Tanya Sweeney: I wish I’d kept my naked pics. I feared they’d end up in the ‘wrong hands’
How is the naked female body something so loaded with toxic meaning?
‘In a just world, a nude photo shouldn’t have the power to damage someone’s reputation, or end a career, or even cause embarrassment.’
Last week, I emerged out of the shower to get dressed, the way you do, and a male neighbour accidentally caught a glance of me in my towel-free, nature-intended state. Years ago, I would have been mortified, and probably a little upset at being caught with my trousers down, as it were.
Instead, I shrugged and thought to myself, “Oh well. Happy early birthday to you, I guess.” When it comes to shame, I’m completely out of bandwidth. Also, I’ve come to the near-radical conclusion that me in the nip isn’t all that offensive a sight (stretch marks, postbirth boobs and all).
People are very weird about nudity, aren’t they? It seems to suggest an element of vulnerability or embarrassment. Being caught in a strange state of compromise.
Gwyneth Paltrow recently posted a picture of herself in the buff on Instagram, looking ever so happy in her own skin. Her teenage daughter Apple was prompted to comment with a word that seemed to articulate a full-body cringe: “MOM”.
While Gwyneth’s nude photo is something of a post-#MeToo power move, the female celebrity whose entire reputation and career went up in smoke after someone managed to catch a glance at her breasts is still a familiar trope. Some of them, like former Miss America Vanessa Williams and squeaky clean teen idols Miley Cyrus or Vanessa Hudgens, were forced to grovel and apologise profusely after nude photos of them were distributed without their consent.
Years later, actress Jennifer Lawrence refused to apologise after hackers leaked private photos from her private iCloud account on to the internet. “I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for,” she told Vanity Fair. (Although another young actress, Bella Thorne, tweeted last year that a hacker was blackmailing her with stolen topless photos.)
Lawrence was right of course, and yet the idea still seems to endure. Recently, the TV show I Hate Suzie charted an actress (played by Billie Piper) dealing with the “devastating” fallout of a nude photo leak.
And it is devastating for many, to know that people have seen your naked body without your consent. It also happens to non-celebrity women every day of the week; women who might have shared a photo with a partner, or created a spicy video in the spirit of sexual experimentation. Women especially feel exposed and shattered when these are distributed beyond that small, private bubble. Sexual shame is a very real thing. They feel like those nude photos were a mistake, and something to be ashamed of.
They really shouldn’t. Because they aren’t.
I’m one of the first generation of women that owned a cameraphone in their 20s. The first thing I did, naturally, was to take a whole load of naked photos of myself. I’d never seen a photo of my naked body before. If you wanted to find out what your body looked like to a third party before that, you had to take a camera roll to the chemist and hope that the person behind the counter didn’t open the pack to check that the photos were indeed yours.
I hated my lack of protruding hip-bones and the barely-there roll of flesh under my belly button
I was fascinated by my own nakedness, and back in 2005 or so, my 20something body was in the best nick it was probably ever going to be in. (One of the great curses of being a woman is that you often only believe these things about yourself retrospectively. At the time, I hated my lack of protruding hip-bones and the barely-there roll of flesh under my belly button. I thought I was grotesquely chunky when really, I should have been holding street parades for my firm boobs, unblemished thighs and fairly lovely bottom.
I wish I’d kept those photos of my glorious 25-year-old body, when things were at their gravitational apex, but I didn’t. I was too worried they’d end up in the “wrong hands”. And scared of what might happen after that.
You do have to wonder though, how did we as a civilisation end up here? In a culture where the naked body, and specifically the naked female body, is something so loaded with toxic meaning? Half the world’s adult population has breasts: of the other half, they either see them on their partner every day, or they were likely nourished by them as an infant. How did breasts and nipples – simply, on one level, an arrangement of tissue and skin – become such a massive cultural grenade?
Having breasts, or even having a vagina, is not much different to having a knee, chin or elbow. They’re just there
I’ll never quite understand modern culture’s weird obsession with nakedness, or the idea that it’s a state of a woman doing something shameful or compromising.
Having breasts, or even having a vagina, is not much different to having a knee, chin or elbow. They’re just there. It’s so strange to think of them as having such power to cause cultural explosions and moral panic.
In a just world, a nude photo shouldn’t have the power to damage someone’s reputation, or end a career, or even cause embarrassment. For now, though, revenge porn still has the power to cause hurt and shame, and it’s something we need to take seriously, without resorting to victim-blaming.
When I look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s nude Instagram photo, I see someone who is happy and content; a woman comfortable in her own skin, happily expressing her body on her terms. To me, there’s not an iota of sordid brazenness there at all. The difference, of course, is that Paltrow posted the picture herself, and on her terms. Still, though, a woman taking charge of her body. To me, it’s a big deal, albeit in the best way possible.