April is the first month of the #NudePhotoRevolutionaries Calendar, created by Maryam Namazie in homage to Egyptian atheist, student and blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy who posted a nude photo of herself on her blog. Not surprisingly, the calendar has come under attack — not just from Islamicist theocrats, but from some feminists, including Azar Majedi. Namazie has written her response to Majedi (UPDATE: LINK CORRECTED). Here is mine.
Dear Azar Majedi,
I want to be sure I understand you correctly. It seems that you’re saying that there is no way a woman can choose to display pictures of her naked body, and offer those pictures for money, without it being commodification, and therefore being Bad.
Even if the images are being made available for free as well as for sale, and anyone who’s uncomfortable with the idea of paying to see naked women (or who simply doesn’t want to) has access to them. Even if the tremendous variety of ages and races and body types in the calendar are in direct defiance of the typical expectations for female bodies, and are being displayed and celebrated on their own terms rather than for male pleasure and consumption. Even if the money is being gathered, not for personal profit, but to raise money for feminist causes that all the participants collectively care about. Even if the women being photographed are donating the images of their naked bodies, and are not in any way being economically pressured to do so. Even if the project is being done with the full endorsement and support of the woman it’s honoring.
If there were ever a situation in which selling naked pictures of one’s self should be considered acceptable, I’d think it would be this one. But according to you, even this situation is unacceptable. It’s still commodification, and therefore, it’s still Bad.
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that. (Some nude images below the jump, including a nude image of me.)
You’re absolutely right about one thing: The fact that this project is being done by women does not, by itself, make it feminist or revolutionary. Women do bad things to one another all the time, sexist and even misogynist things. The example you gave is female genital mutilation; I can certainly think of other, more proportional examples. (Slut-shaming leaps to mind, for some odd reason.)
But if you’re going to argue that something women are freely choosing to do with our bodies is still harmful to other women, and that we ought not to do it, you need to actually make a strong positive case for that position. The default assumption should be that women are free to do with our bodies whatever the hell we choose, and that feminists ought to not only accept and tolerate each other’s right to make those choices, but actively support it. This should be the default assumption… unless you can make a strong positive case for why a particular choice is harmful, and we ought not to make it.
And you haven’t made that case. All you’ve done is re-state your conclusion, again and again, using hyperbolic language that makes it sound as if you’re making a case. All you’ve done is say, again and again, “It’s always bad to offer pictures of naked women for money, in all circumstances, because… it just is. By definition.”
Now. It is certainly the case that my choice to participate in this calendar was made in the context of a sexist culture: a culture that treats women as sexual objects rather than subjects, a culture that treats women’s bodies as commodities, a culture with a strong tendency to value women primarily as ornaments, sexual playthings, and babymakers. My choice to pose naked for this calendar and let the photo of my naked body be (a) disseminated for free on the internet and (b) sold to raise money for feminist causes… yes, that choice was made in the context of this sexist culture. It was in some ways influenced by that culture, and in some ways it contributes to it.
And your choice wasn’t?
Your choice to scold me, and the other women who posed in this calendar, is somehow magically free of this sexist culture? It somehow has not been tainted by the sexist culture that treats women’s bodies as shameful, the culture that reflexively abjures women to cover our nakedness, the culture that demands that women share our bodies only with the men who rightfully own them, the culture that reflexively slut-shames women for enjoying our bodies and our sexualities and making our own decisions about it? My selling photos of my naked body to raise money for a cause I believe in is automatically part of the commodification of women… but your attempt to enforce the standards of modesty has nothing to do with women’s physical and sexual suppression? I am a cog in the machinery of this culture… but you, magically, have freed yourself from it?
And as a result, you have earned the authority to tell me what I should and should not do with my own naked body?
I have heard arguments like yours many times, aimed by women at other women. “You should never sell images of your naked body — we live in a culture where female bodies are commodified, and even the consensual display of female nudity contributes to that.” “You should never have consensual sadomasochistic sex — we live in a culture of violence against women, and even consensual SM contributes to it.” “You should never have sex with men — we live in a culture of deep power differences between men and women, and even a consensual heterosexual relationship can’t escape them and contributes to them.” And yet the women passing these judgments, the women demanding that other women make complicated choices about their bodies based on someone else’s rigid ideology, never seem to say to themselves, “You should never shame other women about their consensual choices with their bodies — we live in a culture of relentless slut-shaming, in which women are not seen as having physical and sexual agency, and these judgments contribute to it.”
Yes, I suppose that in the strictest, most literal, “letter of the concept if not the spirit” interpretation of the word, my participation in the NudePhotoRevolutionary calendar “commodified” my body. It did so in much the same way that selling the strength of my muscles to pack and ship boxes — work I did for many years — “commodified” my body. It did so in much the same way that selling the intelligence and imagination of my brain — another body part — “commodifies” my body. Are you seriously arguing that the context of this “commodification” is irrelevant? That there is no difference between selling the strength of my muscles to a leftist small-press book distributor, and selling it to Exxon? That there is no difference between selling the intelligence of my brains to raise money for an atheist student’s scholarship fund, and selling it to Halliburton? And that there is no difference between selling the image of my naked body to a feminist and anti-theocratic fundraising project, and selling it to Page 6? If you are making that argument… it’s absurd on the face of it. And if you’re not — if you’re arguing that it’s okay to sell my muscles and my brains to promote causes that I care about, but it’s not okay to sell my nudity — then you need to actually make a case for why nudity is different. Something you have conspicuously failed to do.
Here’s the thing. I love my body. That love is complicated, and it is hard-won, but it is deep, and it is passionate, and it is real. And I want to share that love. I want to offer a model of that love to other women, who are also struggling with complicated feelings about their bodies. I want to offer a model of that love to women whose connection to their bodies has been beaten down by patriarchies and theocracies telling them that they don’t own their own bodies, that their bodies are owned by God or by men. As a woman over fifty, I especially want to offer a model of that love to other women being barraged with messages that their bodies are hideous and laughable and they ought to hide them away until they die. I’ve been helped no end by other women who did this before me: other women who talked about orgasms and how to have them, other women who taught us to look at our pussies in the mirror, other women who shamelessly put their sexual fantasies onto paper and pixels and film, other women who paraded their imperfect, beautiful bodies with defiance and joy. These feminists before me gave me more choices, and made it easier for me to make choices. I’m trying to pass that along.
And it pisses me off no end that I’m being scolded for this, not only by theocrats, not only by patriarchs, but by other feminists. It pisses me off that I’ve spent decades being told by other feminists how to be a good girl. It pisses me off that, because I said, “Hey, here’s a photo of my naked body, and here are photos of some other women’s naked bodies, and you can look at these pictures for free, or you can donate to a feminist/ anti-theocratic cause and get a good-quality print of them”… other women are presuming to chide me for being a bad feminist.
Yes, we live in a sexist culture, in which women have no good choices when it comes to our bodies. We live in a sexist culture in which women are valued primarily as sexual objects, and at the same time are shamed for our sexuality. It seems to me that we have two choices as to how to respond to this. We can try to navigate the narrow, essentially impossible shoals of these contradictory expectations, and try to find that perfect, socially acceptable line between slut and prude.
Or we can say, “Fuck it. There is no way I can win — so I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want. I’m going to wear overalls, or I’m going to wear high heels. I’m going to have sex with twenty strangers in a night, or I’m not going to have sex with anyone. I’m going to dress conservatively and professionally in public at all times, or I’m going to sell naked pictures of myself on the Internet if I bloody well feel like it.”
And in saying, “I can’t win, so I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want to do,” we can create the beginnings of a victory. We can create the beginnings of a world where we really can win. We can create the beginnings of a world where we’re a little more free than the women who came before us… and where the women who come after us are a little more free than we are. We probably can’t create a perfect world, where women’s bodies aren’t commodified in the slightest (not in this generation, anyway). But we can create a better world: a world where women’s bodies and minds belong less to the patriarchy, and more to ourselves.
Like I said in the calendar: I own my body. No — strike that. I am my body. And nobody will tell me how to display it. Nobody claiming to speak for a non-existent god will tell me how to display it. And nobody patronizingly presuming to speak for all of feminism will tell me how to display it.
So I am saying “Fuck you” to anyone who tries to slut-shame me. I am saying “Fuck you” to anyone who tells me that I’m a bad woman — or a bad feminist — for displaying my body as I see fit, and doing anything I bloody well want to with the images of it.
And that includes you.