There is an online subculture dedicated to videos of children seeing their own reflection for the first time. Far more accessible, but no less engaging than the scientific studies involved in this momentous part of the human development: the videos feature crawling toddlers reaching out towards the glass, smiling at who they see, or leaning in to embrace. Sad, then, that this relationship with our reflection sours.
But how could it not? Our initial introduction to ourselves in the mirror is driven by natural curiosity, but as crawling turns to walking and giggling turns to talking, our perception of the body moves away from a primitive biological response and begins to represent historical ideology; the mirror is no longer enough.
From sculptures to selfies, humanity has used art to represent the body. Chisel, brush, canvas and camera have imparted meaning onto the human form at its most basic level. Meanings however, are not universal, and forms are far from treated equally.
Although men’s physique predominated archaic art, it took ancient European civilisations a little longer to add woman’s body to their repertoire. When eventually they did, a gendered division emerged, or rather continued in their respective representations.
Dating sometime from 650 – 500 BC, the Ancient Greek sculpture of Kroisos Kouros depicts a nude, athletic young man striding confidently forward with arms and loosely clenched fists by his side. Neither self-inspection nor shame burdens the Greek warrior. In the 4th Century BC, when Praxiteles carved Cnidus Aphrodite from stone, he carved with her a historical idea of woman, femininity, and sexuality that persists to this day.
Aphrodite, as seen in Roman copies of the original, is as physically pristine as Kroisos Kouros but turns her head timidly away and raises her left hand to cover her vagina. Thus, the tradition of Venus Pudica is born. Woman is aware of being looked at; part of the female experience is being subjected to speculation, and thus, objectification. Alongside this awareness, as Ernst van Alphen points out, is shame but only for now, on the side of woman.
The tradition of shame reemerges in the Renaissance. While Michelangelo’s David slings a cloth over his shoulder and stands confidently uncaring of being viewed, Botticelli’s Venus covers herself with hand and hair. At the moment of her birth, the judgmental gazes of onlookers are already apparent.
Cranach the Elder takes this a step further in The Judgment of Paris. The judge himself is included in the painting. Renaissance oil paintings and sculptures presented an idea of woman as inherently sexual, ashamed and judged. There was certain resistance to Venus Pudica, Eduoard Manet’s Olympia of 1863 directly confronted the viewer. Olympia, reclining, retains the hand typical of the tradition, still concealing, albeit now in an assertive manner.
Rather than tamely bowing her head away, her stare pierces through the canvas at those who gaze upon her. Shame and self-awareness are now shared with the spectator. In 1915, Florine Stettheimer takes this one step further. A re-imagining of Olympia, Stettheimer’s self-portrait, A Model, also features a reclining subject, but the concealing hand, which previous represented denial or modesty, now calmly raises a bouquet of flowers to reveal pubic hair.
The largely emotionless expression which confronted 19th Century audiences is replaced in 1915 by a knowing smirk, and slightly raised eyebrows. A Model is considered among the first nude portraits of a woman created from a feminist perspective, an important precedent is now set in the history of the body and its representation in art.
Representation of the body through art
Throughout history however, rare were those who possessed both: the talent and the means to produce representation through art. In moving from chisel and canvas to camera, creative hands were freed from requiring the support of patrons with deep pockets, as well as from the time-consuming nature of sculpture and painting. The camera democratized the means of bodily representation.
Historical ideas of the body had for centuries been primarily represented by the work of men. With a camera in hand, this changed. From Frances Benjamin Johnston and Alice Boughton, to Imogen Cunningham, Francesca Woodman, and Nan Goldin, women began to control their own narrative. Transgender and non-binary artists also gained a tool to tell their own stories and represent themselves.
Visual activist Zanele Muholi’s self-portrait, MaID, Delaware, 2017, traces a clear line through representations of the body from Manet’s Olympia to today. Whereas a Black person was a supporting, yet nonetheless significant, character in Olympia, in MaID they take centre-stage. What remains unchanged is the defiant stare that pierces through canvas and lens alike. Shame has been abolished on all sides, replaced only by pride and admiration.
While the camera’s arrival may have democratized the means of representation, the advent of the smartphone and social media has made them almost universal. Today, it is possible to represent ourselves. Individual by individual, minute by minute.
Representation has fallen to humanity in the form of touchscreen and a profile. The long hand of history however, tugs on the wrist of the present. Emma Dabiri, in Don’t Touch My Hair, states that the “governing laws and cultural norms [of Renaissance oil painting continue to] provide the framework through which we represent ourselves and how we perceive others.” She continues, stating that it is “the visual logic that underpins image-heavy social media networks such as Instagram.”
Representation of the body through Instagram
With over one billion active users, Instagram is the most popular image-based social media platform. It should have outgrown, or rather, never have been born with the archaic standards set from 650 B.C. to the Renaissance, and beyond.
However, it wallows in them. Although it has offered a mainstream platform of representation for previously neglected stories, it nonetheless suppresses those who stray too far from the pre-ordained norms and restricts those who (understandably) sacrifice their fullest truth in the name of greater exposure and community.
In censoring the portraits of Nyome Nicholas-Williams, as photographed by Alexandra Cameron, the ruthless ‘algorithm’ of Instagram was exposed as being a vestigial offshoot of archaic, in every sense of the word, traditions. It is often through controversy and public pressure that things change. #iwanttoseenyome became a movement that changed how the body is represented in modern times.
Instagram modified their ‘algorithm’ to allow greater freedom of expression. Although, exceptions are not the rule, and there remains a long way to go. Gendered differences in representations of the body persist, as made clear by the fact that the permissibility of a nipple depends wholly upon whose body it is. Turkish photographer Kayra Atasoy, captioning her latest post on Instagram (@blame_the_youth) as of 14.01.2022, describes how “since Instagram keeps removing my photos I had to censor [these] beautiful photos”.
Nothing obscene, pornographic, or non-consensual exists within these photos, but nonetheless they are censored, merely because of the presence of an apparently inappropriate woman’s body. Three days later, on 17.01, the post has disappeared. The motives that burdened Cnidus Aphrodite with shame fester to this day.
When norms are broken, it seems that there are consequences. In fact, as I search for blame_the_youth, the profile does not appear as a result until the entire name is entered – an insidious form of censorship, shadow-banning, that aims to silence those carving modern conceptions of the body. Trans bodies have often suffered the same treatment.
Like a sack of coal falling on a see-saw, just as women, trans people, and historically underrepresented groups gain greater access to tools of representation; however, the mainstream forums in which they can operate attempt to maintain historical imbalance.
However, these attempts will fail. “Photographs”, writes Susan Sontag, “cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one.” The moral position in support of progressive representation exists, and so it is up to all those who possess the means to reinforce it, to do so.
From Antiquity to Instagram, representations of the body have been controlled by forces which wish to remain unseen; whether that be the presupposed ‘shameful’ sexuality of woman’s body in Venus Pudica, or in the capricious algorithms that monitor social media.
Confronting, and eliminating, these forces frees us all from strictly enforced and outdated historical ideas of the body. They need not be conformed to. A modern arena awaits in which it is not an invisible referee and rulebook that dictate the state of play, but the players themselves.