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Look Again!

mgullettes Icon Posted by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

April 16th, 2007

Women who look at models in magazines for as little as one to three minutes feel badly about their own bodies, according to a study reported in Science Daily. The University of Missouri-Columbia study concludes that women would do better to decrease their exposure to mass media images of women. In a nutshell, stop looking.

The goal is to stop the “social comparison process.” Apparently when I look at an image, no matter what my age or body type, I automatically compare myself and find myself lacking. Is there anything that can teach women and the culture at large to like their bodies? And especially as they grow older or heftier?

Possibly more art like Miriam Goodman’s.

I first saw her black-and-white photograph in the Cambridge Arts Festival, where it won an award. I found myself looking at it for a long time. It repays attention.

The first interesting thing about the photograph of this nude older woman is that unlike almost every such image you have ever seen, she is not alone in the frame with nothing for the spectator to look at but her body. There are two figures in the frame. The living woman, Jane Kogan, is in fact the painter of the figure on the left, representing the Egyptian goddess Nut. Kogan painted “Nut: Sky Goddess” in the 1970s (possibly from her own youthful body, they have so many features in common).

She and the photographer, Miriam Goodman, had the feminist brilliance to put the two figures together, stand Jane Kogan on a stool to get an even more exact duplicate of Nut’s pose, and risk a comparison and contrast. Anyone who knows the usual savage visual representations of older women naked can see that an imagined body, of a perfect younger woman, always lurks on the outside of the frame. So, bring her inside. Kogan and Nut are both goddess-like in being upright and symmetrical–with none of the provocative twisty flexing of limbs, butts, and breasts of soft-porn and porn.

“But Nut is the Queen of Spades from the deck of cards,” said my old friend Marsha Weiss Leinberger, another artist. Nut as the Queen of Spades needed a lot of props: her cape and headpiece; her expressive fingers, her kohl-rimmed eyes, her lunar attributes, her pubic exclamation point. Nut is cardboard.

The marvel is that Jane Kogan comes out of the joint encounter with the young clownish goddess looking better: older, powerful and majestic. Kogan needs nothing. The photograph could be read as if it were Kogan’s commentary on her own younger, more feminine, more exhibitionist, self, in contrast to her later-life self, unafraid to be unadorned. The life-course contrast that I am imagining produces an implicit long-term progress narrative. The “younger self” is of course flat, one-dimensional. The later-life flesh self is in the round, life-like, statuesque, “natural.”

Between cardboard and flesh, I choose flesh, I choose Kogan. That choice has imaginative consequences.

Taking up enough space is important for women. Women’s bodies in magazines are reduced in size–size 2, size 4, size 6–and thus in space. As models get more anorexic, they lay a smaller claim to space for all women. They make us feel not just ugly but too big. Kogan doesn’t make the viewer feel too big.

We can decide to look at older bodies like artists rather than like the soft-porn romance consumers that Americans are trained to be whatever their age. Looking esthetically at Kogan and women built like her, we see their sculptural qualities. There are artists who work with big ideas about the spaces that human bodies take up–Maillol, Botero. Their women are big too.

If there are two figures in the frame, the first thing I do is compare them to each other, leaving myself out. But once I looked long enough, I did bring my own body in. I think Kogan as imaged makes me feel small, too contained, too constrained. Too tidy a size 8. But she makes me see the possibility of becoming more solid and majestic in the future. I glom onto her own bodily life story.

Goodman lit her stately friend beautifully, and threw away 35 shots that were badly lit –but that’s typical for photographers shooting live models. Goodman’s photo suggests another lesson. There should be a moratorium on making ageism into a self-fulfilling prophecy by letting only young models be well lit and well posed.

Maybe in art-making, naked bodies, especially of older men and women, don’t need clothes as much as they need contexts. The typical older nude in photography often reproduces thoughtlessly the idea that the older body is an abject material object exposed to a gaze that must be censorious–the age gaze.

Kogan, an artist and a self-possessed woman, deflects that gaze. “Did you start by thinking I was too big? So different from Nut that the only word for it would be ‘old’? Was that your first impression?” she seems to ask. “But you looked again.” When we look at bodies we may naively think we observe just what is there. Kogan, with her eyes on us, says otherwise. A self embodied through culture, over time, delivers its own cool judgment on the spectator’s acquired inability to see.

Copyright 2007 by Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Fair use gives very limited rights to quote and no right to reprint. For permission to reprint, write to mgullette@msn.com

The U of Missouri study, “Predictors of Media Effects on Body Dissatisfaction in European American Women” was published in Sex Roles, April 2007.

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