My new Vanity Fair came yesterday, so I was finally able to see the controversial photo of Mylie Cyrus/Hannah Montana which supposedly shows her “nude.” Not that I was waiting eagerly.) In fact, she’s frontally wrapped and covered in goosebumps. I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about. It’s not as though she were flashing her lack of underwear where it counts most. It’s not as though Annie Liebowitz didn’t photograph herself and her other intimates in their birthday suits and NOT when they were most seductive or sexual. Sure, this girl is made up in a way once considered scandalous and giving a “come hither” look, but that’s what 15-year-olds DO and one is grateful if our own don’t put themselves on the Internet doing it.
Last night I watched “A Dance to the Music of Time” which was another of those long, long twinings of the fates of public school boys in England, their fortunes going up and down in the midst of a sea of liquor and tea. It doesn’t have the juice of, for instance, the “7 Up” series. But the first episode begins with a woman answering the door to her lover wearing only her birthday suit. She is a very beautiful person but as the dialogue between the tired hero and his lover goes on, she loses her erotic edge, becoming more and more an art object. This is restored by a shot in which she has wrapped a bedspread in the manner of a sarong, but not securely, so that it falls back off -- a strip tease -- though by that time she’s pressed against the man in order to dance so we only see her beautiful fanny. The effect of all this -- I’m sure calculated -- is to keep us watching through four DVD discs, each 140 minutes long and each a kind of Watcher’s Digest of the twelve volume origin of the story. Many bored and confused people, esp. teenaged boys, will hang on throughout in hopes that another scene like that will appear. But it doesn’t.
I’ve been working on body issues from the angle of aging -- you know: drooping and crumpling -- but also as a health issue since overweight is linked to illness. (I’ve come to the belief that it is a SIGN and SYMPTOM but not a CAUSE.) This means feeling for lumps and using the mirror in a way I haven’t since I was the age of Mylie Cyrus. I was a grown woman when “Our Bodies, Our...” what was that? Our Health? Our Selves? was published in the great age of Self-Examination. I was much too unpolitical and not nearly gymnastic enough to get into gynecological self-examination, which could probably only be managed with help or by a woman used to inserting a diaphragm.
One of my weight-losing helps is a series of photos taken of a woman with the legendary “such-a-pretty-face,” much younger than myself, as she reduced farther and farther. When she was at “goal” as the Weight Watchers say, she was a candidate for skin-tuck surgery here and there. I won’t even THINK about that! Anyway, nearing 70, my goal is health more than attractiveness or even properly fitting clothing.
Leonard Nimoy, always a good influence, has published a book of photographs of women who are medically obese, nude and dancing. They are, he declares, “beautiful.” Julian Freud, the acclaimed artist, recently sold -- for millions -- a painting of a very fat woman napping on a stuffed and rosy sofa very much like herself. Prehistorically, very fat woman were evidently fertility goddesses. We find their little amulets. Now and then the magazines take a run at making fat women attractive, but they never go nude. Instead the idea is to make them look good because of what they BOUGHT, like Miley with her makeup technician and very expensive photographer to say nothing of satin sheets.
But in a magazine that specializes in Western art, a painting of a rather thin woman sitting nude in a chair, doing some mending as I recall, provoked a storm of protesting letters about how provocative it was. Recently an Edward Steichen photo of a slender woman lying on her stomach, framed from shoulders to knees and shot from the side, reduced her to a smooth curve that could easily have been a seashell or sand dune. Was that erotic? As I recall it sold for eight million dollars.
It is a rule of thumb that what is exciting is whatever is forbidden and what is erotic is whatever society pretends to forbid, but in fact flaunts or sells. It’s a kind of an Emperor’s New Clothes deal where everyone agrees that young, nude, slender, and painted is attractive. So our kids obsess over getting that way.
But that is NOT what makes a body erotic. Maybe a good art object, but not really erotic in an immediate relationship. The latter are things that cannot be photographed, though they might be described in words. Responsiveness, humor, warmth, the ability to understand and trust, imagination, the language of the glance and gesture -- all stuff that has to be learned in a way, but always made unique by one’s own body and mind. What we are making taboo is reality. Therefore, that is what is most seductive. But reality doesn’t necessarily mean sordid, impoverished, suffering.
The constant emphasis on undress stripped of all those things above (responsiveness, humor, warmth, etc.) makes people into dolls, puppets controlled by old movie images. Everyone is endlessly curious about other people’s bodies and their idiosyncracies, though in the days of Photoshop it’s impossible to know what’s real. How come they didn’t erase the goose bumps on Mylie Cyrus? Did they think it made her cuter? Why did she have goose bumps anyway? Wasn’t she under the hot lights of photography? Or maybe it was available light and so on in some drafty loft.
We’ve so sexualized nudity, even arty posed nudity, that the innocent and funny series of photos my dad took over the years of myself and my little brothers at bedtime, all trying to see inside his precious top-opening phonograph, none of us tall enough to get our noses over the edge, cannot now be scanned into anything I write, because it would be considered kiddie porn. Even the funny little greeting card that goes around at Easter, showing toddlers of every skin hue sitting pudgy butts-to-the-camera, each cheek painted with stripes or dots, and entitled “Happy Keister,” made me hesitate to forward it. It came to me from a female relative repressed enough to be innocent. That’s beginning to look like an enlightened attitude. (Repression has always been a come-on.)