In support of Caitlin Stasey and herself.com

Caitlin Stasey’s name has been popping up all over the place recently after launching her new website herself.com early this year. The website features in depth interviews with women from diverse backgrounds and is accompanied by empowering nude photography. In an interview with Daily Life, Caitlin states that her goal in starting herself.com was “…to help demystify the female form, to assist in the erasure of coveting it, and to help celebrate the ever changing face of it.” This is after experiencing first hand, and noticing her friends and colleagues also dealing with the struggle for equality and to have their voices heard. I was initially skeptical because I wasn’t sure that more nudity would really be helping anyone, however after perusing the website and finding myself engrossed in learning about these interesting women I am completely behind the project.

Chelsea in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

The media in general provides images of only one type of woman. This woman appears in commercials for anti aging creams, she models lipsticks and she glamorises whitening toothpaste. She reads the news, she graces the pages of most women’s magazines and she strolls down the catwalk at fashion shows. She is, for the most part, white. She is able bodied; tall and very slim whilst still having large perky breasts. Her butt is large and firm and her hips are wide – but not too wide. She is young and has smooth skin, free of stretch marks, wrinkles or blemishes. She has large almond shaped eyes with long lashes, her nose is small, her lips are plump and defined and her cheekbones are prominent and high. She also doesn’t exist. Most of the images we see are photo shopped because even models aren’t deemed to be beautiful enough. In an article in the second edition of Womankind magazine called Killing us softly, by Antonia Case, an admission from an American photo editor for a popular women’s magazine is revealed. He confesses to piecing together a covergirl from images of four different women! This seems entirely unnecessary and serves only to make sure that the ideal way for women to look is absolutely unattainable.

The fact that the ideal woman doesn’t exist is the whole point. She isn’t meant to exist because we aren’t meant to win. We can’t rely on the advertisers and the media to realistically represent women because they NEED us to feel inadequate. There are literally entire industries that are financially dependent on women having low self-esteem. Women who feel like they are one amongst a kaleidoscope of different women and that each variation is worthy regardless of what they look like are much less likely to spend $200 on face cream. Women who frequently see other women in the media with bodies that are realistic and imperfect are less likely to spend their whole lives paying for diets and exercise regimes in a never ending battle to lose 10 pounds.

Milena in her photoshoot with herself.com

Milena in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

In addition to being deliberately unattainable, these depictions of women in the media are also viewed through the male gaze. The male gaze describes a well established and widely accepted theory that women are objectified in films because heterosexual males are in control of the camera. We view scenes in movies as through the eyes of a heterosexual male. This extends to advertising and media and explains the way that the camera often lingers or zooms in on areas of the female body considered to be sexual, and the way that women are generally portrayed as passive and available. This teaches women to view themselves in the way that heterosexual men would view them, and it tells them that their value is in their appearance and in approval from men. It teaches men to view women as objects without individual agency who primarily exist for male viewing pleasure.

It is important to talk about these issues and it is useful to highlight the ways in which most of the images of women we are exposed to are harmful, but we need more than this. We need things we can tell people to do to complement the long list of what not to do. This is what Caitlin Stasey has achieved with her new website. Her amazing photographer Jennifer Toole has captured images of women on their own terms, in ways they want to view themselves. Although limited in her selection of participants to those who volunteer, Stasey is achieving remarkable diversity in her subjects. This image of Chelsea shows us  how to photograph women in a way in which they are empowered. Milena shows us how the natural female form looks. Kate shows us that being a woman is not defined by your genitals. The more pictures we have that aren’t sexualising women the better.

Kate in her photoshoot for herself.com

Kate in her photo shoot for herself.com. Photo by Jennifer O’Toole

One of the most common criticisms of herself.com are along the same lines as my original hesitations about the project. People wonder whether more nudity is really the answer. While I definitely don’t think that there is one answer to a problem that is a deeply entrenched and pervasive part of our culture, I definitely do think that empowering images of women such as those captured for herself.com are a powerful part of the solution. The overwhelming majority of images to be found online and in the media are objectifying and sexualising women. I can’t imagine how we can counteract the sheer volume of dehumanising pornographic images of women on the internet but we can start by supporting alternatives such as Caitlin Stasey’s project.

Stasey has created a platform that challenges popular media’s version of ‘normal’. Whilst a flick through any fashion magazine would have you believe that women should look like the ideal outlined above, ten minutes perusing herself.com clearly demonstrates that powerful, interesting and intelligent women come in all sorts of different bodies, and they are all beautiful. The depth of the interviews and the topics that they cover enhance this, making the women who are featured into actual people with agency – people with history, feelings, opinions, desires and dreams. Endeavours like this are necessary to challenge the currently accepted standard and give us a positive way forward in the push towards real gender equality.

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