The Relationship Between Body Image and Nudes in Art
The nude has a long and storied history in the world of art. A variety of sculptures and paintings from ancient Greece certainly make that patently obvious. Nudity in art can be very empowering, striking, and beautiful, but it can also have negative impacts on the self-esteem and body image of viewers when focused too much on a fabricated and limiting ideal of beauty. Today we're going to take a look at this complex interplay between nudes and body image.
The Nude: A Brief History
Before we look at this relationship, let's review the history. That said, I would like to apologize in advance for focusing on western art history, which is admittedly limiting and unfair to the art of countless other cultures around the world, but the length of this article sadly prohibits a more in-depth look.
Probably the very earliest examples of the nude in art are figurines of nude females (or at least femme-bodied) discovered from pre-historic eras. These are often referred to collectively as “Venus Figurines,” and they tended to focus on evoking ideals of fertility, with wide hips and large breasts.
And then of course there's Ancient Greece. Greece's climate lent itself well to either light clothing or no clothing at all, so nudity was viewed as natural and not at all shameful. Ancient Greek nude art tended to focus on capturing the idealized human form, so such paintings and sculptures did not have a very wide variety of body types represented.
During the Medieval era, Christian sensibilities dominated much of Europe, so nudity was considered immodest. When nudity did occur in art, it was often used to connote shame and sinfulness. Of course, this was changed again in the Renaissance, in which the rediscovery of classical culture and values brought the nude back into prominence.
Since then, the nude had also appeared in the Baroque era, and leading all the way up to the modern age. Baroque nudes are notable in that they tend to seem more realistic and varied in body types represented.
Nudity and Empowerment
Nudity can be incredibly empowering when the focus is put on capturing authentic human beauty in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. This can be especially true in today's modern era, where, depending on your nationality, nudity or even partial nudity (toplessness for those with breasts) in public spaces could not only be considered shameful and inappropriate, but possibly punishable by law.
To choose to reveal one's body and allow oneself to be vulnerable as the subject of such art, especially in spite of such limiting and repressive cultural norms, can become a defiant and affirming act, especially (but not exclusively) for marginalized groups like women and those perceived as women, LBTQ+ folk, people of color, and anyone at all who might not perfectly fit the limiting and nigh-unattainable standards of beauty that plague the media today.
For femme-bodied folk, anything that marks a departure from tall, often unhealthily underweight supermodel “beauty” is generally a welcome and affirming thing. In other words, art featuring real, everyday models we can relate to, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, portrayed in a respectful way, so that everybody can see themselves positively portrayed in art.
Only Pretty Bodies, Please
Of course, this is sadly not always artists' first thought when it comes to depicting the nude in art. This varies widely as every artist is an individual, of course, but by and large, both in the distant past and today, artists want to portray models that fit the cultural ideal of beauty in their time period and region. This was certainly true in ancient Greece, as highlighted above, and in fact, it is believed that until the Renaissance occurred, live female models were not typically used for art of female nudes, instead using boys with breasts added. The Renaissance artist Raphael is credited with starting the practice of consistently using live female models for art featuring female nudes.
The tendency toward idealization and perfection of the human form in nudes creates an atmosphere where those with non-idealized bodies (read: the vast majority of the human population) can be made to feel inadequate after consistent exposure to this trend. While the desire to create appealing and beautiful art is entirely understandable, I posit that artists as a whole need to broaden the scope of what they consider beautiful and desirable, else risk contributing to a rather oppressive and limiting set of attitudes that has plagued the art world on and off since antiquity.
The Nude and Intersectionality
And on that note, it would be remiss to fail to touch on intersectionality while examining how the artistic nude can affect attitudes toward body image and self-worth, because different groups of people have been affected differently by this.
First off, a disclaimer: I myself am a white female, so I cannot speak personally to the first of these issues I want to look at as it's not my place to do so. I can, however, amplify the voices of people of color and try my best to present their perspective according to their own accounts, which is what I am trying to do here. I am also entirely happy to be corrected if I fail to do so adequately.
That said, the general sentiment that seems to be prominent in my research on the matter is that when it comes to depictions of the female nude, white women have been affected very differently than black women by these portrayals. White women tend to be portrayed as innocent, pure, and soft, while black women, when they do appear at all (which is less common), are portrayed as more wild, overtly sexual, and bestial. This may also be true to a lesser extent with male nudes, but from what I have gleaned it seems to be particularly common and problematic with female nudes. Charmaine Nelson, a black woman and professor of art history at McGill University, comments on this upsetting trend, saying that these attitudes lead to a “doubly fetishized black female body,” and puts black women in the position of “other” when they are depicted in nude art.
There is also the general issue of discrepancies in gender in nude art, both in terms of the subjects portrayed and the artists portraying them. Female artists, or females who might have become artists if they could, historically did not have access to the tools and resources that men did. Even in the Renaissance, women were not allowed access to nude models, liming their options in practicing art. And as for their portrayal as subjects, in much of history, female nudes were depicted as idle or passive, while male nudes embodied action and strength, and were celebrated as admirable warriors and martyrs while female nudes were condemned to essentially be eye candy and little more.
And then of course there's the issue that artists tend to want to portray thin, conventionally attractive people, to the exclusion of all else. Subjects who are overweight, have physical deformities, or are otherwise “imperfect” are of less interest unless someone wants to make intentionally garish artwork to make a statement.
As a transgender individual, I also want to touch on the fact that I'd really like to see more trans folk represented in nude art, in a positive and affirming way. I see almost none of this. I've seen plenty of erotic and pornographic art involving pre-op or non-op trans women, but it's typically just to satisfy a fetish for certain cisgender men. Mind, there's nothing wrong with fetishes or creating erotic and/or pornographic art to satisfy them. But I'd like to see positive portrayals of trans folk in artistic nudes more often too, and that just doesn't seem to be something most artists think of.
The Naked Truth
In short, the nude has been, is, and will likely continue to be an inextricable part of the art world. Further, depending on how the nude figure is used in art, it can be as empowering as it can be problematic and even oppressive.
So to all my fellow artists, keep in mind how your depictions of nude subjects could potentially affect larger attitudes that permeate our culture when it comes to body image, self-esteem, and inclusivity. Your work does have an impact, whether it's on a small handful of people who enjoy your art or on a larger scale, the art you make has great power to impact people positively or negatively. I beg you not to take that lightly.
Endeavor to show models of all shapes, sizes, genders, and colors in as uplifting and affirming a way as you can muster, or else—if you're feeling a bit more cynical—use other means, such as satire, to challenge problematic body ideals.
So basically, do what we Paper Demon folk do best: be awesome, make awesome art, and help other people feel awesome in the process.