihoods as sex symbols. It’s not fair to say they were “asking for it” by doing the photos; that’s just as reprehensible as suggesting that a woman was responsible for being raped if she wore clothes that showed off the attractiveness of her body when she went out to the nightclub.
My personal opinion is that children, in particular, should be shielded from potentially damaging displays of sexuality that their minds are not yet prepared to assimilate, the same as parents should monitor and limit the amount of violence their impressionable eyes consume in popular entertainment.
Deviant sexual behavior is caused, in part, by shaming the human body early in life. Like the teenager who will conspire to get drunk if parents strictly forbid any exposure to the sins of alcohol, we naturally gravitate toward whatever things we treat as abnormal or forbidden. There must be healthier ways to grow up with a positive self-image of our bodies than being taught that nudity equals shame.