When you see an image of a naked woman, what’s the first thing you think?
There was a time when it might have been almost any short word beginning with “s”: sin, shame, sleaze or sex – or, perhaps if you were a woman, sexism. Nowadays, nakedness is as likely to be associated with female liberation as it is with oppression.
From breastfeeding in public to protesting topless, women have happily been baring their breasts to the world. For the impartial observer, nudity must seem like a minefield: sometimes it’s feminist and at other times sexist. You could say that the whole thing has become like walking on eggshells. And, if you get it wrong, emotions – and accusations – run high.
What we have literally come to is a battle over breasts – and it’s a battle that took place this weekend in London as part of the annual Institute of Ideas Festival. The reputation of many a bare-breasted feminist was, it seems, under the spotlight.
For me, the battle over breasts isn’t just an academic debate, it’s personal. When my life-sized nude portrait went on display last year, it was not there to titillate the male viewer.
While it certainly was a painting of a nude woman, it was very different from the kind of nude you can find in the National Gallery. And, while it came from the hand of a male artist (Anthony Connolly RP), it was initiated and commissioned by myself: the model took charge. To other women I wanted to show that you can be confident in your own skin – your body is not something you need to fear or about which you should feel embarrassed.
And the message to those who see the female body in one way alone was beware: behind every naked woman is a real person, one who is thinking and alive – rather than someone you can treat simply as a body.
Nevertheless, according to some commentators, bare-breasted feminists like myself are misguided, fooled into giving men what they really want, while thinking that they are serving some greater purpose. In fact, in the annual Encaenia address, summarising the achievements of the University of Oxford and its various alumni (of which I am one), my “apparently” empowering portrait got a mention.
The choice of the word “apparently” says it all, seeming to cast doubt on whether this artistic endeavour really was, as I would term it, empowering. As if I – the woman in question – am not capable of judging for myself how I feel. As if what I myself think comes second to what other people – or, should I say, members of the opposite sex – might think.
Now, while a man certainly might look at female bodies in a certain way, should that really mean that women cannot use their own bodies for their own purposes? A man certainly might judge an image in a particular way but that should not stand in the way of a woman using her body to deliver her own message to other women. For it to do so would be to put the male way of viewing – the male gaze – ahead of the female.
Bare-breasted feminism is not just about women in the West, it also goes to the heart of the problem facing women in other parts of the world. In many countries, the daily life of women is entirely dictated by the way men “see”. It is the male way of viewing that overrides what a woman herself would like to do and how she herself witnesses the world.
If she wants to cool down, that comes second to concerns about how a man might view her uncovered legs and arms. If she wants to show off her personality, that is, once again, overridden by how a man might interpret it.
In certain states, and as we well know, women can be severely punished if their state of dress is “out of line”, a point that the artist Maryam Deyhim chose to emphasise in the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London last month. In other words, a woman is expected to dress in a way that responds to the sexual way in which a man might view her (ie, to cover up to avoid the man “sinning”). What she wants for herself is simply irrelevant.
For women living in such countries, it is the male point of view – the way in which a man sees the world around him, including the way he looks at womankind – that determines what a woman can and cannot do and how she should or should not dress.
Never mind what the woman herself thinks or feels, it’s all about what men might think or feel. Since “he” might interpret her behaviour in a sexual way, her freedom has to be restricted. The woman has to be constrained “for her own good”. It is only the male way of looking, thinking and feeling that matters.
Those who argue that naked feminists are doing nothing more than giving men what they want are falling into precisely the same trap: the trap of putting the male way of seeing the world (or, rather, the way men look at women) ahead of how women themselves see and experience the world.
To me, it is not the bare-breasted feminist that is inconsistent, but the person who condemns the lack of freedom for women in countries outside the West but, at the same time, disapproves of women in the West using their own bodies for their own purposes.
Now, of course, feminists are not naive. Freedom from the male gaze does not mean that a man cannot think or feel whatever he wants. Instead, it means that those thoughts and feelings should not have to dictate what a woman chooses to do. Ultimately, whether it is breastfeeding, protesting or posing nude to reach out to other women, why should what a man thinks have to stand in the way?
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” are the words most often associated with Voltaire, and words that should apply as much to physical acts as they do to freedom of speech.
Whether or not you agree with a woman who chooses to bare her breasts, you should defend to your death her freedom to use her body in the way she so chooses. To do otherwise would be to impose a constraint on women’s behaviour – one that has been constructed by the male way of viewing the opposite sex, and one that women elsewhere are struggling to escape.
Victoria Bateman is fellow in economics, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and fellow of the Legatum Institute, London.