As we browsed the impressionism exhibit, a little girl pointed Reflections out to us and warned, “that’s something we should not look at.” I headed straight for Frederick Carl Frieseke’s painting and invited my daughters to sit down with me to talk about the nude and nudity.
Because I want my daughters to love their bodies. It’s unlikely they’ll learn to revel in their own if we divert our eyes at first glimpse of another’s. There’s a delicate reciprocity between appreciating our own bodies and appreciating others’. Because we can’t really be comfortable with our bodies in a culture that disdains them. And we can’t expect others to respect our bodies if we don’t set an example. So there in the museum, my daughters and I assumed the subject’s pose if not her nudity, followed her gaze, and reflected along with her.
Like the Guerrilla Girls, I’d prefer more of the women in our museums be artist agents rather than model subjects. Still, this American Impressionist’s work is intriguing. My six-year-old Maia feels the woman here is, like Picasso, in a blue period. Which prompts four-year-old Eve to suggest she might be frustrated. Neither of my daughters is immediately struck by her nudity. Instead, they wonder at her feelings. Young children know it’s the way we feel that matters.
That is, until they’re taught other rules. Like the one the little girl was trying to follow, and help us follow, when she warned us away from Frieseke’s dappled nude: that bodies, even our own, are not ours to admire.
And herein lies the problem: we’ve been warned away from our own bodies. We’re afraid to look at ourselves, afraid to claim ourselves. If you think I’m exaggerating or referring only to the particularly prudish amongst us, you might offer Thinx period panties founder Miki Agrawal a few minutes to convince you that women are afraid to talk about or touch ourselves. And that there’s a substantial corporate and cultural investment that demands we stay this way.
We let others warn us away from our bodies in a series of socially-scripted commands. Abstain. Don’t even look. If you do, shame. It’s a coming-of-age story women are all too familiar with. Whether or not the lines are spoken to us, they’re inscribed on our bodies. When our breasts first attract notice, we bend our shoulders forward as if we might fold in on ourselves. We sacrifice our proud postures for an attempt to hide our bodies. Because we’re supposed to abstain from temptation and from tempting, too. With the emergence of our sexualities, we slouch into shame.
These social commands and their reprimands follow us throughout our public and personal situations. Like the little girl in the museum, an R-rating warns viewers of nudity. Whether we’re in an art museum or a movie theatre, we’re told to beware the body. And because the nudity in art is more often women’s, we’re warning eyes and hands away from women’s bodies – even our own hands and eyes away from our own bodies. When we’re at home alone with our mirrors, popular media’s photoshopped images reprimand our reflections. Again, we should have abstained. Don’t even look. If we do, we find shame.
In viewing this painting, however, we do not abstain. Rather, we share an intimate moment with a woman as she pauses in one with herself. Because Frieseke’s subject admires her body while we do, our moment is as empathetic as it is aesthetic. We imitate her as we, too, gaze at her image and into her gaze.
And I shared a moment with my daughters sitting in the floor of our local art museum, wondering at a subject’s reflections and sharing our own. I hope others overheard us talking about this woman’s body and ours – maybe even the little girl who warned us away from looking. Because sharing is so much lovelier than shaming.
Who will join us in this conversation? Perhaps if we all start talking about our bodies as if they are our own, we’ll drown out those who suggest they’re not.