[Written by Eilidh Akilade]
[Image Credits: Anna Shams Ili]
Content warning: possible content warning for sexuality and mental health (body image)
We have sat in stuffy assemblies from age fourteen, teachers warning of the dangers of nudes – of course, a valid concern at that age. But the message was clear: us girls could only blame ourselves for our leaked nudes. Sitting there – urging hip bones poking through pencil skirts, the harsh underwire of cotton-white bras cutting into ribs– we all took that on. But I traded all that: I traded it for bralettes that didn’t leave bruises, tattoos that hurt less than high school, and the odd nipple piercing, just for good measure. My body became mine. Leaving school was the beginning of this upside-down narrative, marking my territory, and nudes, despite teachers’ warnings, became a way to channel this strength.
There’s a ritual behind it. Put on some candles, stick Lizzo on, dab on a little perfume, pick out your best pants, the ones that sit on your hips just right, the lace detailing curving around your bum. It’s about self-care, self-love. Honestly, my pre-nude ‘ritual’ is startlingly similar to my pre-masturbation ‘ritual’. Call me melodramatic, but there’s something truly divine about being alone and naked in a dimly lit room, my body dancing in rolls and curves to a dreamy song. And that is powerful. Such power, this salvaged self-love, is what my nudes means to me – and so many others.
So, we should probably talk about the whole sex thing. Disentangling our bodies from sexual constraints is no mean feat. Of course, our bodies are sexual but that doesn’t mean sex is all our naked forms have to offer. Personally, my nudes sit stacked away in my camera roll, unsent, untouched, and unseen. I’m not sad about that. For me, there’s nothing transactional about nudes. It’s about coming into my body – as it is, as my own. Other people don’t factor into it. Sitting naked in front of the mirror reminds me that this, this fleshy mass, will always be with me – so I should probably start loving it now.
However, with men – cisgender, straight men, at the very least – it seems to be a different story. When I asked my boy friends about nudes, they all denied taking them, disliking the patriarchal connotations of sexual domination that comes with sending and receiving them. For them, nudes aren’t about the self, but others, an opinion my female and gender non-conforming friends disagree with. For many marginalised people – whether due to gender, race, disability, or religion – our bodies are perpetually proclaimed by others as a playground for political debate. Nudes, therefore, become a way to reclaim our bodies from such detrimental discourse. However, the radical self-love nudes foster is something everyone has a right to – no matter how hard you’re trying to dismantle the patriarchy from the inside out.
But they’ve certainly got a point. Looking back, nude paintings were always about moulding women into sexual objects. There are so many paintings of those same hairless bodies sprawled across silky sheets, little care given to the cramp in her left arm or that she doesn’t really have an ethereal glow around her 24/7. Other paintings feature women all with that same dead look in their eyes that says, ‘I’m so tired of having one breast perpetually flung out of my dress.’ Despite their beautifully pursed lips and sparkling eyes, these women are faceless. We’ll never truly know them. What’s really painted is a sexual object, each body part dissected and thrown together, the Frankenstein’s creature of the ideal woman.
So – if you’ll excuse me on my soapbox – it’s crucial we take autonomy over our own bodies. Exposing ourselves and learning how to be vulnerable is key to reclaiming our bodies. That’s why nudes are so powerful. Now, you don’t need to wait to be painted by some old white guy in a draughty room, your body all goose bumped, your nipples probably hard under the cold glare of the male gaze. Whip out your phone and you can proclaim your body as whatever you want it to be. Is it art? You decide. Sexy? Up to you. If it comes from a place of love, you’re doing just fine.