It was a perfect Southern California summer day. The sky was lavender blue and cloudless, and I was driving down Wilshire Boulevard toward the Pacific in my rented Beatle convertible, when a poster for vaginal surgery caught my eye at a traffic light. I was astonished. I had actually arrived at the age of 40 without ever thniking there might be something wrong with the appearance of my vagina. In fact, I had no idea, how exactely a perfect vagina ought to look (since I don’t watch porn movies). I liked mine the way it was. It provided pleasure to me (and my husband) and had been the entrance to the world for my children. Of course I had looked at it occasionally, but, overall, I approached it with sensation rather than giving it a critical look.
Opressed by the figures of beauty
In that moment, I realized that my vagina was possibly my only body part that I could say that about – the only part of my body to have escaped colonization until now. My hair, my eyebrows, my hips, and of course my belly had long been judged as too thin, to wide, and too fat. Devalued by constant streams of perfect images that surrounded me every day, images which I consumed like an addict devouring the very thing she wants to get away from. If only I tried a little harder, the pictures seemed to tell me, if only I were a little better, somehow different. With the right cream, they encouraged me, I could slip into skin, smooth and poreless like that of a doll’s. And Leonard Cohen’s sad voice seemed to come from the radio: „Clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty …“
My teenage years coincided with the era of the supermodels, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Claudia Schiffer. Larger than life, they invaded the wholesome world of our teengae bedrooms, and before our breasts even had a chance to sprout, we already knew exactly what perfect breasts had to look like. Perfect behinds, perfect legs, perfect mouths. And we quickly realized that such beauty was unattainable. Unattainable, like all the other ideals that men had created to tame women, starting from Immaculate Conception and the virgin birth.
After all, it was men who produced these female images and climbed the stairway to fashion paradise – Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, Herb Ritts. For centuries, the images of female beauty have been produced by men, and in fashion photography, the iconisation and idealization of women is producing ever more glossy effects. „The many variations of the female body shape are still largely ignored, despite many valiant attempts to transform the landscape,“ commented former deputy editor of British Vogue, Emily Sheffiled. Clearly, the fashion industry is dominated by men and not even Maria Grazia Chiuri’s sending catchy ‚We should all be feminists’ T-shirts down the catwalk can convince us otherwise. Only 14 percent of the 50 largest fashion brands are managed by women – and this, despite more than 70 percent of the fashion industry’s empoyees being women.
The desire to be desired
For a long time no one complained about fashion photography promoting an unrealistic female image. After all, fashion per se is about beautiful appearances and the construction of desires. Only that it was a man’s desire and women were bound to represent the object of that desire.
My first appartment consisted of one room with a window to the courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard there was a multi-story buidling. When it got dark, I could see people walking from their kitchens to their living rooms. One evening I got a call. A man’s voice said, „I can see you“. He did not say anything too concrete, so I did not know if he could, in fact, see me. Nevertheless, fear tightened my throat. I hung up and closed the curtains, making sure not to leave the slightest gap.
What does the fact that later that night, already half asleep, I imagined reopening the curtains and slowly undressing by the window say about me? The fact that in my head, a picture, in which I was the cool blonde in black underwear, the main actress in a man’s fantasy, began to take shape. The fact that, in my fantasy, I knew what I was to do, who I was to be, and that I found the thought arousing.
Perhaps at the time I had long internalized and deeply anchored the male gaze in my emotional life, resigning myself to the role of ‚being seen’ in a male world. My power was limited to being appealing – getting attention and recognition by turning myself into the object of desire. I had ‚over-identified’ with the role of a woman who „desires being desired“, as Princeton professor Diana Fuss, whose research concerns fashion photography and sexuality, would put it.
Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term ‚male gaze’ in 1975 to challange the supremacy of heterosexual men – and their viewing of women. Mulvey was not only concerned with the content, but also with a specific visual language and with ‚the gaze’ as an instrument of patriarchal control. It is no coincidence that in patriarchal cultures ‚proper’ women are taught to look down chastely, with the power of looking reserved for men.
Most fashion campains and editorials are still photographed by men and, of course, it is all about power. About the power of interpretation, sexual power and material power. Cara Delevigne recently said in an interview, „Many photographers do the job just because they want to sleep with young girls.“ Afterall, nobody was all that surprised when the number of sexual harassment complaints against Terry Richardson rose and became louder as his images spoke about sexual abuse often enough.
The context of hunt and submission is not even veiled when the caption under the photo reads „Shot by …“ or „Captured by …“. There are no boundaries here to men’s fantasies, not even when they involve violence and subjugation. Photographer Guy Bourdin depicted models as victims of violent crimes for footwear designer Charles Jourdan, Helmut Newton put a steak on Jerry Hall’s black eye, Jean Paul Goude locked Grace Jones into a cage naked. And in Dolce & Gabbana’s 2007 campaign, a woman is held to the ground in a staged rape, while Pop Magazine featured model Hailey Clauson being strangled by a man’s hand.
Learning by looking
„Given that this is an industry largely driven by women – our style, our self-expression, our bodies – what will it take for us to lead the charge?“ Lauren Sherman, Man-Repeller.
Yes, what would it take? First of all, of course, it takes women behind the camera. And there are actually more and more of them. Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed a certain hype around young female photographers like Harley Weir, Petra Collins, and Coco Capitán whose personal and distinctive view on women have raised the question of a new female look – a ‚female gaze’ which opposes the traditional male gaze – and what defines it.
Perhaps it’s just about a new aesthetic, inspired by the multitude of Instagram accounts, whre girls post pictures of their girlfriends sticking out their tongues with cheeky defiance, eating ice cream at the kitchen table with their hair undone, or pillow fighting in some sloppy T-shirt. But there might be more to it. Maybe it’s about the creation of images that don’t opress women, but instead encourage them to celebrate their bodies in all forms, phases and stages. Images that don’t turn women into objects, but in which they are recognizable as individuals, with their vibrant stories. Although she doesn’t like the way young female photographers are shoved into one drawer, 24-year-old Coco Capitán, who has already worked for Gucci and Paco Rabanne, sees the commonalities: „I think our photography shares a common interest in finding new ways of representing the female body and the female subject.“ Despite style difference, women salute other women with empathy. On set, comradeship develops instead of power hierarchies and tension.
Last November, Vogue Italia organized an exhibition in Milan (one of the artists being Julia Grossi, whose editorial „She is all There“ is featured in this issue of OE Magazine) by photo-editor Alessia Glaviano, who recognized a great change in the photographic landscape. „I believe that the most important thing that happened in the past five years in photography is how women have actually taken back the gaze. The act of claiming back the lense and redefining a female gaze toward other women becomes a subversive act. And it’s like a revolution.“
The question arising, however, is wether we are looking at a ‚re-conquest’ given that in reality this is wholly new territory. And there is still a lot to be done. It turns out that we are overwhelmed by the sharp reality of a female body. And while gang rape used as a shopping slogan doesn’t upset anyone, a drop of menstrual blood still has the power of violently arousing the minds.
When candian poet Rupi Kaur put a photograph of a fully dressed sleeping woman with a blood stain on her pyjamas on Instagram it caused a scandal.
During a vacation long ago, a friend of mine took a photo of me holding a large seashell I had found on the beach in front of my face. Just about where my mouth should be, there is the soft shimmering pink interior of the sea animal. A funny snapshot. And yet also a hiding game and act of self-revelation.
„A photograph is an impulse – and challange – to enquire, not a representation of the truth“ Charlotte Jensen writes in the introduction of her book ‚Girl on Girl – Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze.’ It would be naive to think that photographs of women can change the world, but we can learn a lot by looking.“