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:

The problem with quantitative size labels

Do clothing sizes make us feel fat?

Whatever our size, clothes labels force us to directly compare us to those that are smaller or larger than ourselves. Size label make us aware of our body flaws, and can make shopping an emotionally painful experience. Perhaps the sizing system needs an overhaul.

fat size label

A hundred years ago, consumers were more likely to get clothes tailor made than buy them off the rack. Many women never knew their dress size, or at least not in a simple term that could be easily compared to the relative sizes of other people. The process also ensured that no one’s body flaws could be exposed by ill-fitting garments. As soon as size labels were introduced, women became painfully aware of how their bodies differed. Moreover, they were able to quantify the difference between their own bodies and the ideal.

Jill Fields suggests that the introduction of standardized sizing in corset manufacture is responsible for the notion of the ideal body type[1]. In previous centuries, corsets had been measured and made for every individual consumer. In the early twentieth century, however, corsets were mass-produced. This required them to be designed to fit a range of different bodies, which in turn led to the need for different body types to be classified. Corsets were sold in different categories, for different body types, labelled as ‘stout’, ‘average’, and ‘slender’. This prompted comparison between consumers, drawing attention to their physical differences. The identification of ‘figure faults’ in customers who did not fit the standard sizes, exacerbated the problem, by publically labelling some women’s bodies as faulty.

Being classified as ‘stout’ would dent anyone’s self-esteem. Contemporary sizing systems attempt to sooth egos with euphemisms like ‘plus size’, but as these terms become widespread they become synonymous with ‘overweight’.

There are labels that equate to ‘fat’. The term ‘extra’ suggests ‘excess’, and as anything labelled with an ‘x’ – XL, XXL, XXXL – strongly suggests abnormality. ‘Extra’ (even when abbreviated to ‘x’) is a term that directly references greater-than-normal volume.

Numerical sizing (10, 12, 14) is as neutral as it can be. It is quantitative rather than qualitative. It does not judge; it simply states the facts. However, over time, we have been led to believe that the ‘perfect 10’ is the ideal, and so that any higher number is imperfect.

One solution may be to develop new sizing systems that are not based on relative sizes, rather on positive connotations that already exist elsewhere. Women who might normally feel ashamed at having to pull a size 16 or 18 off the rack might feel far more comfortable if those clothes were labelled in a way that explored the positive connotations of feminine curves. That size ‘16’ could be replaced with a label that reads ‘burlesque’.

size label burlesque

Similar systems could be developed for men. A broad-chested 42 could be renamed ‘athletic’. A sturdy 46 could be rebranded as ‘warrior’.

Perhaps retailers could name their size labels after role-models or celebrities. According to anthropologists, evolution has programmed us to want to imitate prestigious individuals in whatever way we can[2]. I would certainly rather buy a ‘Marilyn’ than a size 14.

marilyn size label

Designers and retailers are aware that smaller sizing can boost confidence, and increase sales, hence the rise in vanity sizing [3]. While vanity sizing can positively influence self-esteem, it also irritates consumers, making it impossible to predict what size to try when moving from one shop to another. Perhaps a better solution would be to start afresh; to begin with a new size system that doesn’t label people as larger or smaller than the ideal; one that acknowledges that everyone is equally different.

[1] Fields, Jill, ‘Fighting The Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets And Culture, 1900-1930,’ Journal of Social History Vol 33, No. 22 (Winter 1999),
[2] Jamie Tehrani, ‘Four Thought,’ BBC Radio 4, 26 June 2013.
[3] Aydinoğlu, Nilüfer Z., and Krishna,Aradhna, ‘Imagining thin: Why vanity sizing works,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology Vol. 22, Issue 4 (October 2012),  565–572

Impossible Dresses: Photoshopped visions of fashions that may never exist

We are accustomed to haute couture fashion that is impractical, even improbable; we are also achingly familiar with Photoshopped fashion models who appear impossibly perfect. Where these two worlds collide, there is impossible fashion – garments and shoes that could never exist in reality.

In an advertising campaign for her line of footwear, supermodel Gisele Bündchen is depicted wearing a dress made of water. We know that this garment is impossible. We do not have the technology to harness water into the shape of a dress without containing it in some sort of vessel. And yet, here is photographic evidence that it does exist, apparently clothing a woman who we know to be real.

Gisele Bundchen appears to wear a dress made of water in promotion of her line of footwear.

Gisele Bundchen appears to wear a dress made of water in promotion of her line of footwear.

Photoshop exists to create the illusion of reality. Photographic media are regarded as able to provide “accurate transcriptions of reality”[1]. When fashion photography first emerged, advertisers were keen to draw attention to the fact that their adverts featured “actual photographs” with the implication that past advertisements had used illustration to give consumers a misleading picture of a garment’s features[2]. The first aim of this early fashion photography was to present subjects a genuinely as possible.

Recent controversy over retouched beauty photos has shown us that appearance of a photography no longer “corresponds to reality”[3]. Much has been said about the over-use of Photoshop in fashion photography, and the impossible role-models that are created for impressionable consumers. Increasingly, this digital manipulation extends to the garment.

It appears to be common practice to Photoshop the garments depicted in fashion catalogues and on retail websites. Often, the various colour options are digitally overlaid on the final image, rather than photographed directly. A collection of unretouched images from the Victoria’s secret catalogue reveals colour changes and straps removed from bikinis.

These garments are subjected to the same process, but not the same controversy, as models’ bodies and faces. Fabric is tucked and trimmed, smoothed and recolored, using the same Photoshop tools that are applied to a model’s skin and silhouette.

A Smoke Dress that would be impossible to recreate in reality. Is this the ultimate in exclusivity?Image courtesy: Juan Zambrano,

A Smoke Dress that would be impossible to recreate in reality. Is this the ultimate in exclusivity?Image courtesy: Juan Zambrano,

Using CGI, it is possible to create a garment entirely from scratch, as if plucked out of thin air. Concept-Clothes are not limited by the laws of physics or technology. They can take any form, and can be cut from any substance. Some are designed with eventual manufacture in mind (see, for example, Julian Hakes’ Mojito shoes), and others are purely fantastical. Juan Zambrano’s smoke dress (pictured above) combines couture styling with digital wizardry. Zambrano was directly inspired by the exclusivity of couture, and well aware that this image presents viewers with an image of something they can never have.

The impossibility of these computer-generated garments means that no matter how much we desire them, we can never have them. They achieve a new level of exclusivity. Perhaps this is the ultimate in haute couture; fashion so exclusive that no one can have it.

[1] Price, Derrick, ‘Surveyors and Surveyed: Photography out and about,’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction, ed. Wells, Liz, London: Routledge, 2004, 68.
[2] Martin, Richard, ‘Fashion in the age of Advertising,’ Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), 242.
[3] Peirce, Charles, Collected Writings, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931, 58.

Man or Mannequin?

The Guardian posted a curious news story yesterday, describing a recent burglary attempt in Italy. A group of men broke into a designer clothes shop, and were later caught “standing stock still in a display, trying to pass themselves off as shop dummies.”

What is perhaps most remarkable is the men’s age. Both were in their seventies – well past their physical prime – and yet it was not their physical form that was their undoing. Indeed, the arresting officer claimed that “dressed in jacket and tie, the two men were almost elegant enough to pass for the mannequins they stood alongside.” The men only gave themselves away by their inability to stand still without “trembling “[1].

Typically, mannequins are not representative of a shop’s clients, and even less so its burglars. They are idealized forms, representing the clients aspirations. Mannequins are necessarily idealised, because fashion is not about reality. It is about ambition. Underpinning fashion is the desire to imitate “social elites by their social inferiors”[2]. Designers and retailers present the consumer with a fantasy, encouraging them to imagine themselves as someone better: wealthier, and more successful; slimmer and more attractive.

If these burglars were able to masquerade convincingly as mannequins, even for a moment, does it suggest that the shop’s display had an unusual level of realism? Or, does this story tell us less about the shop display, and more about the arresting officer who was momentarily convinced by the burglars’ disguise? This officer saw two elderly men in the context of a window display without realising that looked out of place. For some reason, he was unable to tell realism from idealism.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 13.10.07

Mannequins have an interesting historical relationship with realism. “Dress cannot be understood without reference to the body”[3], and so seeing a garment hanging limp on a peg is insufficient to demonstrate its potential. Clothes are designed to dress the body, and their purpose is unfulfilled if they are not worn. For this reason, when clothing is displayed it is commonly displayed on a human body, or on an artificial substitute for a body, such as a mannequin. Initially, models and mannequins were introduced to show consumers how a garment would look on their own bodies. Realism was therefore considered vital.

In the 1920s, when Jean Patou began using live models, he aimed to employ women that not only showed the clothes well, but also to provide a means by which his customers could “identify more easily with his designs”. Other designers of the same era continued to use models with this goal in mind, selecting models whose shapes reflected the audience, including short or stocky women. In short, the ideal model at this time was deemed to be one who was “ordinary”, emphasizing the “accessibility” of the garments. Catwalk shows thereby aimed to show audiences reflections of themselves, in models to whom they could relate [4]. Similarly, mannequins were designed to be as lifelike as possible [5].

Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 dramatically changed the modelling industry. The New Look prioritized glamour and extravagance over practicality, and so the models were chosen to reflect this ideal. Dior’s models did not reflect the consumer, but who she aspired to be. They were groomed, sophisticated, and confident [6]. The model became a symbol of an ideal woman and lifestyle. By the 1950s, Dior’s methods had been adopted by mannequin designers. Mannequins became idealised. Male mannequins became muscular and tall, and women’s mannequins became slender, with impossibly long legs and narrow waists. This trend stayed with mannequins, which still today reflect an impossible ideal rather than a reality [7].


Although it has been sixty years since this shift took place, there still exists a level of self-denial about the level of realism in fashion displays. Consumers are easily persuaded to make purchases after viewing a garment on a mannequin, no matter how dissimilar the mannequin’s form is to their own body. This blurring of reality and idealism is the central theme of Michael Gotleib’s 1998 film, Mannequin. The film tells the story of a window-dresser whose muse is a mannequin brought-to-life.

The role of Emmy, the titular mannequin, is played by Kim Cattrall and a series of fibreglass imitations of the actress. With her astonishing beauty, Cattrall is able to convince audiences that she could pose as a mannequin. Notably, her character is not just an ordinary girl but an ancient princess who has harnessed magic to travel through time. It would seem that the impossibly slender form and flawless beauty of a mannequin is only fit for royalty. We could not imagine a plain and ordinary girl in this role. And yet, the very fact that this fantasy exists, suggests that audiences crave the idealism of a window display to be reflected in the reality of their everyday lives or flawed bodies.


Two aging burglars, apparently inconspicuous alongside the chiselled fibreglass forms of male mannequins, tell us that we still believe mannequins are reflective of reality. Advertisers and retailers have been successful in trying to convince us that their artificially idealised vision could come true. One Italian officer, at least, is so influenced by the pretence of reality that he is unable to tell the real from the ideal. For him, the retailer’s vision is convincing. The burglars too, were so confident in the achievability of the retailer’s display that they believed themselves able to replicate it. Mannequins may be idealised, but we are in such denial that we fail to recognise when a real form infiltrates a display. We still believe that, if we buy those overpriced designer garments, we could look as good as the mannequin as the shop window.

[1] Klington, Tom (2012), ‘ Dumb and dummies: Italian trio held over shop break-in,’ The Guardian [online], 17 Dec 2012,
[2] Crane, Diana (2000), Fashion and its Social Agendas, London: University of Chicago Press, p. 6
[3] Joanne Entwistle, cited in Perthuis, Karen de (2005) ‘The Synthetic Ideal: the Fashion Model and Photographic Manipulation’, Fashion Theory 9 (4), p. 410.
[4] Soley-Beltran, Patricia (2004), ‘Modelling Femininity’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 11 (3), p. 311.
[5] Dwyer, Gary, (2008), Window Dressing: Idealized women in the age of mannequins and photography, Lulu, p. 4.
[6] Soley-Beltran, Patricia (2004), ‘Modelling Femininity’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 11 (3), pp. 311-312.
[7] Dywer, p. 11.

Male mannequins:
Mannequins through the ages:
Mannequin movie still: