In 2012 I was asked to take off my clothes for money. I said yes.
The project was produced by a major Philadelphia presenter, Fringe Arts, and funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The piece had a concept that resonated with me deeply and I was in a cast with six other performers of both sexes. It was the first time as a professional performer I was asked to shed the social constructs living on top of my skin and face society’s issues (and my own) as a woman exposing skin.
The psychological journey was one I never expected. I always considered myself to be more of a nudist than most people, but after having conversations with my partner, who was concerned about “what it means to take your clothes off for money in our society,” I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was worried about family members’ judgement and their shame. I remembered something from my childhood.
When I was seven or eight years old my mom taught me modesty. I remember not understanding why she kept asking me to close the door to the bathroom, when my dad was around. I don’t think I understood that my dad was a man and therefore different from me, so different that I had to hide from him.. In my little mind, I was constructing something that I should be ashamed about, but wasn’t sure what that was. I did not understand sexuality or sexual feelings, which in retrospect is probably what my mom was trying to protect me from.
Now, in my 30’s, I have internalized all possible sexual implications brought by my female nudity. From the moment I was asked to perform nude as a grown woman, I felt societal pressure to not do it. I question why my nudity should make me intrinsically uncomfortable or equate to shame.. I chose to think of myself as an empowered woman refusing to shy away from her body and sexuality.
On a personal level, I felt more or less comfortable in my form. Like most women I had insecurities, wishing I was skinnier or had more muscle tone or worrying about my breasts moving too much. But was that a learned behavior/feeling forced on me by the clothes covering and hiding my skin? What was my ideal body, other than my own real body at the time?
I turned toward art history, where many of the “best” paintings in the world are of the nude female body. Most of this “best” art was created by men. The dichotomy of observer and object has been present since the dawn of society. Bodies have been objectified and immortalized, going back to the prehistoric sculpture of Venus of Willendorf and beyond.
Knowing these facts did not ease my conflict. I kept reminding myself that the relationship of the male gaze to the female form was nothing new. I tried to break down the act of objectification and what it meant for me. I thought about the act of objectification as the passing of judgement on a body and I found that I do this every day. In my dance practice, I would see a moving body and would isolate and identify its parts. In my mind I would shift the meaning of these parts to suit myself, using imagery different than what was presented, but with the goal to understand it better. I saw objectification as a tool to gain knowledge and find ways to connect and copy. My desire to copy movement was coming from a desire to empathize. So maybe the act of objectification can be fueled by desire to connect and understand? Of course, objectification of the body comes with negative implications. Was I not a feminist if allowed myself to be objectified? The movement for women’s equality has created incredible freedoms and potential for different ways for men and women to relate to each other, but (and) has condemned the previously established voyeuristic nature of the (male) gaze.
I knew that by taking my clothes off on stage I was addressing the long history of praise of the female nude in the arts. Yet, in our western puritanically-rooted society, this may be perceived as a weakness; as using my body because I have no mind of my own, letting myself become beholden to the sexual fantasies of others.
This is MY body and I can do whatever I want with it.
Why is our society so scared of nudity? We segregate sexes in dressing rooms, in bathrooms, and anywhere there is potential for skin exposure. Your exposed body does not change who you are. Are we all monsters without self-control, in need of protection from one another? Why are we scared to openly face all the possibilities of perception? Yes, we are bodies who can be objectified, related, different or similar, big or small. Why are we scared to be part of that diversity and address it in our thoughts? Why does nudity still feel taboo?
My brain was firing in confused patterns. I couldn’t answer these questions in a comprehensible way while addressing the pressures of our society, the self-consciousness, the history of violence against women. As a woman, my body has been objectified and sexualized regardless of the “costume” I wear, so I expected that being nude on stage would be exactly like being clothed.
I was wrong.
When we took our clothes off in rehearsal, we shed skin we didn’t know we didn’t need.
Some decided to sit while taking their underwear off, some started from the top down, exposing chest first then lower body, some did it in perfect symmetry taking off one piece of clothing at a time alternating upper body and lower body. The act of undressing was the most uncomfortable part of it all.
All seven of us nude in a studio. No one else to judge. We are alone – together.
Don’t look down. Maintain eye contact, do not stare.
Her breasts are just like mine, but bigger. Does she also pluck the hair around her areola?
She has red hair… don’t look down, not yet.
He is beautiful. Oh, she shaves down there. I didn’t shave, should I have?
Penises, who is circumcised? Or not?
Am I attracted to these people? To one more than others?
What would my partner think of this? Thinking about him in this context makes me think more about sex. I don’t want to think about sex.
Do I spread my legs for this section (would people see down there)? Does it matter?
So many bruises on the body – it’s from that section in the piece.
I see vertebrae.
I feel wind and sweat on my skin.
My breasts lying on top of my ribcage.
I feel intimately connected to these people.
I feel the hairs of my body moving.
I see skin tones.
I see people.
In performance: I was asked to stand in front of an audience member and move very slowly
while looking them in the eye. It was just me, allowing a stranger to see me, to judge me, to objectify me. I felt powerful, strong, and in control. I was not ashamed of them or of me. I was not ashamed of their fantasies or mine. I felt much more able to lead our unspoken connection using gaze and posture in the nude than if I had been clothed.
Was I art?
It felt real.
I simply was.