In the Nude

thoughts on nudity, art and identity

Historically in art, the female nude has been revered on canvas, in marble and on film - an inspirational muse channeling the artist’s innermost desires. By contrast, in modern society, the nude female body is either censored, sexualized, or vilified. These contradictions can empower  self worth and also lead to personal shame. At this intersection identity, nudity, and art collide.

The female body is central to many of the themes of the Femme Project. Ideas about body image, feminine identity, female sexuality and the right to control our bodies are important concerns to me personally, artistically and socially. Growing up, I had a natural comfort with my nudity, despite a fairly religiously conservative upbringing. I had no frame of reference for normal or different, only art and pornography as my education. 

Art taught me that a woman's nudity was powerful, intoxicating and elegant. My form and my curves were divine, so long as they fit a mold that could be reworked to idealism in paintings and airbrushed to perfection in Photoshop. Beauty was not granted to all, only reserved for a special few, but all women are held to a standard which expects them to aspire to a form of flawlessness.

Where art idolized the female nude, pornography corporealized it. Lips, breasts, vaginas and other secret regions of the female body were captured extremely close-up and, these days, in high definition. Pornography is  sensual and raw, erotic and grotesque. It said my nudity was an asset to be used, displayed, and consumed for the pleasure of others. However, though porn shows us everything, it essentially tells us nothing. Or perhaps worse, it tells us the WRONG things.

Surprisingly, today, female nudity remains a source of controversy. Nipples are inappropriate and censored; vaginas are misunderstood and misrepresented and almost never shown in their natural state. Nudity in art is tolerated, as long as it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable. Nudity in porn is expected, as long as it exudes sexuality and desire behind closed doors. As women, we are told that we need to love our bodies but we are taught to hate our bodies if they don’t meet an impossible standard. We hide and expose based on expectations of propriety. It is ok, in fact encouraged, for women to reveal their bodies without ever really understanding what it means to be women, what it means to be nude, and what implications may come from sharing our nude selves.

Nudity is our natural state. It is diverse, non-conforming and essential. To embrace our nudity is the ultimate leap of faith. When nudity is no longer taboo, we are free to explore an infinite world of possibilities. My journey as a woman has taught me that our nudity is something we need to own. It should not be the domain of male artists, frustrated or driven by their own desires. Nor should it be the domain of pornographers who seek to earn money by objectifying our bodies for the pleasure of others. And neither should it be something that politicians and religious leaders condemn as morally inappropriate for the safety of our society. These various players have tried to take possession of women’s nudity, to own it - every one of them using it to further their own needs or agendas. Their actions, words and characterizations marginalize women, making the struggle for true equality for women formidable. 

WE are the OWNERS of our nudity and in that conviction, we will eliminate the shame, embrace our identity and persevere in equality.

The Case of the Missing Period

Another week gone, another month over and another pack empty, and anxiously, something has gone missing. She's been with me since I was a blossoming young woman, her presence unmistakable and predictable every month. I've greeted her arrival with relief, even with exhilaration, despite her typically inconvenient timing and repeatedly painful presence.  During those few days each month I was reminded of my uniquely feminine function with what some would say was a spiritual link with Gaia and others might argue was my biblical cross to bear. But this week, last month and for several months before, my period has gone missing.

taking control

I've been taking some form of birth control for nearly 20 years. More than half of the sexually active women in the US use birth control. The exact numbers are up for debate, depending on the study you reference (Guttmacher Institute) or article you read (Washington Post), but the information is compelling. The reasons to use birth control go far beyond preventing pregnancy: advancing economic and educational opportunities for women, reducing risk of certain types of cancers, treatment of acne and menstrual pain, just to name a few. But as a newly independent woman in college, birth control represented a freedom to explore sex and sexuality on my terms, on a predictable schedule, and with the added benefit of keeping that pesky pimple or two at bay. What a glorious revolution!

Over the years, I've experimented with different types of birth control - different varieties of the pill and the vaginal ring - and my period came and went. Sometimes heavy, sometimes light but always there at the end of the cycle like clockwork. Prior to the brand of birth control pills that I currently use, I tried the ring. The freedom from the daily dosing of pills appeared to be a dream come true. However, after a few months, my period came with increasingly debilitating headaches and crippling pain. For two days out of the five, I was a crumpled ball of stabbing aches, pains and cramps. So back to the pill I went in the hopes of relief.

a new...hope?

My latest pill offered relief from the terrible period. Her recent visits had caused such unbearable anguish that the thought of a shorter, lighter flow was, again, music to my ears. For the first few months, she was a regular appearance, brief and predictable. As time progressed, her stay was more limited. Then, eventually, altogether scarce. No pangs of menstrual pain declaring her imminent arrival or the telltale spot of the impending flow appeared. My period has disappeared, and without so much as a goodbye.

It's not to say that I don't bleed. I have had a number of distressing moments in recent history with a sexual partner who, with each aggressive thrust and buck, seemed to free the deluge within my womb. Sounds a bit dramatic, but the confusing nature of her reappearance at a most inconvenient time, caused me great alarm. I no longer had control.

to be continued 

Now, in light of her regular monthly absence, so many questions bleed or not to bleed? Is it my body taking control? Is there something terribly wrong? Am I fucking with the natural order? Most of them remain unanswered and forgotten until those last 4 days of the pill pack when she should come knocking at my door. It is not uncommon to miss your period completely using this brand of pill, but the most vexing question remains: do I miss my period? She signified my role as a woman to the world but did not define me as one. There was a small beauty in the pain, offering me a reminder and an opportunity to rue or rejoice in my body's potential ability to create life. 

One day, she will leave me forever, a relic of time and age. But I can't help but wonder...have we shamed our periods into hiding, labeling them inconvenient, messy and repulsive? More questions for a curious case left unsolved.

Drawing Vaginas

thoughts on getting up close and personal with my lady parts 

What is it about vaginas that inspire fascination, disgust, lewdness and the occasional muffled giggle? Our lower female anatomy is the source of life and the source of intense controversy. In my opinion, no other body part is faced with such polarizing extremes and can make for such compelling artistic exploration. 

I spent a few hours this week drawing my pussy. Yup, that's right - vagina, vulva, lady bits, pussy - however you say it, it's not a dirty word, it's part of my body. Until college, I never really looked at it before. When I decided to start using birth control, I was approached by one of the specialists at Planned Parenthood to participate in a study of women using the pill for the first time. This included photographing my vagina at different intervals of time, glossy photos and all. That was the first time I ever really looked at my pussy.

As part of a creative exercise for myself, I cozied up in bed with a mirror and began to draw what my vulva looked like. Lips, opening, clitoris, folds of skin and strands of hair, the pussy envelopes a world of intrigue, desire, lust and life. It is incredibly challenging to sketch as well. Lines do better as smudges of dark recesses and mounds of light. Quick impressive strokes do more to signify it’s unique shape than deliberate, intentional edges. Drawing from life and self also reminds me of the impermanent nature of the subject before me. Subtle movements change the positioning of my body and the flow of light. I can see more or less with altered shadows and highlights. Individual details unique to me become more apparent - the slight protrusion of the outer labia, the curve of my public hair, the hidden head of the clitoris, the small mole just left of the perineum. The time spent examining myself in the mirror and translating my impressions to paper was quite spiritual.

Ever the documentarian at heart, I took a few photos of my process to post to Instagram. One of the photos exploded to 274 likes in two days (a personal record for me), as well as boosting my following by over 100 new followers. Is it pussy power or mere curiosity? Is it our inner goddess inspiring praise, or the creepers of the internet craving a free peek? A huge part of the Femme Project mission is to eliminate the stigma and shame around our bodies and our sex. To help women realize that being comfortable with your body, and ALL of the parts, is the first step towards empowerment. As women, our sexuality is ours. The more we control it, the more control we have over our place in society. 

And right now my most intimate self, my sex, is out there for the online world to see. Because that is what I choose to do.