The Academy Awards this past Sunday reminded me of the rabidly unequal skin coverage our culture consists of. As per usual, female shoulders, necklines, arms, and sometimes legs were bare, while men were all tuxedo-ed up. The tiny snippet I saw of the red carpet nauseated me. Some man was tearing women to shreds, noting this ones dress looked like a napkin and that one didn’t know how to stand or pose properly. Assessing them like pieces of meat, he and other red carpet mouthpieces enacted a type of sexism our cultures loves so well – the objectifying male gaze.
This gaze was particularly apparent in various high profile magazine covers from late 2008 that showed excessive skin. However, this skin exposure was not equally distributed between female and male bodies. In fact, the only type of skin that was heavily exposed in mainstream mags was of the “hot hetero white woman” variety.
For fully nude but ever so “artfully” covered bodies, take Jennifer Aniston on the cover of GQ:
Or, Kate Winslet on the cover of Vanity Fair:
For more partially clothed with mega skin exposure of the “hot woman” paradigm, here is Tina Fey on the cover of Vanity Fair:
Where are the naked or skin exposed men? Well, unless you look at health or body building or non-hetero directed magazines, you won’t find any. Once in awhile a you will see “hot six pack” exposure. Or, you might see a lot of David Beckham skin (however it might be next to lots of Victoria’s). Further, such male skin exposure is usually framed around an athleticized narrative – the body is “hot” because it is in such good shape and has such nice muscles. The body is strong and powerful.
Female skin exposure, on the other hand, does not require strong, healthy bodies. While some females exposed thus certainly are strong and athletic, the poses tend to sexualize the female body, rather than present the female as powerful or muscular. Often there is a come hither look or pose, a failure to look the viewer in the eye, and/or a suggestion that the pose is taken for (a) male(s) pleasure.
None of this analysis is new – Jean Kilbourne has, for years, done excellent work critiquing the unequal exposure of the female body, particularly in ads. Laura Mulvey’s work on the “male gaze” is also key here (see a post on this concept here).
However, the EXCESSIVE normalization of EXCESSIVE amounts of female skin is still a problem, despite all of the theory and activism that calls for a stop to such unequal exposure due to its very harmful effects on the human psyche — both female and male.
By setting up female body as the “to be looked at” body, and the male body as “the looker,” an unequal dynamic is put in place – a dynamic that promotes feelings of dominance and superiority in the looker. Moreover, this dynamic perpetuates heterenoromativiy, framed as it is as if males desire females and vice versa. Of course, there is much possibility for non-hetero or queer pleasure in media images with skin exposure, yet, when this pleasure is put under erasure or not explicity prounounced, is it really working to subvert normative concepts of gender/desire? Is such exposure “closeted”? And, if so, how could skin exposure be made less heteronormative, less sexist, and less patriarchal?
One option would be less skin exposure all around – and, I do think we need to question our current cultural propensity to sexualize EVERYTHING. I don’t think we should inundate our children with the message that “hot bodies” are a way to sell everything… Nor should we give them the message that exposing their own skin will lead to success, praise, or monetary gain. Yet, we do. Kids learn from Miley Cyrus (see Vanity Fair images below) or Vanessa Hutchins (see images below) that nude or nearly nude pics will get you all sorts of attention. Girls learn that showing their belly button or wearing their pants as low on the hips as possible will get positive reactions. Boys learn that muscular arms and chiseled abs are swoon worthy. Where are the messages about that most important body part – the brain?!?
So, while I will admit that the viewing of exposed skin can be pleasureful, I think we as a culture need to be more judicious about such exposure. We need less of it, and, when it is there, it needs to be EQUAL exposure – one six pack for every cleavage shot, one chiseled chest for every long leg – and, at least one body of color, one fat body, one short body, one disabled body, one old body, one non-cisgender body, and so on for every “ideal” body…