Guest Post: Pictures At An Exhibition

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In her post Lifestyle Choices, orchidea painted a disturbing triptych of three images: a roommate, her daughter and that which she "will never become inured to." The first image was the memory of a roommate, a girl who stood 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 88 pounds: "a cushion of bones held together by flaps of skin." The center panel is her daughter, healthy and beautiful, fortunate to have a mother who celebrates her child's beauty. The third panel is blank, reserved for the images that orchidea wishes did not exist. Images that she hopes will not harm her daughter: young women, so thin that they no longer menstruate, who consider their quest for thinness a lifestyle choice.

One does not have to be anorexic and bulimic to abhor the sight and feel of soft flesh. The image of a naked body with generous thighs and rounded belly will cause uneasiness, if not distaste, as I learned when viewing the exhibition Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50. Unlike the svelte models he photographed for the covers of Vogue, these photographs portray the bodies of what Penn called "real women in real circumstances." A few photographs featured the taut stomach framed by pelvic bones which we have come to accept as a standard of beauty. But the visitors did not crowd together to study these "standard" nudes. Half circles formed in front of photographs of women who were sculptures of full breasts, rounded bellies, and undieted thighs. The flesh of these women rested in folds, soft and vulnerable, on planes of black velvet.

One of Irving Penn's NudesPenn was reputed to be a master of the chemical process, using overexposure and bleaching to reveal the hidden image. In a series of four phtographs, the model has been photographed while reclining on an upholstered chair, with an expanse of black velvet framing her torso. As I studied these pictures, I felt as though I was a midwife keeping watch in the middle of the night as a moonlit river gave birth to a goddess. Most of the viewers near me were silent, perhaps even reverent.

Most, but not all. As I studied the photographs, voices emerged from the viewers surrounding me: "Weird, huh?" "Oh my god". "This is just too gross." In another exhibition room, a young woman rushed past me towards the exit, announcing as she left: "I can't stand to look at this anymore!"

When Penn submitted these photographs for a symposium of modern photography to be judged by the venerable Edward Steichen, the older man put his arm around Penn's shoulders and said, "Forget the big nudes." For the sake of orchidea's daughter and all daughters, I am grateful that Penn chose to ignore the advice of old men.

Ex Animo: Thank you, Chris, for your words and the chance to place my own beside them. Thank you, generous Magdelena, for your encouragement and the link that led me to Chris.



7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Pictures At An Exhibition”

  1. As a woman who always feels too heavy, mainly because I really am, I often joke that I wish I could be bulemic but I am damn loud when I spew and the gross out factor is way too high. Perhaps, given the look at the role models of today, I shouldn’t even joke about it.

    Having a young daughter, I work hard to instill in her the need for a healthy body as opposed to a thin one. Luckily she is a naturally athletic child who happens to love good food, real food.

    I only hope her view of what it means to be a woman and sexy and desirable (at the appropriate age, of course) is not measured by pounds but by attitude and smarts.

    As for me, at the end of the day, I prefer most of my curves just the way they are. And still I find myself in the mirror lifting here and tucking there.

  2. Tess:

    Your daughter is lucky to have a mother who encourages her child to love her body and take good care of it. But it really takes a lot of willpower, not to skip meals, but to refuse to ingest all the messages that would have us believe that we cannot enjoy our sexuality unless we are thin. And those messages are not limited to the magazines or movies. The messages are echoed by coworkers, sales clerks, and strangers.

    The Erotic Readers Association posted a discussion on Body Image. One young woman described her attempts to downplay these “thin only” messages as follows:

    When I don’t pick up a magazine or watch a mainstream movie or go shopping at the mall, I start to feel beautiful. When I read books or erotic stories and I surround myself with friends and people that are accepting and love me, I start to feel gorgeous and totally sexy like suddenly my swagger isn’t just for me anymore. This all halts the instant I go into Abercrombie and I ask the bulimic size 0 girl with her highlighted blonde hair and her tanned skin and bony knees for a size 10 Short in their jeans, my physical and sexual worth washes down the drain along with my dignity…Men my age are just so judgmental and grossly idealistic. If you’re not a size two, it’s like you’re not worth a second glance.

    How did we get to the point where a healthy young woman is ashamed to wear a size 10 jeans?

    Thanks, Tess. Take good care of yourself and your daughter.

  3. Abhoring the flesh is only one way we deny true femininity and in focusing on the visual we kill the sublime sensuality that defines eroticism. Impoverished ideas and mentalities have strangled the life from the curves of freedom so that women starve for feeling, waste away from lack of love, primarily love for themselves. There’s a profound dignity and strength in saying no to such anorexic beliefs and I thank you Kochanie for this exquisite reminder:

    As I studied these pictures, I felt as though I was a midwife keeping watch in the middle of the night as a moonlit river gave birth to a goddess. Most of the viewers near me were silent, perhaps even reverent.

    That is because you are a shamanic midwife ensuring that the lifeblood of wisdom endures.

  4. Kochanie,

    I too recall orchidea’s words and how I was stirred by the austere mental image of the blank panel and what it represents. While I cannot share in the weight of being the mother of daughters and what lays in wait within that empty space, as women I think we all know far too well the pain of looking in the mirror and hating what we see staring back at us. It would be easy to blame old men like Steichen and countless others like him who have the temerity to dictate the definition of ‘the beautiful feminine form’, but it is this very idea which has enslaved all of us. Why must we allow our self image, self esteem, and sometimes our very lives to be held in bondage by these same old men? Yes, my question is rhetorical because we all know the answer. Perhaps one day we will shed those chains, and perhaps men like Penn will help lead the way, yet I somehow believe that the true revolution must begin with us, and with mothers – Mothers who have the wisdom and power to teach their daughters that they are all beautiful.

    I feel somewhat out of place here, and I hope I haven’t overstepped, but please allow me to thank you Kochanie for such inspiring and thought provoking words.

  5. That is because you are a shamanic midwife ensuring that the lifeblood of wisdom endures.

    And that’s why I support the writers whose words contain that wisdom.

    Thank you, Magdelena.

  6. While I cannot share in the weight of being the mother of daughters…

    nina, in our lives we have many mothers and daughters, fathers and brothers. The understanding of what it means to be human was given to us by all the men and women who lived before, and we are responsible for passing that knowledge to those yet to be born, whether they are our children or our neighbor’s children. And that is precisely what you, Lena, Tess, orchidea and Chris are doing.

    You have not overstepped, nina, nor are you out of place. In fact, I think you are in the right place at the right time.

    Thank you.

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