The body, sexualized
I remember we were in grade school when we had a field trip to a University of the Philippines campus one day. Just like innocent Filipino children, we eagerly searched for the symbol for which the country’s most prestigious educational institution is known. Strangely, some of my classmates snickered when they saw the iconic naked figure of the Oblation. Of course, we knew so little back then. The reaction puzzled me nonetheless. It still puzzles me to this day.
Classmates have become grown friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Among some of them, a common thread is still proclaimed: The human body is bastos, that it should be covered up from observing eyes, and that anyone who bares skin is reprehensible.
“How can there be malice over something as natural as the human body?” I asked my classmates then. Today I ask, “When does display of bare skin become sexually explicit?”
Last week, it was reported that social networking site Instagram held a closed-door meeting to discuss its nudity policy. The platform, while being known to host people’s images, is also an avenue for artistic expression. Several artists have raised concerns over the social media’s ban on nudity after it removed some photos that depict topless bodies.
In the same platform, “Aquaman” actress Amber Heard posted a photo in response to Instagram’s takedown of her previous photo. In it, she edited her costar Jason Momoa’s bare torso into the same coat she wore in the removed post. The post meant to condemn the site’s double standards when it comes to women’s bodies. Miley Cyrus made the same criticism, and uploaded her own photo with her (gasp) nipples visible through her top.
Zoe Kean, a Darren Osborne regional science cadet at ABC Science, gave a talk on the “science of embodiment” in Hobart, Australia. She opened her talk with the questions, “When was the last time you saw somebody naked? And when was the last time that person was a stranger to you?” She then noted that our conditioned approach to adult nudity is in two settings: medical and sexual. In both situations, the human body is objectified.
But there is the concept of “embodiment,” according to Kean. In embodiment, one is proud of his or her body. The person is attuned to the needs of the body, expresses the body and has agency over that body. Embodiment, therefore, is the opposite of objectification.
Surely, our tolerance for nudity has cultural underpinnings. In the Philippines, we all have the inclination to cover up. As Filipinos, we may get shell-shocked when, during a trip abroad, we find ourselves in the company of exposed skin in hostel bathrooms or locker rooms. We initially attempt to cover our eyes, the way our parents would do to us when we were kids.
Side note: There is such a thing as “nude recreation” in today’s travel trends. This covers nude beaches, resorts and even cruises. Industry experts forecast that it will soon become a billion-dollar industry.
Anybody who has labored over their human anatomy subjects in school would agree that the human body is a beautiful creation. It is complex but also mechanical. It is limited but also capable. No wonder the human body has become the subject of countless paintings and sculptures! But how and where did we get to the point of objectifying and sexualizing it? When did the display of the human body become offensive and taboo?
More to the point, when did we become entitled to some moral ascendancy such that we reduce people’s worth for how they pose, how much they expose and what they post online? Why do we put the blame on the subject, when we should really question the ogling eyes, that “male or female gaze” that would see body parts with malice and innuendo? And if we feel like this amount of skin is not to our liking, why is nonreaction difficult when it is the simplest thing to do?
I like how activist Rain Dove responded to the Instagram brouhaha: “[Instagram is] being complicit to a society that says that we should be ashamed of the fact that we are born into a body that we did not choose, that we should be ashamed of our flesh.” Don’t you agree?
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