Pretend A Man Painted It | The Deleted Photo

By Lucy Harbron - 18:38


My favourite room in my favourite gallery is full of female nude paintings and images depicting the power and sexuality of women, all painted by men. Chalkboards prompt conversation about censorship and feminism: are these images okay in our modern age? Are we allowed to admire them and ignore the issue behind it, of female anatomy being acceptable only in art and only for male use while the women in these paintings were oppressed or blamed or brutalised? Can we enjoy the beauty without considering the hand that held a brush in one and tightened around wrists of control with the other?

The female form is everywhere. Shops selling prints and vases, TV promos with a flash of a lower back, music videos with dancing silhouettes, runways with carefully covered nipples, I doubt we go a day without seeing skin. It’s a cornerstone of art, in some ways a shape that’s become a device moving from sex sells to soft, gentle feminist doodles sell as I browse the wallets dotted with boob doodles in Monki. Men wander round in t-shirts with a topless Kate Moss on it, bedrooms around the world are decorated with framed forms, even our perfume bottles flow in and out as hips. The beauty of our bodies is intoxicating and unavoidable, we are admired and marketed world-wide and cross-genre. So why is it so shocking for me to press post on the artwork of my own?

In the final weeks in my flat, I did a photoshoot with my friend for her Depop. We wanted to do it as a collab between my burlesque work and her glorious vintage finds. We talked concepts, shared inspo pics with images of Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol’s factory girls flying between us as I perfected my makeup. For an afternoon we played dress up, listening to music and laughing as I attempted to walk in the insane platform boots she’d found in a charity shop one day. I felt powerful. It was one of those days where I wanted to stare at myself for hours, stood in front of the mirror in a bodysuit and incredible glossy red-apple knee-high boots. The voice in my head that has made me turn away so many times before didn’t speak up that day. I put the Velvet Underground on and laid down on my bay window feeling worthy of a photoshoot and unafraid of the images, a feeling I never experience.

When she sent me the pictures I laughed, amazed. The light hit perfectly, my body was wrapped in contrast of shadow and light in an image that looks so powerful yet so tender to me as the red leather brushed against white mesh that ripples. It’s art to me, on a weekday afternoon we’d added to the history of artwork around the female form with our own piece, curated, shot and made by only women.

Had the picture have been on an art page, sat somewhere in the depths of Tumblr or printed in a zine, I imagine no controversy would’ve come. We see pictures like this all the time, skin is nothing new to us. But under my name, published by my own finger and my own will, that was cause for concern. My sister text me, my mum’s colleagues made comments, and suddenly I was under fire with warnings that I wouldn’t get jobs because I shared my own skin.

I forget that people care. Since joining burlesque in my 2nd year of uni, I’ve been blessed to live in a bubble of self-empowerment, swimming within the female gaze where we can see our own bodies as art without a male hand necessary. We celebrate ourselves, find pride in our power and sensuality without any need for affirmations sitting on the line between praise and pick up. Attention is not on the radar; we see only art and reference and effort. In that photo, I see beautiful light, I see Barbarella, I see Edie Sedgwick and shiny factory walls and girls topless in studio 54, I see the training put into getting my legs that straight, I see the influence of my favourite photography accounts and frames up in the national portrait gallery, I see that I look amazing, I see the calm that comes from seeing all this in an image of my thighs, a feature I used to curse and claw at. They see a bum, they see the shock that I laid myself down, they see sex.

Would it be better painted? Had I have laid down in a life drawing class and posted the pictures made by others, would that have been fine with them? Is the issue that I did this for myself? Still in 2020, unable to understand that women can enjoy their own sensuality as much as others. Is the problem that I’ve taken that back? Complaint coming from the confusion that it might be less satisfying to sexualise someone that doesn’t need your lacklustre compliment when I praise myself higher each day. Does it all become less fun when I like it? Part of the joy in sexualising women coming from the crawling skin of discomfort, the shy ‘thank you’ to shoo the man away, does an ‘I know’ ruin that? Or is it my label? Images like this blocked off as bad because I’m a daughter, a sister, a future wife, an employee. If I was a model it would be fine, but simply a woman is ungraspable, forcing you to sit in uncertainty. Would it have been okay with a different caption? One less sure of myself and more self-conscious? Or one screaming a statement in plain words, chanting my claim to my own skin, raising an undeniable finger to the patriarchy to melt the male gaze in a pool of politics?

With my own name attached and my own free will, a picture of my own skin wasn’t appropriate. An image of my own skin is turned on my like a knife, apparently threatening to slash up my skills, ruining my ability to do a job. I wonder if they know that, shock horror, I wear it every day, always wearing that same skin under my jeans, my hips, bum, boobs not accessories I can leave at home for a more appropriate occasion. I am always that woman, whether I post the picture or not. Look at me how you will, change your opinion, but I wake up each day that same confident, sensual, intelligent, creative, skilled, talented, empathetic, emotional, loving woman, in the same skin with the same curves underneath it. I lie down on my bay window in a bodysuit, then I get up and write, work, see friends, read, learn. I do both, I can be both, and I am all of it. Your impressions of me are correct and yet limited, women always stretch beyond the canvas. The topless Sappho poured out poetry, naked Eve birthed the earth, the nymphs’ power shaped and tested the protagonist.

In the photo, I see more than them. My mum begs me to consider the way people might view me, but why would I squint? From here I see it all, sitting with myself forever and learning each nuance. From there, the strangers see a couple of images a month, they see skin nestled in between a collage of achievements and thoughts, and if they focus in on one and not the other, their tunnel vision shouldn’t say anything about my public persona but their attention span.

The day I deleted the picture I wanted to cry. Tired of the force-fed shame, shaking with anger from the Chinese whispered opinions of strangers in towns I no longer live in, my finger unwillingly archived my favourite image that’s ever been taken of me, hiding an image that represented the best of my confidence, the sun-shining peak of the uphill battle against body image issues, the skill of my friend, the end product of our collective vision, the finale of my reclamation to claw my sensuality back from the hands of grown men driving past honking horns. So here, if my skin is so unacceptable, have my skill. If that’s still not okay, pretend a man painted it.

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