Material Bodies: Narrative text 6, by Izzi Ramsay
I must write something personal, which perhaps includes the experience of being photographed. I am to compose “a narrative”. But I’m unclear where the narrative should begin.
Let it begin twenty-five years ago. How would I then have greeted the thought that a photograph of my naked body might appear in a public exhibition?
Twenty five years ago, I had learned from feminism. And two particular things that I had learned would have conspired to ensure that no such representation of myself would ever have been on public display.
I had learnt, firstly, that the appraisal of self-worth of women who subscribe to traditional norms of femininity is determined by appearance, and particularly by appearance as revealed in the (female) body or its parts. I would surely have recoiled from the very idea of being photographed nude. But more than that. “Finding feminism” for me—as I think for many other women of my generation—consisted in coming to experience consciously discontents that related to being female. Thus in endorsing feminism, any dissatisfaction that I felt with my own naked appearance could be transmuted into altered sources and senses of self-worth. The arguments I would have advanced against allowing my body to be available to others’ gaze would then have failed to acknowledge a deep–seated reluctance to being photographed. The arguments indeed would have seemed to represent the achievement of a properly positive conception of my identity not rooted in my appearance—a triumph of feminist consciousness!
Something else I had learnt ensured that my anonymity would have been no compensation. In feminist writings about pornography, I’d read that hiding or severing a person’s features enables the observer’s attitude to shift towards objectification. This is particularly true when what are hidden are facial features, which are especially apt to disclose a person as the unique being she is. If photographed without a face, would not I, the subject, be treated as an object divested of human needs and feelings?
So what’s changed twenty five years on—aside, of course, from its now being patently naïve to speak of feminism as if it were a monolithic body of doctrine? I shall mention four relevant differences between then and now, or between me then and me now. (Forgive a list.)
First, I am not buying into any norms by being present in these photographs: I am buying into the problematization of norms. (I doubt that an exhibition mounted in 1977 could have had the reception intended of this one. Certainly I would not then have been alone in failing to appreciate the possibilities of subversion.)
Secondly, I know now that there are more dimensions to the processes of photography than accounts of the relation between subject/object and viewer admit. I know first-hand that there can be more gratification from being photographed than is got from becoming an image for spectators. There is, for instance, the approval of the photographer, and the pleasure she takes in her products.
Thirdly, I have discovered that sometimes a person loves a human body because they love the person whose body it is. Given the right sort of lover, the beloved is then not appraised by reference to an ideal promoted by culturally given conceptions of beauty, but by an ideal of herself that she hopes to sustain. Being on the receiving end of love from the right sort of lover has transformed my feelings towards my naked appearance. (Getting older helps as well: it is easier to believe that one’s looks can be met with rapture when the pointlessness of trying to conform to an ideal which puts a premium on youthfulness has become very obvious.)
Fourthly, I’ve come to see that rejection of the old way does not require affirmation of some new mode of being that is correct, stable and authentic. And this I take to be true not only for one’s own identity but for styles of representation as well.