Nudity, Music Videos and Sexualisation

This is brief, informal, and slightly off-topic expansion of the opinions I expressed on Woman’s Hour this morning.
 I was invited to respond to the nudity in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video, in light of comments made in a previous broadcast, which suggested that the video was exploitative.

The Blurred Lines video (see below) is available in censored and uncensored versions, one in which women are featured topless, and another in which they are partially clothed. The censored version is being screened on TV and YouTube, while the other must be sought out on sites like Vevo and Daily Motion, which have fewer restrictions.

Robin Thicke's b;urred Lines

A still from the uncensored version of Robin Thicke’s video, directed by Diane Martel.

Nudity has long been associated with exploitation. Historically, it was imposed on slaves because of its connotations of savagery, and although those connotations have diminished, there have also been associations with sexual exploitation that remain today. The debate surrounding Robin Thicke’s video seems to suggest that there are still a large number of people who assume that any women who is naked is being exploited.

Organisations like Object and UK Feminista rally against “the sexualisation of women”[1]. Though this is a noble aim, its supporters too readily conclude that all nude images in pop culture are sexually motivated and/or exploitative.

I felt the need to join this discussion to stress that the relationship between nudity and sexualisation is not inherent or universal. Sexualisation and nudity are not equivalent. Indeed, Roland Barthes proposes that a glimpse of flesh is far more erotic than a fully nude body. A small area of bare skin where garments gape, or as a woman undresses, can be far more sexually charged than total nudity.

This progress towards nudity, and apparently illicit glimpses of flesh through clothed bodies, can make some videos far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. There are numerous videos which present cavorting dancers, fully clothed, that appear far more sexually exploitative. The issue is behavior, not nudity.

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus’ video for ‘We Can’t Stop’ is far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s, even though there is no nudity. It is the behaviour, not the quantity of flesh, that leads to sexualisation.

To imply that depictions of nude women are exploitative, purely because they are unclothed, vastly over-simplifies the issue and is potentially dangerous for impressionable audiences. If we declare that nakedness connotes exploitation, we risk encouraging shame among women who are naked in any context. To be appreciated naked by a partner, or even a wider audience, ought to be confidence-boosting. Instead, those moments will be filled with anxiety.

This discussion inevitably involves mention of the kind of body that is represented in the media: slim, young, and beautiful. Many feel that these ‘ideal’ bodies contribute to self-esteem issues among audiences with more ‘natural’ figures. Though it is true that the women in Blurred Lines are beautiful and modelesque, that does not make them unnatural. Slim bodies, just like larger bodies, are part of the natural spectrum of shape and size. We should not seek to exclude these slim bodies any more than we should exclude fat bodies.

Though less common, the depiction of fat or imperfect bodies can be even more controversial. These images have to face accusations of being “grotesque” [2]. Nude images of Gossip singer-songwriter Beth Ditto (see below) are not often labeled as sexually exploitative, but are often presented as gross spectacle.

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto has frequently posed naked. These images are viewed as grotesque rather than sexually exploitative, potentially subjecting Ditto to a different but equally damaging kind of exploitation.

If it is currently impossible to view fat bodies in the same terms as thin, perhaps diversity is one way to encourage a change in perception. In other fields, such as fine art, all bodies are represented equally. The nude mothers of photographer Jade Beall, the distorted flesh of Jenny Saville’s paintings, and Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, are all praised for celebrating the female nude. In music videos, however, where we expect a slim and attractive star like Rihanna to appear naked in a bath, we would never expect someone as curvaceous as Adelle to strip off for the camera. The problem is not that Rihanna is naked, rather that Adelle isn’t.

Three problems arise from this discussion: firstly, there is the assumption that all nude images are sexually motivated; secondly, that they are all exploitative; and thirdly, that these first two only apply to images of women who are slim and beautiful. We need to remind audiences that it is okay to celebrate sex, and that those celebrations should be inclusive. We should make clearer distinctions between sexualisation and nudity, without implying that sexuality should be taboo.

[1] Object: Women not Sex objects,
[2] Mashrabiyya, ‘In Vogue: Women, Beauty, the Grotesque, and the Other

Good Hair, Bad Hair – Part 2: Hair and Shame

Hair is both body and adornment. It’s natural presence makes it part of us, but in styling we treat it as equivalent to fashion. Hair is styled so that it has the same expressive potential as clothes (and even unstyled hair makes a statement). Some translations of the Bible describe hair as a “natural garment”[4]. Ruth Barcan observes that hair exists in a “borderline category between flesh and clothing”, and argues that it is this difficulty of classification that makes us feel uneasy about hairy bodies[5]. Barcan’s research shows that many women do not consider themselves fully naked until they have removed all of their unwanted hair.

Matthias Grunewald Resurrection 1515

Matthias Grunewald’s ‘The Resurrection’ (1515) shows that hair-free female bodies were the ideal long before Brazilian waxing.

The German word for pubic hair – schamhaar – translates into English as ‘shame-hair’[6], implying either that this hair is used to hide shameful body parts, or that the hair itself is shameful. This notion that pubic hair is considered shameful has been fostered by the laws of numerous countries, including Australia and Japan. Until 1982, Australian naturist magazines were obliged to airbrush pubic hair from their photographs. Until the 1990s, Japan’s obscenity laws banned the depiction of pubic hair with the unexpected side-effect of making the women in adult manga comics look like pre-pubescent girls [7].

When dealing with hair, there are contradictory rules for different parts of the body. Shaved underarms and long luxurious hair on the head conform to contemporary ideals of beauty and civility, but hairy underarms and a shaved head imply rebellious tendencies. Koppelman proposes that a shaved female head may be perceived as rebellious or threatening because female baldness is usually a sign of illness, or, historically, punishment[8]. From the thirteenth to sixteenth century, head shaving was one of many punishments for adultery[9]. At the end of WW2, French women had their heads shaved in punishment for conspiring with Nazis. More recently, a Japanese pop star who had spent a night with her boyfriend instead of rehearsing with the band, appeared on YouTube having shaved her head as an act of contrition. In her home country, criminals routinely have their heads shaved upon entering prison[10].

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

A French woman has her head shaved in punishment for collaborating with Germans, 1944. Image courtesy: Remembering History

Advertisements highlight the constant battle that we seem to have with our hair. We seem afraid of an inability to control it. Bad hair days, or unwanted stubble, are a beauty nightmare. Whether it is styled or removed, there is an expectation that all hair is subject to some sort of control. Uncontrolled hair  – grown when it should be shaved, tangled when it should be tamed – is the biggest hair taboo.

[4] See Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (Oxford: Berg, 2004),74.
[5] Ibid. 30.
[6] Ibid. 26.
[7] Schodt, Frederik L., Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 54-55.
[8] Koppelman, as cited in Doan, 9.
[9] Virgili, Fabrice, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 182.
[10] human Rights Watch, ‘Prison Conditions in Japan’, 12.

French conspirator:

Good Hair, Bad Hair

Our love/hate relationship with hair is dependent on whether it is still attached.

Last week, I had my hair cut. While I was in the chair, I overheard the two trainees squabbling over whose turn it was to sweep the floor. It seems they felt that this job was beneath them. These women are so fond of hair that they have devoted their careers to handling it, and yet when hair is lying on the floor, detached from the head, it becomes so repulsive that they avoid it at all costs.

Hair is “both revered and reviled”[1]. In some contexts we adore it. It is fondled, envied and worshiped. In others, it provokes a feeling of revulsion. “We find it a source of shame or a case of filth… discarding it with disgust as it collects in the bottom of our sinks or bathroom drains”[2]. As soon as hair is removed from the body, it is classified alongside other bodily waste. It is classified alongside blood, urine or nail clippings, and is considered similarly unhygienic.

This perception that hair can be unhygienic extends to hair that is still attached to our bodies. Whenever it is unkempt, or sprouting from the wrong body part, it can make us feel uneasy. A hairy body seems to imply regression to a savage, animalistic state – like the Wild Man who lives in the forest [3]. In contrast, shaved or tamed hair implies intellectual advancement and civilization.

Image courtesy "Mizter H"

Image courtesy “Mizter H”

If hair trimming are considered human waste, comparable to nail clippings, it is curious that they recover their desirability when woven into wigs. Wigs and extensions made of human hair are significantly more expensive than synthetic alternatives. In some cases, a full head of someone else’s hair can be more desirable than your own. So it seems that recovered hair is cleansed of the distasteful connotations. Once it has been filtered through the creative process of wig-making, detached hair seems to regain its status as a thing of beauty.

If it is reclassified, hair is a valuable commodity. Scarcity of hair donors (particularly natural blondes) keeps the price elevated. Hair buyers flock to the poorer regions of Russia and the Ukraine to pay cash-in-hand to women who are willing to shave their heads[4]. In the West too, women have been known to sell their hair to wigmakers in times of economic hardship. With a recent boom in the popularity of extensions, thieves have been incentivized to steal hair from salons[5].

Hair detached post-mortem can have symbolic value. Braids feature in commemorative jewelry and other memento mori of the Victorian era. If there is a connection with celebrity, the hair of the dead is a historical curiosity. A single hair from John Dillinger’s death mask was sold at auction last year. Similar auctions have featured locks from George Washington and Horatio Nelson [6]

In all of these cases, the value of hair is directly affected by context. Every object “passes through different cultural contexts which may modify or even transform what it means”[7]. As with many other objects, recontextualisation of hair can diminish or increase its value, and alter our perceptions. Just as Duchamp was able elevate a urinal to the status of art by placing it in a gallery, waste hair that is gathered up from the hairdresser’s floor can be reclassified as a beauty product.

[1] Doan, Sean-Patrick, ‘After Shave: the Historical, Cultural, and Social Implications of the Shaved Body,’ (2011), 2.
[2] Park, Gloria Toyun, ‘Shave,’ Frontiers, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1996), 101.
[3] Dickason, cited in Doan, 6.
[4] Kramer, Andrew, ‘For Russia’s Poor, Blond Hair Is Snippet of Gold,’ The New York Times [online], (November 21, 2010).
[4] Williams, Timothy, ’Costly Hairstyle Is a Beauty Trend That Draws Thieves’ Notice,’ The New York Times [online], May 16, 2011.
[6] Khan, Eve, ‘Historical Hair Locks Selling at Auctions,’ The New York Times [online], (December 13 2012).
[7] Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies, 2nd ed., (London: Sage, 2007), 223.


Red Shoes and Riding Hood: Fairy Tale Costume and Identity

In fiction, a costume so often becomes inseparable from a character. Any visual medium (illustration, film, etc.) has the potential to permanently etch a connection between a character and her costume. When that vision is pervasive, as with Disney, the character and costume become so inseparable that other, existing depictions seem somehow inauthentic. Disney’s Snow White, in her puffed sleeves and yellow skirt, is now the overarching vision of the character, and contemporary illustrations are often forced to retain some features of that garment in order to maintain faithful to audience’s expectations.

Disney's pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

Disney’s pervasive vision of Snow White is the model on which numerous others are based. Any images which avoid this inspiration are perceived as being inaccurate.

But it is not just in images that fairy-tale characters have been defined by their clothes. Fairy tales have a habit of reducing characters to stereotypes, identifying one or two core features, visual or otherwise, to mark characters apart. Female characters are sometimes reduced to item of clothing. In some tales, the costume either defines (Red Riding Hood) or overtakes (Red Shoes) the identity of the girl who wears them.

Red Riding Hood's real name is never revealed in Grimm's version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s real name is never revealed in Grimm’s version of the tale. She is defined entirely by her clothes.

Red Riding Hood’s identity is so bound up in her clothes that we never learn her real name:

Once [the grandmother] made her a little hood of red velvet. It was so becoming to her that the girl wanted to wear it all the time, and so she came to be called Little Red Riding Hood. [1]

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character

Her identity is so bound up in her costume that the cape has become the sole signifier of the character.

Clothes play a central role in this fairy tale, and identities (real or apparent) are bound up in clothes throughout. When the wolf adopts the identity of the grandmother, he does so by dressing up in her bedclothes. Although the grandmother is given an identity beyond her clothes, it is this part of her that the wolf uses to apparently become her. The disguise is so convincing that Red Riding Hood does not recognise the figure as a wolf.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood's grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

The wolf adopts the identity of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother by dressing in her bedclothes.

In a version of the tale recorded in 19th century France, Little Red Riding Hood performs a striptease in front of the wolf [2]. Red Riding Hood is depicted as a seductress, and even where this incident is missing from the tale, much has been made of the connotations of the red hood, equating it with sin and passion [3]. To reduce the character’s identity to that of her clothes, is to deny her all other aspects of character that are not signified by the red cloth. She is primarily, and completely, the sinner or seductress that is implied by her garment.

In a lesser-known story of the brothers Grimm, Furrypelts, a princess is named for the cloak of “thousands of kinds of pelts and furs” that she uses to conceal her beauty [4]. In the more familiar tale of Red Shoes, a girl becomes possessed by her shoes in punishment for her vanity. Both of these tales begin with the assumption that young women have a frivolous desire for extravagant fashion, and the connection between clothes and femininity is central to many other tales, including Cinderella. This is a theme that I will investigate in a further post, so watch this space!

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

Furrypelts is named after her coat, sewn from all the furs of every animal in the world.

In Hans Christian Andersen's tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl's feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, a pair of Red Shoes possess a girl’s feet until she is forced to cut them off with an axe.

[1] Brothers Grimm, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, reproduced in Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004.
[2] Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, New York: Norton, 2004, p. 141
[3] Bettleheim, Bruno, ‘Little Red Cap and the Pubertal Girl,’ in Dundes, Alan (ed.), Little Red Riding Hood: a Casebook, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, p. 286

Disney’s Snow White:
Red Riding Hood:
The wolf dressed in grandmother’s bedclothes:é+Little+Red+Riding+Hood.jpg
Furrypelts: and
The Red Shoes:

The Masculinisation of Dressing Up

Perhaps because it is seen as an extension of the frivolities and vanity of fashion, or perhaps because it is associated with children, dressing-up is a niche activity for men. Very few adult men engage in dressing-up, even on sanctioned occasions such as Halloween. However, a new generation of men are becoming more engaged with costume. ‘Costume play’ is seeing an increase in popularity, largely in the virtual world.

In multiplayer online games (RPGs such as World of Warcraft) the dressing and preparation of the avatar is a significant part of the player’s gaming experience. Janine Fron et. al observe that male gamers devote a lot of time and effort into developing their costume, justified by their use of terminology such as ‘gear’ rather than ‘costume’. Such terminology suggests that the avatar’s wardrobe is primarily a matter of function rather than style. Moreover, it is quantifiable. One choice of armour may offer more effective defence than another, enabling players to “treat the costume as a statistic more than a decoration or form of personal expression”[1].


These gaming experiences “may also serve as an entry-point for men into dress-up, for whom its convergence with technology may dispel some of its more feminine  connotations”[2]. If costume can be justified as a functional object, particularly in that is associated with the very masculine act of combat, it can be distanced from feminine acts of vanity, and childish acts of play.

The notion of costume as functional object has also made the practice of dressing-up more acceptable to mainstream cinema audiences. Contemporary audiences find that the lycra unitard of Adam West’s TV Batman lacks masculinity (to the extent that articles point to homosexual overtones)[3]. Christopher Nolan took great pains to justify Bruce Wayne’s costume in his more recent cinema incarnation. The Dark Knight (2008) depicts the Batman costume as “pseudo-utilitarian”[4]. Lucius Fox, Batman’s equivalent to Bond’s ‘Q’, is employed in technical development. His role as innovator and curator of Wayne Enterprises’ vast collection of military technologies ensures the feasibility of an endless supply of new gadgets, many of which form part of the costume.

The Dark Knight Rises

In the real-world too, association with battle gives dressing up a masculine purpose. Battle re-enactment provides men with the freedom to dress-up, combined with the restrictions imposed by authenticity[5]. Such strictly regulated scenarios avoid the free improvisation of childsplay. There are sets of rules governing how the costume may be worn, dictated by the demand for historical accuracy. The act of dressing-up takes on mature and masculine associations with war and rule-making.

battle reenactment

[1] Fron, Janine, Fullerton, Tracy, Ford Morie, Jaquelyn, and Pearce, Celia, Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination, paper presented at Philosophy of Computer Games’, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, 24-27 January 2004, (accessed 10 February 2013)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniels, Les, Batman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1999, p. 84.
[4] Chabon, Michael, ‘Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,’ in Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, New York: Yale University Press, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, p.18.
[5] Fron et al., Op. Cit.

World of Warcraft armour:
Batman costume from The Dark Knight Rises:
Battle re-enactment: