the case for beautiful bodies

A little while ago I posted a self-portrait and wrote about body image. In that post, I acknowledged that I wasn't ready to show too much skin, or to really look at my own body in a semi-public forum. This reluctance was rooted in self-consciousness and a fear of what others might think of me, my body, and the fact that I'm taking these kinds of photos of myself. Lately, though, there has been a shift in my perspective on this matter, whereby any insecurities are dwarfed by a much larger issue related to the female body.

I was invited to take part in a group exhibition, which is happening later this year. I jumped at the chance to prepare a series of images to present to the public in this kind of forum. There was just one problem: the theme of the exhibition is one that I have never been particularly interested in - the female form. You see, when it comes to bodies and human form, I am much more interested in the beauty of the male body than that of the female body. To begin with, I was having trouble coming up with worthwhile or original ways to explore this very broad topic. After much thought, though, I have decided to use photography to investigate the vast difference between my own version of attractive female bodies and that presented in heterosexual pornography.

There are very obvious differences between women in pornography and classic images of female beauty, so in this sense the idea may seem a little trite. We all know about it: fake boobs, bleached hair, bald vulvas, bleached anuses, surgically enhanced labias, and so on - pornographic images of women have long been creating unrealistic standards that make many women feel physically inadequate. But there's something more sinister at work in hardcore heterosexual pornography that seems to be encroaching on the real world more often and in more worrying ways.

This new problem has come to my attention through global reports on the changing sexual habits of adolescents, various personal accounts of sexual exploits that appear in the media, and the personal experiences of people within my social circles. In the first instance, over and again we are hearing about the high incidence of oral sex among very young adolescents, and the extreme sexualisation of teens at a relatively young age. And then there is the ever-increasing presence of anal sex in heterosexual bedrooms around the world (you can read some articles about that here, here and here). Now, I am not judgemental in any way about what people choose to do in the bedroom. As long as it's consensual, it's OK by me. And I have no doubt that many women who choose to partake in anal sex quite enjoy it. My concern is that the ubiquity of hardcore porn online - and the ease with which anyone with an internet connection can access it - is skewing people's expectations of sex: men (and boys) are expecting women (and girls) to act like porn stars, and women believe that partaking in specifically pornographic acts is normal, even if they don't feel comfortable with it. In the first case, this is not surprising: if a boy is exposed to potentially thousands of hardcore images of vaginal, anal and oral sex before he even sees a real-life pair of breasts, is it any wonder he uses pornography as a point of reference for real sex? And if boys all expect their sexual partners to partake in extreme pornographic acts, is it such a stretch to imagine an impressionable teenage girl going along with it? And this is not just teens - plenty of men in their twenties and beyond see a lot more porn than real sex. (An interesting related article appears here.)

Obviously these are some pretty broad generalisations, and I'm not saying that every man and adolescent boy in the world equates sex with porn - or even watches porn. However, I think it's a really valid problem that is occurring more and more in a lot of sexual situations.

In the course of my research for this project, I have been looking at a lot of printed pornographic images of women. As far as I can tell, heterosexual pornography essentially reduces women to the sum of tits, ass, legs and three holes. In this world, the female body is a warm, welcoming receptacle for the penis (often more than one) and copious amounts of ejaculate. I am aware that you could also argue that the male body in pornography is presented as nothing more than a hard penis, but there is no doubt that most heterosexual pornography is largely based on the submission of women and the power of men. While I am not against pornography in theory - power play is certainly valid and there is nothing wrong with presenting this version of women and sex for occasional arousal - I feel it becomes problematic when it is viewed repeatedly and excessively. When you consider that heterosexual pornography is surely the most accessible (and accessed) pornography among heterosexual men, it is not outrageous to suggest that this pornographic image of women would in some way and to some extent influence the way pornography-loving men view real women.

This is something that needs to be rectified, or at least challenged in some way. The female body is one of the most adored forms in the history of art, and it is so much more than a lump of flesh to grab onto and a dumping ground for sperm.

When I go back to these images, which previously made me so self conscious, I now feel pride and defiance in light of this newfound concern about the female body. The curves, the lines, the sensuality, the beauty. My body is not perfect by any standards - but is anyone's? Besides any pointless concerns about perfection, I am certain that these images of my body are so much more beautiful than the images of the female body in most pornography.

With my imminent work, I will be attempting to present some kind of challenge to the ugly image of the female body that is presented in so much pornography. I'm not sure I will succeed, but I am determined to try. But even if it doesn't succeed, this process has taken me one step closer to that elusive body acceptance that so many women struggle to achieve.

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