DEFINING BEAUTY: TOWARDS A NEW PARADIGM
Laurie Toby Edison, Debbie Notkin


Photography is about seeing and being seen. In the contemporary age, we take the pictures we see at least as seriously as we take the living evidence of our own eyes; therefore, which pictures get shown, and where, has an enormous effect on how we see the world. Who is seen and who is invisible? Who has the right to see, and who has the right to be seen? And finally, what is beauty and who defines it?

A photographer has the opportunity to make the invisible visible, to reveal things (including beautiful things) which the culture denies people the option to see. Many would claim that the culture does not have the power to deny the option to see, it can only deny the opportunity. We disagree, because we believe that what you are forced to see every day constrains how you look at the rest of what you see, should you even be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to examine generally undistributed images.

Photography is an especially powerful tool for social change because it carries with it a profound sense of reality. The photographs we see every day become a central part of our social and psychological reality. Our societies are flooded with images from advertising and media, a constant barrage of images using beauty to persuade, to sell, to influence. Most of these photographs support the social and commercial status quo; social change work is the exception rather than the rule. The Japanese photographer Miyako Ishiuchi and the American photographers Dorothea Lange and Roy deCarava are good counterexamples, artists who have used their photographs as social commentary and as a force for social change.

We find that carefully chosen and placed text enhances the ability of the visual artist to effect social change. Just as the dominant culture controls what we usually see, it controls what we usually are told about what we see. Thus, we come to fresh images with embedded preconceptions. Appropriate text can provide an intellectual, emotional, cultural and/or historical context which clarifies the artists' intentions and helps viewers' shift their perceptions away from entrenched paradigms.

Pictures of bodies, most particularly women's bodies, are constantly seen everywhere in the popular culture. However, the bodies portrayed represent only a very tiny percentage of the real bodies which inhabit the world. In this way, the media deny the reality of most real bodies, while they simultaneously artificially inflate the importance and value of the ones they choose to showcase. They constrain the definition of beauty by showing us a small cross-section, labeling it beautiful, and making everything else invisible.

As a result, people with bodies that do not resemble the ones which are constantly displayed come to doubt, at a minimum, their own importance, frequently their own place in the society, and usually their own claim on any kind of beauty. Thus, effectively used, the perceived reality of photography has a disturbingly powerful effect on how people see, even something as basic as how we see ourselves.

In this context, our projects ÷ Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (Books in Focus, 1994) and Familiar Men: A Book of Male Nudes (work in progress) ÷ represent efforts to increase the range of people who can be seen, to increase the opportunity of other people to see these otherwise hidden images, and to open up new areas in which beauty can be recognized and appreciated.

Both projects consist of photographs in black and white with accompanying thematic text. The photographer, Laurie Edison, finds that black-and-white photography best expresses the beauty and power she sees in the human body because it most successfully conveys subtle textures and masses. The editor, Debbie Notkin, has learned that contextually appropriate text serves to help viewers find a stable place to stand from which they can learn to see new work in new ways. Thus, the text for Familiar Men is radically different from the text for Women En Large, as described in more detail below.

Edison usually photographs people in their own homes, to produce images which emphasize each person's own sense of uniqueness, as well as one photographer's perception. The familiar objects of the models' lives give them additional reality and a sense of their history.

For centuries if not forever, the male gaze, men's view of the world, has constrained most cultures, including both Japanese and European-American cultures. Historically, we see this constraint, among other places, in the traditional gaze of the male artists whose works dominate the art world, and whose images have defined how women and men were seen. More recently, this has been substantially replaced by the male gaze of popular culture and the media, which places different (and perhaps even more substantial) limitations on which women are allowed to be seen and how they are portrayed. Both women and men find it horrifyingly easy to internalize these strictures, self-censoring how we see both ourselves and others.

Women En Large
Women En Large, our first collaboration, is both a book and a gallery exhibition. Some of the photographs, with accompanying text pieces, have been exhibited in Japan at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in Michiko Kasahara's wonderful show Gender: Beyond Memory, as well as across North America and in Europe. The book has been purchased all over the world, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to Germany to South Africa. We have been both amazed and deeply moved by how much the messages of the photographs and text succeed in crossing deep cultural boundaries.

Fat women are big; they are hard not to notice. Nonetheless, there is a particular way in which our culture(s) don't see fat women. As a photographer, Laurie Edison didn't think about the artistic possibilities of their bodies until she began working with Debbie Notkin on issues of fat oppression and size acceptance. Then she began paying attention to fat women's bodies (something most people never do). She was thrilled as an artist to discover that fat women have marvelous curves and masses distributed very differently from thin women, in aesthetically fascinating ways. Thin women are also beautiful, but we are already familiar with the variety of thin women's bodies' shapes. Fat women have a greater variety and abundance of shapes.

In periods where women begin to take on power, such as (in the US) the 1920's and from 1970 to the present, the ideal woman (as conveyed by available imagery) becomes thinner and thinner. The obsession with "slimming" and dieting has become more and more pervasive in the US, and we are told the same phenomenon is observable in Japan as well.

In Victorian times in the West, larger women were the epitome of beauty. But when women begin to become powerful, conventional society, as directed through the male gaze, requires them to become smaller and smaller, and thus more juvenile in form, to be considered beautiful or even worthy of the gaze. This is not a coincidence. The body image conflicts, the self-hatred, and the obsessions thus created contrive to make women far less powerful.

Just as the fat woman is rendered invisible by the male gaze, the female nude is forced into omnipresence, though its form is strictly constrained. In fact, in the French impressionist period, women painters were barred from life drawing classes, regardless of the model's gender. In that period, "nude" came to mean "female nude" in Western culture.

As the image of beauty has shifted through the centuries, fat women have become visible in some periods of Western art, mostly as feminine icons rather than real women. Not only Renoir and Degas, but many artists created nude images that obscured the real fat woman, replacing her with a created stereotype generated to fulfill particular cultural requirements. These works depict romanticized and idealized fat women; the artists seem to have had little interest in conveying the reality of fat women, and no interest in conveying whatever power their subjects might embody.

In contrast, we have the works of the 17th and 18th Century Dutch painters, who tended to portray real people, including fat people (and to whom Edison's work occasionally pays homage). In this century in our culture, fat women have been invisible as individuals. They have not had the right to be seen, except as the grotesque and the other.

The male gaze changes its image of beauty over the decades, over the centuries, and from culture to culture, but it seems to be committed to the concept that there can be only one kind of beauty at a time. When women with large breasts are fashionably beautiful, women with small breasts cannot be. When short black hair is the ideal, there is no place for beautiful women with long blonde hair.

Both of our projects stand in opposition to this conceptualization: We do not believe that beauty is scarce. We do believe that the most interesting ways to examine beauty are by looking at beauty in difference, at the vast range of sizes, shapes, and varieties that can embody beauty. Another way to say this is that we refuse to give up our right to see what we see; we refuse to be told what there is for us to see and what there is that we should not see. And, once we see something, we claim the right to show others, in words and pictures, how we see it, to provide an opportunity to counter the dominant imagery.

As a thin woman photographing fat women, or as a woman photographing men, Edison certainly brings the gaze of the "other," but she is still one of a very few artists who brings an empathetic and inclusive gaze to bear on a subject that the conventional gaze ignores almost completely.

We studied the stereotyped female nudes of this and previous centuries: the figures we see repeated over and over again in museums, in advertising, in movies and on television, in books, and on T-shirts. In the western world, their poses have remained consistent for more than a century, although the "preferred" size of the women has varied with time. Nineteenth-century salon painting, with its poses ranging from passive to limp and attitudes from tender to evil, has had an especially strong influence on the popular Western nude.

The sheltered woman in her garden, the "angel in the house," the sleepily-passive Victorian maiden, the Calvin Klein ad: all are examples of nude images charged by our culture and our history. These women carry coded messages in every curve, pose, smile, every tilt of the hip or head. They carry the baggage of gender politics and sexual dynamics across the centuries.

None of the familiar images were ones Edison chose to replay. Sometimes, instead, she takes those "classic" poses and subverts them by replacing the traditional figure with a beautiful, individual fat woman, too real to be anyone's simple stereotype. A fat woman in a classic Bauhaus nude or a Playboy setting recognizably replaces a familiar icon of "beauty." By doing that, the photographer can encourage the viewer to see her differently, perhaps to see her in the context of beauty for the first time. This is, of course, only one way to use photography to undermine the dominant vision. Subversion can take many other forms, such as the constructions of Cindy Sherman or the classical formalism of Robert Mapplethorpe.

In creating the text for Women En Large, Notkin found that certain subjects simply had to be addressed: no photograph can explain how the health information about fat is distorted and misused, nor can a photograph tell the whole story about how chronic dieters are harming themselves, or what self-acceptance feels like. Photography illuminates beauty; text gives viewers a context in which they can comprehend that beauty.

A collection of photographs of beautiful and powerful fat nude women makes these women visible. The combination of text with the photographs asserts their right to be seen by themselves and others.

Photography in a Social Change Community
Women En Large owes its existence to the fat activist community in the United States and the work that we did in the 1980s and early 1990s in body image workshops. We decided that we would make the photographs and text into a book because we felt that in the long run, a book would be the most effective tool for social change. Books stay available, in stores and libraries, and can be shared or given as a gift - always ready to change lives.

Our experience in creating the book was molded by the community outreach that characterized the entire Women En Large experience. We were not working just with each other. We made a point of collecting reactions from models, from audiences at slide shows and presentations, from fat activist organizations. The ongoing feedback over the almost eight years from our initial panels on body acceptance to the publication and distribution of Women En Large was incredibly enriching and effective. What people said they wanted to see and their reactions to the work profoundly influenced the photographs and the text. In fact, many sections of the text are primary-source essays from models and other interested parties: offering voices beyond our own, with a range of experiences, perceptions, and discoveries.

As a result of the work we did with Women En Large, lives have been changed. Some social change work is difficult and wearing, because the changes are so hard to see. Not so with Women En Large: from the very beginning, women and men, thin and fat, have come up to us and said how much seeing women like themselves, or like their mothers, sisters, spouses and friends, helped them to change their lives. Many of the models for Women En Large were inspired to volunteer for the book after seeing photographs in gallery or slide shows.

Since the book has been published, we have been deluged with stories from women who have been profoundly affected by the work. Whether we hear from a woman who decides she is free to wear a bathing suit for the first time in her adult life, a recovering anorexic who prevents herself from a relapse by looking at our pictures, someone who gives herself permission to have a romantic life, one who successfully confronts a workplace bully who was harassing her about her size, or any of a multitude of others, each one adds to our store of confidence that the time and energy we have put in has been well spent indeed.

The Photographer and the Model
If the goal is to photograph real people and capture the beauty and power of reality, the photographer cannot simply bring a model into a studio, set a pose, and start to take pictures. In this context, the photographer/model relationship is very fluid. For the photograph to convey some sense of the model's essence, the model and the photographer must work together. The model must feel safe and comfortable enough to express herself (or himself), and the artist must be relaxed enough to compose, suggest, and even direct the model's poses. Edison is very careful never to ask a model to assume a pose or position that does not feel natural.

Photographing women and men is, Edison finds, both similar and different. Women are used to being the object of gaze. Even if they have never posed themselves, the concept is totally familiar. And they are likely to perceive the gaze of a woman photographer as more comfortable and less judgmental. Certainly, most of the women she photographed were nervous, but part of being a good portrait photographer is putting people being photographed at ease.

Men, on the other hand, have little or no experience with being the object of gaze of the "other." As a group, they find it far more difficult to relax than women. The gaze a man is accustomed to is the gaze of other men, evaluating his walk, his swagger, his manliness, his threat, his place among men. They especially lack women's cultural associations and familiarity with being photographed in the nude.

But they too seem to find a female photographer's gaze more comfortable and less threatening. Most of the men Edison has photographed did indeed relax enough to work comfortably.

None of the models for either project were professionals. They felt that the work was important, and that the way Edison took these photographs was life-changing. The women include molecular biologists, radio producers, au pairs, librarians, poets, photographers, housewives, college professors, musicians, dancers, and paleontologists. The men are college professors, rock musicians, aerospace workers, bookstore owners, warehouse workers, computer consultants, retired businessmen, artists, dancers, disability activists, museum directors, tattoo artists, and more.

Familiar Men
Our current work in progress, Familiar Men: A Book of Male Nudes, explores some of the same territory and some new territory. "Beauty" in the male-dominated culture is considered "feminine." Disconnecting beauty from gender and applying the word/concept to ordinary men causes great discomfort and confusion and begins a redefinition of masculinity. Once again, we are using a combination of images and text to explore beauty in difference.

The male nude was considered the icon of beauty for many centuries. Historically in art, men have been overwhelmingly represented clothed. Even in the European Renaissance, despite the reemergence of classic Roman and Greek models of nudity, the clothed male figure still dominates.

By the end of the 19th Century the male nude rapidly disappears from Western art. For much of the 20th Century it has been expressed mostly in homoerotic art and nudist photography. One result of this history is that we have a very limited intellectual and emotional vocabulary when we view nudes of real men.

In the United States, male beauty is even more narrowly defined than female beauty. Once again, when Edison looks at men she see a far wider range of beauty than the male gaze has ever acknowledged. On the other hand, when she photographs men, she can only photograph them as "other," as a female gaze claiming the territory that the privileged reserve for themselves, viewing them in a way that most male-identified artists choose not to see, depicting them in a way that the culture does not wish them to be seen. Part of our goal with this project is to offer a redefined masculine aesthetic, a cross-section of how a wide variety of men look as individuals, when photographed in the same way that Edison photographs women.

Since the end of the last century, when the word "nude" came to mean the unclothed female body, the male nude has been largely unexplored artistic territory. When we see male nudes in the United States, they are primarily thin, buffed, white, and young. We have no visual access to the bodies of men we are familiar with, the skin colors and textures and shapes and postures of the real men we see every day.

Overwhelmingly, the image of masculinity in the media is narrow. Because of its position of privilege and dominance, masculinity is like air: you only notice it when it isn't there, or there isn't enough. Everything else is measured against it while it remains assumed and unexamined. The general discourse takes it for granted and moves on.

The late 20th century has become the age in which everything is commoditized and sexualized, and the male body is no exception. Although much attention has been paid to the objectification of the female body and the unreality of the model as opposed to the real women who emulate her, the male model is equally unreal. Thus real men are also exposed to a standard which they cannot meet, in their own eyes, in each others' eyes, or in the eyes of women.

Because of the different sexual roles of men and women in the culture, "nudity" itself varies with gender. In images of women, any body revelationöthe curve of a shoulder, the hint of an upper thighöis perceived as nudity. Men, on the other hand, are not nude until the penis is revealed. The male bodies we see, nude or otherwise, are "armored" by the stereotypes of culturally approved presentation.

That "armor" has three distinct cultural effects. First, it serves the classic function of armor: it protects men from other men. Second, it is a barrier against vulnerability, open-ness, and even beauty (attributes which are socially reserved for women). Third, it serves to reinforce the culturally-accepted stereotype that images of naked men, in certain contexts, can and sometimes should be actively threatening.

Because of a combination of other social factors and presumptions of threat, we find fundamental differences in how viewers perceive and react to the photographs of female and male nudes. One of the most important is that male nudity, in some contexts, is frightening.

As a real-life example, Edison was walking home in San Francisco late one night, and a door opened. She briefly saw a nude woman illuminated in the light. She walked on at the same speed, pleased with the opportunity to see something very lovely. If the figure in the doorway had been a man, she would have walked away very quickly.

Although most of the armored men of mainstream media are not naked, their invulnerable stance underlines the division between images of men and women. By making all men the same, the distinct message "If one man is dangerous, all men must be dangerous" is sent. Such messages are very useful social control mechanisms. For instance, in the US, men are privileged but African-Americans are oppressed. Making African-American men appear frightening intensifies confusions about gender and race, and hinders attempts to ameliorate either racism or sexism.

Many of Edison's nudes lack the obvious cues of armor, of role, of status, of class. Men's identities are commonly tightly linked to what they do, their work. Unclothed men can easily lose their visual identities without the occupation and class markers that clothing encodes.

Some viewers immediately appreciate that level of reality. Others are simply disoriented, and unsure how to react. Some people find the men feminine. Men who are comfortable seem vulnerable, and some people identify all vulnerability with the feminine. Once past these reactions, viewers are open to learning how to see a redefined, broader masculinity. And, as with the fat female nudes, many people see echoes of themselves and/or of the men they love.

Creating anchor text for Familiar Men seemed for a while to be a thorny puzzle, because the armoring of men extends beyond the visual. As a group, men (at least American men) are far less comfortable writing about themselves and their own experience than women are. Notkin solicited essays from all models, as she did with Women En Large, and the many fine essays she received all seemed somehow to skirt the central topics, while the fat women's essays were frequently directly on target.

However, we have now developed a collaborative method of combining shorter pieces of text ÷ both by models and from the historic and current written work and popular culture ÷ which inform aspects of masculinity. These short pieces of text are being integrated artistically with small inset photographs, taken by Edison from the larger canvas pictures. Thus, the text focuses on the real words of real men, in a twenty-first century style, layering old information about how we are constrained to seeing masculinity with new information promoting a wider vision.

Because real male nudes are almost as invisible as naked fat women, and because writing about masculinity is scattered throughout the library rather than concentrated in a "Men's Studies section," we started out with a great deal to learn about representations of male nudity, masculinity, and people's reactions to them ÷ and that learning does not cease to flower, grow, and astonish us.

These photographs show real men in their own environments - old, young, fat, thin, diverse in race, ability, ethnicity and class - familiar and unfamiliar men in unarmored portraits. Through these photographs, masculinity can be perceived broadly, differently for different men, depending on age, race, class, context, individuality. Specifically, the portraits discard, as much as possible, any external standards and definitions; thus, they attempt to allow a definition of masculinity to arise on its own terms, from the men who inhabit it.

We are still exploring these edges and implications of masculinity as Edison continues to take photographs for Familiar Men and we talk to men about their lives and their reactions to the photographs.

Conclusion
A nude is not just a "skin" picture. The photographer is working with the body's underlying musculature and configuration. And of course, as with all photography, the first thing being photographed is the light : the play of light and darkness, reflections across the human figure, light's entrance into the frame, the way light reflects, illuminates, or disguises articles in the background, the way light shapes the face.

A nude portrait is a photograph of a person, where the body as well as the face conveys an essential sense of self. Most of us tend to separate the face from the body, forgetting that our faces are a part of our bodies.

A suite of nude portraits with coordinated text provides a depth of experience for the viewer which allows each individual to draw upon the aspects of the art to reach personal conclusions which are not predetermined either by the culture or by the separate elements of the work.

Underlying the concepts of a female gaze and beauty in difference is our initial question: Who has the right to define visibility, let alone beauty? It is only because we have been so overwhelmed by the dominance of the popular culture's gaze that we have accepted the primacy of any gaze other than our own.

A definition of beauty that is entirely interior and personal is deeply radical. "I am beautiful because I choose to see and present myself as beautiful; your opinion is not at issue." In this context of the individual gaze, body image becomes more intricate and powerful. Body image can (and perhaps appropriately should) be defined by including how we feel as well as how we look: sensation, tactility, health and well-being, all play a significant part in an autonomous body image. Shifting the central concept of "body image" from who has the right to see and be seen, to who feels good and presents themselves as looking as good as they feel, is as radical an act as can be conceived of at the beginning of the 2000s.

If we imagine a body image that is individual and not determined by others, that relies on difference rather than sameness, and that is sensual as well as visual, the entire universe shifts. In the new universe, everyone has the right to determine her or his own level of visibility and only his or her own, no one else's.

Our work allows both the people Edison photographs and the people who regard the art to define their own visibility, and to expand their vision of beauty.




Laurie Toby Edison
P.O. Box 77370
San Francisco, CA 94107
Email: Laurie Toby Edison







Last Update
July 26, 2002


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