This piece is a personal reflection on how my immediate circles are microcosms of the social sphere. I believe I have been influenced by the white, male dominated society that has historically, sexualized women. Because I am visibly female, I feel pressured to comply to these social standards and expectations. Women’s sexuality is marketed for the male viewer. She is meant to pleasure her man. I am meant to pleasure my viewers.
Hickerson, For Play, 2019, 4ft x 4ft.
Over the past 4 years, I’ve studied many feminist artworks that involve nudity, and wonder if they (the artist or subject presenting their nude body) could ever successfully challenge the male gaze.
An argument is that since these artworks are produced by the feminine eye (instead of by a male artist), it challenges the objectification and allows women to embody their own narrative, create their own identity.
Honestly, I’m still unsure on whether or not exercising the female nude as a woman artist challenges the male gaze, but I’ve become aware that taking ownership of my femininity and sensuality feels damn empowering – especially when female pleasure/reproductive health etc. are censored or hidden from direct view.
You read the title of this post and you realize there’s at least 2 types of people in the world: those that thought ‘vagina’… and those that actually pictured the sweet, innocent image of their cat playing with a ball of yarn. Today, I play around with the double meaning of the word ‘pussy’. You see a cat. I talk about vaginas. I believe this is called a compromise.
BUT! on a serious note: I really want to explore the way we represent the female body through aesthetic metaphors such as the domesticated house cat. Pussy becomes a euphemism for vagina. (Funny how pussy seems like a harsher word with that hard ‘p’, but people are more comfortable saying pussy than vagina. Vagina!) These are subjects that I consider in my work; it becomes a reflection of myself. How is it that my body performs this narrative? What role does my pussy play in this day of age? How does it play in time? This is my pussy playtime:
I want to explore how I have been trained to appease the male gaze, involuntarily, through constant surveillance, performance and embodiment. I feel that because I am a woman, I am expected to conform to gender roles that characterize women as sexual beings created to tend to their man.
And so I decided to play around with a camera.
Although I consider myself a fiber artist and painter, I enjoy delving into other mediums including new media. I decided to explore symbolic references and manipulation of cloth through photography to capture a realistic reflection of my narrative. In my work entitled, My Body Performs/Pussy Playtime (diptych) (2019), I carefully select my clothing to best accentuate my body, while keeping it covered. Although I am not nude, I want the viewer to view my form and infer a sense of nudity, or rather a sense of vulnerability. I aim to create an intimate setting wherein I stand, blurred in the background, but my presence is understood.
The viewer sees my nude-toned bodysuit and assumes my torso is uncovered. Then, the mustard pants are worn because of the flimsy material. The pants hang loose on my thighs, causing the material to curve with my curves, imitating the shape of my vulva. I hold a sweater in my right hand; the material imitates hair, and I place it over my thigh, near my vulva.
Then! Vivianne, my past roommate’s therapy cat, is placed in the foreground. In the left diptych (viewer’s left), Vivianne is viewed from her profile. She stares forward, fierce and calm. Her gaze looks forward which creates a directional movement towards my pelvic area. The image is split in half; Vivianne fills one half of the photo while my body resides in the other. The overall composition is balanced.
Similarly, the right photograph of the diptych depicts a near, duplicated image. There is a notable difference in Vivanne’s position. In the second diptych, she fills a little less than half the composition, and her head is placed at a ¾ profile where her gaze meets the viewer. She demands to meet the gaze of the viewer. As my body performs a feminine oversexualization geared to appease to the male gaze, Vivianne reflects the double meaning in the term ‘pussy’. She embodies the feminine, and symbolizes the manipulation of sex appeal to grasp the gaze of the male viewer.
Life is equated to a game through countless metaphors; sometimes it is a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ and other times it is based on predeterminism (entailing the course of life events have been chosen at conception or before your birth, typically due to the power of a higher entity/creator). I like to amuse the thought that life is a slight combination of both, where we are given the illusion of free will to choose the course of live events, but social constructions have limited our choices through standards and expectations. For example, my intersectionality – as a young, white woman born in a first world, patriarchal society and raised in a Catholic, educational environment – has deeply impacted my social perspective. My intersectionality dictates how people will expect me to perform, as well as how they will treat me based on learned behaviours. I have learned to embody an identity through my reflection of social norms.
Through my identity as female and living in a society that oversexualizes women and their feminine attributes, I have inherited beliefs of self-worth which are influenced by sexual availability and aesthetic appeasement; both of which must cater to the male audience. And so, I ask myself this question.
To be naked or to be nude?
I wanted to further my exploration of whether using my body as a female artist is challenging the male gaze or conforming to it. I question whether I am naked or embodying the nude subject admired by the male viewer.
In my work entitled, To Be Naked Or To Be Nude (diptych) (2019), I pose in front of my camera once again in my nude bodysuit, no pants and I’m wearing the sweater that I was holding in My Body Performs/Pussy Playtime (diptych). I stand against a beige wall. The neutrality is repeated in my porcelain skin, the fair tanned bodysuit and the tone of the blank walls. I almost blend into my surroundings, disappearing from sight. The focal points become my head and sweater, which are the bold shades of brown pushing forward in contrast.
In the left panel (viewer’s left), my arms are raised, elbows bent and hands tucking my loose strands of hair behind my ears. The pose imitates a shy and sensual body language that is often flirtatious.
Similarly, in the right-most panel, my hands are caught lifting the ends of the sweater up the length of my torso. Even though, comparingly, the sweater covers the same amount of body in both panels, the gesture in the right hints at an attempt of removing the article of clothing.
Although I stand in the image alone and naked, I am simultaneously nude in the eyes of my male spectator. I seek to make eye contact; I stand looking forward, confronting my audience. I am subject to the male gaze.
Throughout my studies as an art major who is minoring in Women Studies, I have analyzed other people’s experiences and reflected on my own. I came to the conclusion that a common theme seems to be: repressed women’s sexuality. I wanted to comment on the gendered oppression of sexuality, and how turning the light off tends to make some comfortable – because when the lights are off, women can seek their forbidden pleasure (Sexual pleasure!); no one can judge what they can’t see, right?
But as FKA Twigs says, “when I trust you, we can do it with the lights on”.
Shayla Hickerson, The Fall of (Wo)Man, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 4 x 4 ft
After I spent a month of interviewing, examining, illustrating, and painting other people, I realized I wasn’t documenting my own experiences. I was asking my family and friends questions based on gender, identity and their perceived social pressures, but I wasn’t answering those questions myself.
And so! I began to think about my experience as female.
I began to think about how people treat me a certain way because they look at how I present myself, and they assume that my gender matches my biological sex. Similarly, my feminine presentation dictates how I will be treated in intimate settings. Typically, women are pressured to suppress their sexual needs. Their role is to tend to the needs of their man. Their position is on their knees, and as Michelangelo portrays it in his painting (The Fall of Man), she’s about 90 degrees away from finishing him off.
Although Michelangelo’s masterpiece is considerably sexualized, I wanted to overtly sexualize the imagery. I want to expose the forsaken female pleasure.
I love you he says when
his hair falls in my face,
his eyes are on my eyes,
his nose brushes against my cheek,
his fingers trace my jaw,
his lips embrace my lips,
his arm leans against my chest,
his chest hovers over my heart,
his legs wrap around my legs,
and my arms lie dead at my side
because I have never been more uncomfortable in my life.
Or in love.