To see you naked is to recall the Earth. - Federico Garcia Lorca
"The human body has become separate from its nature, and therefore misinterpreted."
Shannon May Powell
Back in 2011 a group of my friends and I used to host what we wistfully coined as ‘fem nights,’ a gathering each full moon where we would share food, music and ideas. Once it had developed into a more popular and rigorously organized gathering, I was surprised to hear that there was a taboo developing around these meetings.
Even more surprisingly, we realised that the meetings had incurred this reputation simply because the name insinuated some kind of gender exclusivity, which wasn’t the case as some of our most passionate attenders were male. Language really is like a loaded gun. It came as a shock to me that people would assume that the word fem, or any other title associated with feminist themes meant that only females were able to attend these meetings.
Naively, back then I thought that everyone was a feminist. I thought being a feminist simply meant that you supported equal rights for both sexes. I thought feminism was the casual disposition of most people, regardless of gender. To me, pro feminism was not radical, it was just humane. This was one of the first instances where I felt as though I was part of a minority in Australia. Even amongst my own seemingly open minded and well-educated peers, I felt the led bullet of prejudice cold on the back of my neck.
In Australia, the country that I grew up in, nudity or “indecent exposure” is illegal. What is considered indecent for a female to expose is different to what is indecent for a male to expose. This is a world where women are constantly reminded that they do not belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own and this disparity is just one example.
As a white woman living in a first world country I am aware that being part of a feminist discussion is a privilege that many people in the world are denied. However, if this voice is the only one that I have, then I will use it.
If a female shaves her head, this is a statement. If a female chooses to lay on a beach with her nipples showing this is seen by the majority as provocative or obscene. If a female chooses to grow her body hair in the same areas that a male does, this is also a statement. Why is it that there are different prototypes put in place for each gender?
In 2015 I moved to Berlin. On the day of my arrival it was a sweltering 39 degrees and my friends took me to a nudist lake, something so common in Germany that the official title is hardly necessary. I observed the human landscape in front of me with a feeling of elation. I was relieved to shed the conservative sheath that I had been smothered by in Australia, relieved to shed my fear of judgment, relieved to see people of all shapes and forms reduced to the same essence regardless of race, sexuality or gender (be that male, female or any other sex that one chooses to identify with).
I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd. There were people young and old, with and without tattoos, piercings and body hair exposed. It was a utopic scene, a melting pot of humanity where minorities did not seem to exist. I saw the human figure reduced to its crux, and that is, a natural and intelligent instrument, something to be acknowledged and respected for its individuality, not feared or censored in the name of social graciousness.
It made me think, why does the female body provoke so much fear and judgment in Australia? It is no more sacred than any other form in nature and so it should not have to comply with alternative rules put in place by external forces or ideologies.
Diversity is the spice of life and Berlin demonstrates this with a cool indifference. It does so culturally due to the high intake and integration of migrants. It does so sexually due to the popularity of gay clubs for all people despite sexual orientation or gender. It also creates equality in the arts by having gender equality officers and women’s representatives present in all faculties throughout universities.
In a city such as this, developing an awareness and practice of gender fluidity and equality is an inevitable process, rather than something you need to actively seek, which is often the case in more conservative countries like Australia.
Before we lose touch with what is real. Before we forget the human body in its most glorious, sensual and resplendent form, that is; the body in its natural form, debased with imperfections, soft and scarred, coarse with hair and other divine textures, embedded with a lifetime of love and life giving, salted with sweat, skin colors sublime and innumerable, there must be a change of mind. All human form is nature. It is natural. Do you see a tree standing naked against the backdrop of a forest and gasp at its individualism?
The human body has become separate from its nature, and therefore misinterpreted, which means that when it does appear in real life it is often perceived as an object, something that is subject to a projection of ownership. As a result of this projected ownership, the human body is expected to replicate a prototype of what the perceiver believes a body should look like.
Body hair is not vulgar or alternative. Nudity is not villainous, and neither are those who choose to portray it in a way that is real and empowering for them. Every individual has the right to wear their personality on their skin, whatever aesthetic that embodies. Let us not forget that the human body belongs to the individual and not their government.
I am a photographer and what I value most in my subjects is their naturalness. I want to capture them as they are, as we all are. Recently I shared a photograph on my instagram account of a semi-naked woman, amidst other photographs of men similarly un-clothed with body hair and nipples showing.
The photo was reported and removed with haste, reminding me of the still lagging social norms that our present culture is built upon. Despite societies current discourse, it is inevitable that we will arrive at a place in history where gender and sexuality are not subject to prejudice, and are instead accepted as fluid and binary concepts.
Recently I visited a dear friend who is a performance artist living in Istanbul where she runs women’s circles and voice/expression workshops. Due to religious beliefs women are not encouraged to engage with any of these practices, which makes the work that she does there so important. To give women a voice and to create a space that is free of judgment has proven to help them heal past traumas and overcome insecurities about their own bodies.
At the end of the day revolution is an internal process as well as external. It begins with the individual and their freedom to practice self-love despite their cultural background or context. Body hair and nudity are mere symbols for what I hope will be a greater revolution in awareness and equality for all.
When I use the word revolution, I am not talking about an apocalyptic upheaval in our current way of life. I am talking about something much more simple and direct, which is; the ability to escape cultural conditioning and perceive our own truths in a world shrouded by fear. When the mind is free from the motivations and indoctrinations of society, there is truth. And only from this place of truth can we begin to act accordingly within a more humane world.
“You are not naked when you take off your clothes. When you shed the cultural operating system, then, essentially you stand naked before the inspection of your own psyche… and it’s from that position, a position outside the cultural operating system, that we can begin to ask real questions about what it means to be human.” - Terence McKenna
Words and Images by Shannon May Powell