UPDATE: the Sun’s apparent decision to stop photos of ‘page 3 girls’, which inspired this blog, has turned out to be a stunt. Or a u-turn. Or something. Anyway, I’ve made minor revisions…
If the arguments over page 3 of The Sun teach us anything, it is that context is everything.
With that in mind, here is a topless photograph of me.
The photo is by my friend Jannica Honey, and was taken in 2007. I was naked, and a more explicit image from the same session appeared in an exhibition in Edinburgh that year. But, as I say, context is everything. I was quite happy for that photo to be on display in a gallery. Since then I’ve been happy for it to be on my bedroom wall. But for random strangers on the internet? That’s a different thing. Obviously.
The problem with page 3 – and this should be screamingly obvious, but apparently it’s not – has always been context. Page 3 of a newspaper is a news page, and the Sun’s use of page 3 girls suggests the role of young women in news pages is decoration, and decoration only, like glamorous ‘assistants’ for sleazy male game show hosts, where the hosts do all of the talking and are invariably much older.
This is why the claim that it’s hypocritical for feminists to criticise page 3 when women’s magazines also feature photos of women with no clothes on is such nonsense. Page 3 of a ‘family newspaper’ (as the Sun insists on describing itself) is plainly not the same thing as a magazine designed explicitly for women. It is also why arguing that if you don’t like it you should just ‘turn the page’ misses the point. It is the prominence of page 3 girls, the fact they are on page 3 of a widely read ‘family newspaper’, that makes the whole thing problematic. (Also, those who claim campaigning against page 3 is evidence of ‘puritanism’ or ‘censorship’ are as absurd as those who dismiss people who object to racist, sexist or homophobic jokes as having ‘no sense of humour’ – as if jokes, rather than the content of them, were the problem.)
I have a story about Jannica Honey that feels particularly relevant this week. At the end of 2009, on a plane from Tenerife, she found herself leafing through an in-flight magazine featuring photos of the airline’s female staff in skimpy swimwear. Thinking it was ‘really unnecessary’, she emailed the magazine’s editor. ‘If I wanted to see naked chicks, I would just pick up Loaded or Nuts,’ she wrote. ‘Surely there is more to the cabin crew? It is almost 2010. Move on.’
In response, the editor offered a fascinatingly passive aggressive critique of Jannica’s own work, based on a visit to her website: ‘I really like your pictures, though the argument could be made that they are exploitative, and is anyone really interesting in seeing images of naked men and women full frontal and scrawny kids smoking? It might be argued that your particular shots were more shocking than any calendar shoot. Though I myself wouldn’t say that.’
There was ‘nothing wrong’, he continued defensively, ‘with a bikini-nude calendar of beautiful women’. ‘All the cabin crew on the shoot have gained a huge amount of self-esteem from having the opportunity to be photographed by an award-winning professional photographer in a way that they would never normally experience in their lives… in their words, not exploitative at all.’
What’s striking here is that the editor missed Jannica’s point. Her complaint was not about the images themselves, but about context. Like page 3, and unlike Loaded or Nuts, these images were on show to everyone – men, women and children of all ages – who happened to be on that plane.
That said, the way the women were photographed was important too. Does anyone really ‘gain a huge amount of self-esteem’ from glamorous full body photo shoots in which all spots, lines and wrinkles – ‘everything that’s really you,’ as Jannica put it to me – are airbrushed out of view, in which you are not yourself but a constructed, objectified version of yourself? ‘He told me that these girls were struggling with self-esteem and after the shoot they felt really confident,’ Jannica told me afterwards. ‘But until what? The next shoot? It’s like a quick fix. If you get confidence from that then to hold on to it you have to maintain a model career.’ (Jannica’s photos, by contrast, deliberately leave blemishes untouched, preferring to find beauty in messy, ‘scrawny’ reality).
Why were these women struggling with self-esteem? Possibly because the society they live in encourages them to think of their bodies either as objects of male sexual gratification or objects of shame. Last week I read about a fascinating little social experiment, which revealed a lot about what many men really think about women’s self-esteem. Claire Boniface, a 20-year-old student at the University of Winchester, decided that whenever a man complimented her on her looks online, rather than humbly offering gratitude she would simply agree with them. ‘Your beautiful,’ said one called Matt (grammatical mistake his, not mine). ‘Thank you! I know aha how are you?’ Boniface responded. Result: an immediate retraction of the compliment. ‘Being vain won’t get you anywhere it just makes you a bitch.’
This pattern repeated numerous times, and the speed at which the men moved from compliments to abuse is shocking. Conclusion: self-esteem, in fact, is often the last thing men want women to feel. If they are confident in themselves, they cannot be controlled. And page 3 is very much about control. Putting a young, topless woman on the same page of a newspaper, every single day, is about keeping those women in their place.
There is an irony here, which is that, in some ways, Jannica photographed me like a page 3 girl. Page 3 girls, famously, are supposed to be ‘ordinary’, ‘wholesome’ – not inaccessible icons but the kind of girls you might find living next door – in other words, the kind of girls male Sun readers imagine they might get to fuck. I may not be smiling (or even looking) at the camera in the way a page 3 girl would, but I am ordinary, unthreatening, a boy next door.
Also – and this is another illustration of why context matters so much – being photographed that way, in that context, proved to be very good for my self-esteem, although it took a while. My initial reaction when Jannica asked me to do it was incredulity – me, really? – and my initial reaction when I saw the photos, having imagined that she might want to make me look beautiful, was shock. They seemed so stark, so unforgiving, my skinny white body so exposed, with all the spots and scars on show. The one Jannica chose to use in her exhibition was particularly exposing. I was ambivalent about it at the time. I was ambivalent about the whole thing, in fact. I hadn’t been at all sure about posing naked, and at the start of the photo session I kept my trousers on, hung low around my waist. But it felt ridiculous, so I ended up taking them off, on the understanding that the pictures would be cropped so they would only reveal a certain amount.
Looking back, I wish I’d been braver. But as portraits they reveal a lot about who I was back then: doubtful, cautious, vulnerable. I am looking away from the camera in every single one, as if I can’t meet its gaze. In one or two I am holding my arms out in front of me protectively, as if trying to hide, which in retrospect is a bit daft, but also true to the person I was then.
Eight years on, though, I love the photos. They helped me to accept the way I looked, and that (to channel Christina Aguilera for a moment) I was beautiful, no matter what they say (‘they’ being the bullies at school, who would say to me ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ or taunt me about my spots). On a deeper level, they helped me to understand who I was, where my inhibitions came from, and how to overcome them. Most importantly, one friendship, with somebody who encouraged me to do the photos when I was questioning the wisdom of it, and loved them and everything they represented, evolved into a romantic relationship and now a marriage that has produced two beautiful children. Jannica’s photos were, in part, responsible for that, which is why one of them is on our bedroom wall.
But enough about me. What does it mean for a white, middle class man – a ‘default man’, as Grayson Perry would put it – to be photographed in this way? I’m becoming increasingly interested in this question.
In the midst of this week’s all too brief celebration of the demise of page 3, some feminist writers cautioned that the death of one emblem of sexism didn’t mean very much had changed, either for the Sun or society in general. As Bidisha wrote in the Guardian yesterday, ‘the decision signals the overall triumph of a wholly pornified, misogynist wider culture. The ethos and presentation of page 3 is in decline not because men respect women more and radical feminists like me have won but because there are now infinite images of women, sexualised, dehumanised and objectified, accessible for free, online’.
If Bidisha is right, and we are living in a wholly pornified, misogynist culture, how should a man who wants to help the feminist cause respond to that? I want no part in exploitation, but I’m not keen on puritanism or censorship either. While I’d be very happy for page 3 to disappear – for the reasons outlined above – I also happen to enjoy images of naked women, and I can’t pretend otherwise. I am intrigued by ethical porn, and wonder if it could offer a way forward – sexual gratification that doesn’t hurt anyone.
Jannica Honey enjoys pictures of naked women too (she once described herself to me as ‘a feminist, but not very PC’) and I like her artistic approach to nudity. And so, in 2015, I am planning to be photographed by her again, blemishes, wrinkles and all. Partly just because I want to, but partly also as a political act. I want to issue a challenge to other default men. If you are content to live in a culture that objectifies women, perhaps you should consider allowing yourself to be objectified too. Pose naked for a feminist photographer.
I can predict the reaction of many men I know to this idea. They will find it funny, ridiculous. They will snigger and dismiss. But that’s male privilege for you. No-one would ever argue that doing nude photos could be ‘empowering’ for most men, or that it would give them ‘a huge amount of self-esteem’. Can you imagine a male version of feminist art projects like Herself? I’ve never encountered one.
But perhaps default men should pose naked for exactly that reason. In the end, an equal society can only be achieved in one of two ways – by people without power pushing and pushing until something gives, or by the people who do have power being willing to admit to their privilege, and help balance things out a bit.
I would love to see powerful men – CEOs, politicians, men with significantly more to lose than someone making a modest living from the arts – get naked for photographers like Jannica. Not men with (as Jannica puts it to me recently) ‘serial killer eyes’ showing off their gym-toned muscles as a demonstration of physical power. Men who are insecure about their bodies, but who are willing to make themselves vulnerable. Skinny men. Fat men. Ordinary men. Isn’t that an exhibition waiting to happen? And if it was reported on page 3 of the Sun, well, that would really be something.