A man and a woman are standing naked in public. You hold one blanket – who do you offer it to? Most would pick the woman. You want to cover up what is seen as “indecent” and shield her from prying eyes. A naked woman is to be coveted but not seen; desirable in the imagination but offensive in the flesh. Women are encouraged to strip off to appear desirable, then criticised for looking too provocative. But where is this line between sexy and offensive, and should it even have been drawn in the first place?
The naked woman is a symbol of desire, the naked man more of a sign of bravado and self-confidence. Why are the two not exactly the same? The use of female nudity in mainstream media has huge influence: she is used to attract attention and boost the popularity of an object, to increase allure and tempt you into buying a product. You see hints of her all around, from children’s toys to housing adverts – the sexually provocative yet submissive woman is everywhere you look, but does she actually exist?
Photoshop gives the public a representation of someone who doesn’t exist, someone for men to lust after and women to aspire to look like. Advertising campaigns aimed at men almost always feature a woman posed suggestively near a male, with adverts for simple toiletries such as razors or moisturisers showing scantily-clad woman draped over the man in question, appreciatively stroking his face. Showing women in this way (attractive but submissive) perpetuates the idea that the naked woman is something to stroke a man’s ego and enhance his masculinity. It inherently links female nudity to male dominance, tying the image of the naked woman to the one of the naked man, but not vice versa.
The double, triple and quadruple standards the public and the press have on naked women is endlessly frustrating. In our society it is drilled into us that “sex sells”. But sex doesn’t sell – the idea of a physically perfect woman being treated as an object is the thing that sells, and the two ideas often get confused. We all grow up seeing half-dressed women used as advertising tools, and accept that idea as being the norm – to be an undressed woman is to be a sexy woman. But more often than not, when a real life girl takes off her clothes, the reaction she receives is vastly different to the one of an anonymous female on an advert: a woman being sexually confident and happy in her body is being met with increasing disdain.
Miley Cyrus is one particular example of the mixed attitude towards female nudity in today’s society. The video for her song Wrecking Ball was the news of the moment when it was released. Public reactions ranged from amusement to downright horror at the nudity involved. Even though Cyrus herself stated that she felt the emotional content of the song called for a physical stripping down, all people seemed to be able to focus on was the naked female form in front of them and how controversial they felt it was. However, when she wore a dress to an event that didn’t flash much flesh, the press weren’t happy about that either. In an interview, Cyrus sarcastically echoed the news headlines of “Miley is boring! She doesn’t get naked and she’s boring!” She went on to state that “it doesn’t matter what I do – I’m either boring or a slut.” The public is happy to see a naked and sexual woman when it’s in porn or on a billboard, but when it’s someone not hidden by the cloak of anonymity, it becomes taboo. People want female nudity, but it seems they don’t want it to be too real.
The Wikipedia page for controversial nudity in music videos has around 92 mentions of female nudity – almost four times the amount of male mentions, which stands at about 26. Has this list been created from the actual amount of extreme nudity in music videos, or is it more of a record of what viewers deem “inappropriate”? Do the artists, music labels and video directors make a conscious decision to flash more female flesh – after all, that’s what people want to see, isn’t it? If naked women are what the public want, why are there so many reports of “controversial” female nudity in music videos?
It seems to me that, as a society, we can’t decide whether we want women to cover up or strip off. Some people mock and ridicule women who cover up as part of their religious beliefs, and then call a woman who is comfortable stripping off a slut and a whore. Many people consider some religious and cultural traditions to be a restriction of freedom, but which culture is actually pressuring women the most? We want women to be sexually attractive but not to be naked on their own terms, and to look good but not be vain – it’s hard to keep up with, and near impossible for women to actually satisfy everyone’s expectations. At the end of the day, though, the real question is why a woman should have to try in the first place?