Once, women feared exposure of their sexual desires and impulses. Those who were bold enough to express them were derided, outcast, punished or even declared insane. In the late 19th century, women’s sexual frustration was diagnosed as female hysteria – a quarter of all women were said to suffer it – and treatment was clinical masturbation by a doctor, sometimes aided by Heath Robinson-like machines, until orgasm brought relief. In 1873, the first vibrator was used for this purpose at an asylum in France. Today, sexualised images of women are used to sell every kind of product. It’s a strategy designed to provoke in men a desire to possess, in women a desire to emulate – which is to say, we girls want to become the objects of other people’s (and our own) desires. Up until the latter half of the 20th century, almost all photographers, art directors, advertising agency and corporate marketing executives who devised how imagery of women was used to sell things were men.
Not any more.
Contemporary women understand the power of their own sexuality and objectify and exploit themelves before men – or other women – get the chance. We’re starting to enjoy the liberation of being in control of our bodies but contrary to old-school feminism, being in control doesn’t necessarily mean saying no. Confronting what we are not ‘supposed’ to be – sexual, provocative, dominant, perverse – broadens the scope of possibilities to shape our own identities in any way we want instead of choosing from the limited options men prefer to create for us. It enables us to live more open, expressive lives.
I’m often criticised for objectifying other women and myself, mostly by older women who subscribe to the outdated idea, promulgated by the first wave of 20th century feminists, that objectification is inherently degrading and/or manipulative. As another artist wrote about me, somewhat prissily, recently: “I sometimes question if she is selling art or herself? Does she need to put these images of herself out for the world to see? Is her art good enough to stand alone without her hands down her pants at the end of the blog?” My answer to all of these is… yes.
We live in a culture where everything is owned and everything is selling something. Names, letters, colours and symbols are trademarked and copyrighted.Within this context, to objectify oneself is to declare ownership of oneself and one’s own image. Self-objectification doesn’t create great work or success – if it did, then entire generations would already be acclaimed and wildly successful – but it does associate one’s own image more powerfully with whatever it is one does. However, to imply that my success is related to self-objectification is simply a gripe posing as petty, moralistic censure, an anachronism rooted in a centuries-old disavowal of women who voice, let alone act on, their desires.