Obese, Female, & Nude: Epistemological Satire or Sociological Critique?
Historically, female models in photographic art have depicted an ideological construction of the female body which women, regardless of stature, ethnicity or class, must conform to. John Berger (1972, p. 46) notes that ‘to be born a woman has been to be born… into the keeping of men’. However, it could be argued that the image presented in this essay dissipates such notions. Leonard Nimoy’s image is compelling; it seems to expulse an aura which embodies feminine nonchalance whilst simultaneously disregarding patriarchal ideology which dictates stereotypical criteria for the socially acceptable woman (Ramazanoğlu, 1989).
Leonard Nimoy’s Matisse Circle image, which is part of the ‘Full Body Project’ (2007) shows six, considerably overweight, naked women who are constricting their movement to within the circle they have formed by holding hands. The colour gradation is restricted to black, white and grey tones and the background is plain floor tiling. One will consider the significant elements which presented in this image, concluding by considering the contextual influences which define the image’s meaning.
Nimoy’s work does not appear to correspond to the definition of commercial advertising which is to promote goods to increase sales (Petley, 2002; Jefkins & Yadin, 2000). However, it is arguable that this image advertises ‘women…proudly wearing their own skins’ (Nimoy, 2007), echoing a rebellion against the ‘current social consensus of what is "beautiful"’ (ibid). It seems to epitomise the true concept of freedom from the psychological bodily constraints rife in a contemporary society despite pervasive female representation solely consisting of size zero women, devoid of any diversity (Ellis, 2007; Gauntlett, 2008).
Nimoy describes his work as illustrative of a theme, to convey that the ideals of beauty are not universal but vary according to time and place (Nimoy, 2007). Elements that portray ‘the theme’ can be ascertained by dissecting the image via semiology. Within semiotics, denotation is commonly understood as the empirical meaning, absent of cultural influences (Panofsky, 1955). Thus, one may assume that Nimoy’s image denotes six naked women with joyous facial expressions, holding hands in a circle.
However, photography allows denotation and connotation to unite, causing a mergence of the signifier and the signified (Barthes, 1980), producing a sign which seems to have surpassed cultural boundaries thus creating a meaning which seems natural (Barthes, 1977; Fiske, 1982; Chandler, 1996). Brownell, Potter & Michelow (1984) even tested whether denotation and connotation are dissociable in brain damaged patients. Henceforth, one gathers that the juxtaposition of women who are socially maligned in modern culture with archaic photographic techniques simultaneously denotes and connotes a need for regained liberation from the parochial societies which have suppressed freedom of the feminine body.
Arguably, ones cultural orientation and understanding of female representation determine the perspective from which one comprehends this image. Feminist epistemology perpetrates one possible reception. Whilst Chris Beasley (1999, p.9) labels feminism as a ‘troublesome term’ avoiding definition, Watkins (2000, p.1) succinctly defines feminism as ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’ The characteristics which define the female sex are genetically bound, however, it is how the concept of gender is represented in visual constructs which differs (Lupton, 1992), and is therefore of importance. Categories of gender are formed in society leading to psychological consequences pertaining to the understanding of such imagery (Rigsby, 1992).
Within various cultures there are notions of what it is to be feminine. These differ historically according to class, race and age (Andrews, 1997). Arguably, a female’s body shape is also particularly poignant. Watkins (2000) argues that altering the perception that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance to men was one the most powerful movements of contemporary feminism. One could consider Nimoy’s work to be reflective of the momentous revolution which allowed for ‘women stripping their bodies of…restrictive clothing [embodying] a ritualistic, radical reclaiming of…the female body’ (ibid, p. 31). Nimoy’s models provide an antithesis to the ubiquitous representation of feminine beauty merely consisting of slim, flawless women.
Watkins (2000) labels the absence of larger women, unable to ‘express their feelings…without guilt or anxiety’ (Sloane, 2002, p.170), as a facet of the media which undermines progress gained by feminist intervention. This argument, however, is only valid if ones expectations of acceptable gender representation correlate with the society in which they are formed.
One may interpret Nimoy’s image as a conspicuous request for the extinction of the bindings which exist between appearance, femininity and freedom. Rather, he opts for an ‘emancipatory strategy [to] aim toward the redefinition of the body…beyond such rigid categories’ (McNay, 1992, p.194) fabricated in modernistic society.
However, Jean Baudrillard (2001, p. 212) argues that ‘we should agree neither with those who praise the beneficial use of the media, nor with those who scream about manipulation’. Henceforth, whilst Nimoy’s intention was to depict women who desire to be accepted irrespective of their body shape (Nimoy, 2007), society itself is rigorously andocentric (LeMoncheck, 1997). One may argue that ‘women are indoctrinated in a male defined value system and conduct their lives accordingly’ (Learner, 1975, p.5), and therefore by default, women’s consciousnesses can only allow for acceptance to be measured against societies criteria and thus by male defined standards.
Paul Hartman (1996) argues that ‘it is futile to try and know what an author meant by what is written, but what you Can [sic] know is what you interpret…That becomes the true meaning’. This suggests that the photo has no real intrinsic inference but rather an intended meaning, not necessarily recognisable across cultural, contextual and psychologically boundaries. In a post-modernist context, which Nimoy’s picture was created, a construct is ultimately self contradictory (Hartman, 1996); objective representation or interpretation is unlikely as subjective influences occur on the creation and the creator (van Dijk, 2009), therefore the ‘actual meaning is to be found in the reader, not in the author’ (Hartman, 1996). This would suggest that in the absence of contemporary postmodernist culture, and from reader to reader, meaning would differ as connotative elements decipherable from this image are dependent on culture and surroundings.
However, this does not render the meaning ambiguous, but rather amorphous or transitional, thus refuting the notion that one definitive, immovable meaning can be extricated from Leonard Nimoy’s Mattise circle. Notwithstanding Hartman’s argument, one may apply context to in such away that the purpose and the meaning unite to examine the effects of andocentric paradigms which have seemingly transgressed into contemporary representations of women, thus presenting an ideological model of society which should cease to categorise women on the basis of their appearance.
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