We Have a Problem with Nudity (A Photographer’s Perspective)

This post was originally shared on Dylan’s blog at http://www.dylanmaustin.com.

I remember watching Gone Girl in theaters (it’s a really good movie, by the way) and getting excited over the brief scene in which we get a glimpse of Ben Affleck’s butt and penis. In the world of infinite Tumblr porn and amateur Xtube accounts, these moments in media still feel special and this is why — they’re seldom seen. We get excited about these scenes because they are rare, simple as that.

No stranger to nudity, I have experienced a lot of positive and negative reactions to the naked form. As “the gay kid” with lots of female friends in high school, it was a regular thing to have my closest girl friends change in front of me or take a shower while having a conversation from across the bathroom. My favorite bar in Seattle features wall-mounted TVs, rotating dick pics and bubble butts while we play pool. A lot of my photography is of naked dudes — men in jockstraps, steamy shower photos with butts pressed against the glass. Even studio shots of a burlesque performer eating pancakes with syrup dripping down his abs (no really, that happened).

To me, there is a pretty simple switch in my mind that separates “We’re about to fuck,” and “I can really admire his abs, her curves, their body hair.” For those of you thinking, “Well, duh,” high-five. For those of you that winced at the thought of high-resolution dicks on the wall, stay with me. As a society, we have a serious problem with how we respond to sex, the human form, and nudity in media.

A manager from a Fortune 100 company contacted me recently looking for headshots for her entire department. Awesome, right? We reached the point of invoicing and talking details only to hit one roadblock. Her boss, a conservative Mormon in Utah, said no. They saw male nudes on my website and said to find someone else.

That’s one business venture lost on me, at the expense of my own passions. That payday could have meant a lot to a self-employed photographer in Seattle, a city that is amongst the most expensive rents in the world (ugh), but let’s analyze this situation from a less chaste perspective.

“If those things happened, congratulations — you literally live in a porno and we’re all jealous.”

Who’s the last adult you had a conversation with? The guy bagging your groceries, the pizza delivery guy, your neighbor who said hi while mowing her lawn? They’ve all had sex. Like, almost assuredly, they’ve all had sex. A few times. Maybe more than a few times. Wild, I know. I assume you would not avoid interacting with those individuals because you know this to be true. It is not like the bagger at the grocery store is going to make eye contact while deepthroating your bananas before you leave, the pizza guy will not present you with some extra sausage, and your neighbor won’t literally join you in “mowing your lawn.” If those things happened, congratulations — you literally live in a porno and we’re all jealous.

We are all so uptight about the naked body that we can’t wrap our heads around it.

Let’s talk about Facebook. Facebook (and Instagram by extension) have made exceptionally stupid policies and takedowns based on our fears of the un-clothed person. Do a quick search and you will find articles cataloguing Facebook’s post takedowns or account closings for photos of women breastfeeding, a cute photo of children recreating the damn Coppertone Girl ad from 1959, and only recently updated its standards to allow specific forms of visible female nipples. A recent story went viral, in which a man’s photos were taken down because he had VPL (visible penis line) in his Instagram posts. So nipples are ok if they’re a dude’s, and curves are only acceptable if visible in female swimsuit bottoms (no weiners!). Do not get me started on transgender folks’ representations in these situations — that could be its own post in itself. If the situation as a whole wasn’t already frustrating enough, adding a gender component really makes my head spin.

I recently submitted a question to Chase Jarvis’ series Creative Live, in which I asked what his thoughts were on balancing male nude photography and more “family-friendly” photography. How does one balance the two without alienating the other? Open and sex-positive content has been on my mind a lot lately, and perspective is always great to have. In my question, I mentioned my social media handles, which one YouTube user commented on, explicitly doubting Chase’s interest in seeing my photos, implying his disinterest in male nudes because he is a straight man. Perhaps this is a valid point on the surface, but it is a stupid perspective to have when we are constantly presented with female nude photography and expected to receive that as a normal facet of the art. An overwhelming majority of nude photography is the female form and I see it a lot, be it in art classes I’ve taken or on photo sharing sites. You will see no complaints from me. I do not turn away repulsed. I’m as gay as the day is long, but I truly admire the female form in this context.

A (straight male) subject who I have worked with a few times once told me that his friends noticed I had done a lot of male nudes. For some reason, they found it necessary to point this out, despite the fact that all of his images were done clothed, and despite the fact that he obviously knew this when he viewed my website. Imagine the damage that would be done if we assumed every straight male photographer were to objectify his female headshot clients because he also does female nudes. Of course it happens, but that’s not the norm, nor should we assume that.

One friend of mine does some really great male nudes. He shoots film, and puts a lot of thought into every frame. I know this because I recently modeled for him. His images depict all sorts of body types, and are truly artistic in nature. He has had multiple take-downs on Instagram, on photos that obviously and completely censor penises. Even those are often removed despite playing by the rules.

And this all brings us to the topic of what is sexualized or not. We allow men to be topless, but women breastfeeding in public is offensive. Movies depict women fully nude, but a penis earns a movie stricter MPAA ratings. Seriously, a movie remains rated R if it shows a penis, but only flaccid. An erect penis is scary! But wait — there’s more. As one article points out, South Park and Scary Movie showed erect penises, but they were implied to be detached from the man. So Scary Movie can show an erect penis penetrating an ear through a glory hole, and that’s fine.

Our views of nudity in art and media are damaging. We are afraid of sex but decapitations and shootings are shared for shock value online and in news media. This is a problem.

We’ve learned to be afraid of dicks and breasts. How many of us have a very young child in the family that asked his parents why he “doesn’t have boobies like mommy,” or questioned the differences in our forms? We aren’t born afraid of the body, we beat it into people from an early age. America is still problematically Puritanical. We live in a world where we can summon strangers in cars to drive us to work and run homes off of solar panels, but our ability to observe a naked body or talk about sex in a healthy and open way is stuck in the 16th century like we just got off the Mayflower.

I bring this up because it is something I am passionate about. If we are to truly unite around body positivity and grow in maturity as a society, we need to be able to look at the human form without immediately sexualizing it or turning away from it. We have no room for feeling shame about our bodies. I shouldn’t have to lose business at the expense of my art, but that won’t stop me. To contribute to this area of art means a lot more to me than a check. Having dozens of people tell me it was so comfortable and empowering to shoot their nude/boudoir-style photos with me is a huge reason I do what I do.

“If we are to truly unite around body positivity and grow in maturity as a society, we need to be able to look at the human form without immediately sexualizing it or turning away from it.”

And if you’re wondering, Gone Girl got an R rating. The faked rape scene and slicing Neil Patrick Harris open to bleed out naked on a bed is all fine as long as Affleck isn’t hard.

Dylan is a Seattle-based portrait photographer passionate about social justice, the male form, and finding the right time each day to switch from iced coffee to whiskey. He’s on Instagram @dylanmaustin.

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