In Pursuit of Non Objectification
by Kimberly Putnam
I am a middle-aged woman whose youthful appearance is starting to fade. Granted, I’ve never been comfortable with my physical shape. As a child, my grandmother called me solid in contrast to my cousins who were tall and thin – a blow to my self-esteem. I took on my grandmother’s view and saw my solidity as a negative attribute. Mom never understood my feelings regarding grandmother’s unwelcomed comment. Being slender, herself, mom fit the conventions of beauty of her time; in the 1960’s, she became a runway fashion model in Dayton, Ohio.
Growing up as a farm girl in Iowa, my mom dreamed of high fashion or ‘department store glamour’ as she described it to me. Now as I look at old photographs of her in her twenties, I see why I envied her beauty and the confidence it conveyed: she was my vision of femininity. Her hairstyle was short and curled around her ear in back, while the top was teased like a beehive. It was meticulously combed so that her curls accentuated her beautiful facial features. Her eyes twinkled; her nose turned delicately upward; her lips settled into a subtle pout. Mom’s clothing was classical in design; her accessories included a pair of enviable brown alligator pumps with a matching handbag. Her appearance created the illusion of wealth and luxury that rivaled any of the women in the Country Club that my father managed – even if we didn’t enjoy the same financial ease that the other country club families presented.
As I progressed through high school, I adapted my mother’s sense of style to fit my “solid” figure, and discovered that through careful choice of clothing, I could hide the parts of my body that made me feel insecure. I started to pay attention to the latest fashions and emulated them. Through clothing I was able to set myself apart from my other female classmates creating a fashion forward reputation for myself – never thinking about how I was competing with them, never wondering where my ideas about looking visually appealing came from or whom they aimed to please.
I learned about the concept of the ‘male gaze’ from English art critic and author John Berger. During my first year of graduate studies at Massachusetts College of Art and Design MFA program, I read his book Ways of Seeing. In it Berger explains:
“... men act and women appear. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male; the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision, a sight.”
Berger goes on to write about how women have learned to view themselves through their male counterpart’s ‘gaze’ (the irony of using a man’s words to explain this struggle is not lost on me.) In other words, we, as women, have learned to objectify ourselves based on the male standards of beauty. Although these views can vary culturally, they include facial features such as large eyes, small mouth, full lips and symmetry within the figure; these are the ideal features in a woman that make her attractive to the male gaze.
It is through the power of the male gaze, that women define themselves— who they are or who they want to be—in part based upon their visual appearance. This idea was so infuriating to me that I created a “new body” of work that explored ways to regain the power that I had unknowingly given away. Over the past two years, I have conducted a series of visual experiments in an attempt to reveal what, in the name of femininity, can be recovered as an authentic reflection of self rather than as a reflection of the more powerful male gaze. This body of work was born in pursuit of non-objectification.
As I look back, I realized that even my childhood and young adulthood were influenced by how men viewed women—and that this is a universal story internalized by generations of women. After centuries of being judged by men, based on our visual appearances, women have learned to assess themselves through the male lens. I see this act of assessment all around me now. I realize my grandmother was assessing me through this lens, as perhaps my mother was assessing herself, as I myself, have come to self-assessment the very same way. This explains my need to hide what my grandmother and I—influenced by male ideas of beauty—viewed as unattractive.
It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I began exploring the motivation behind my new works. My investigations into physical appearance lead me to explore the concept of femininity. I describe femininity as womanliness, a combination of internal and external characteristics that define the female gender. During this time period, I also realized contemporary portraits do not have to be full figure images. Artist Gary Scheider, another man giving me insight, showed me through his photographs that a portrait could be an imprint of a hand or a composite of body parts. As I moved away from painting the beauty of particular women, I sought out non-objectification by removing the women, as objects and focal points from my images. My thinking was that if I presented only a woman’s feminine attributes, I might remove the power of the male gaze to objectify a particular woman’s beauty. This was my goal. This is how my portraits became studies of feminine features.
Over the past year, I have investigated the external attributes of femininity through the creation of three different bodies of work. The first is a series of 119 lithographs of women’s hairstyles. I call this series the Genealogy of Hair. The second is a series of oil paintings of mouths titled Voices. The third series is a body of photographs called Steam, which reveal the curves of my figure, veiled through bathroom steam. In each series, I removed the female form and focused on the external attributes such as hair, mouth and hip contours.
“I think that if you don’t use the body there is an absence. And to use the body embodies an idea and in a sense, it’s the most complex and challenging kind of conceptual reference. And also for me, the body is a symbol or a hieroglyph, in a sense an extension of language. And so, in making a statement about woman’s bodies I want the idea of a woman’s body to transcend a male ideal of woman in a male-controlled world.” 3
In Genealogy of Hair, the black silhouettes of women’s hairstyles function as a kind of ‘hieroglyph’; they are symbols or attributes that women use to both express themselves and also call attention to themselves in the patriarchal society of the Western world. With this experiment, I separated the hairstyle from the woman in order to see if I could, by this action, also remove to the male gaze. To create these symbols, I researched women’s hairstyles throughout the centuries beginning in 2,400 BC and ending in 2014 AD. I coded each image and created an index. This index consisted of a catalog number, a generic descriptor (“Queen” or “Wife”), and a date. I kept the identity of the woman from the viewer using the generic descriptor so the viewer could not objectify the woman. Thus the hairstyle is on display not the female who wore it.
To create each image, I used a form of printmaking called paper plate lithography. This printing process utilizes a black photocopy image on heavy weight copy paper as the plate; I used this process to focus on the positive shape of the hairstyle while turning the face into negative space. No longer could the male gaze look upon the female face, this was important for this body of work. The concept of women’s hairstyles as a subject calls to mind the work of Ellen Gallagher and her hair series DeLuxe. The black silhouettes are also reminiscent of the black cut out images of Kara Walker. Both artists provided inspiration for this series. By focusing on the shape of the hairstyle and removing the face of the women, I hoped to block objectification or to create an experience of feminine beauty that did not allow for objectification. In theory, it seemed to me that the women I removed from the visual equation could no longer be objectified by male standards.
What I discovered instead, was that my experiment only served to highlight the invisible ways that the male gaze has plaited, curled and ironed itself into women’s heads. The amount of time invested in these hairstyles (especially the ones that were highly ornate and ventured far from natural hairstyles) most certainly represented the pleasure and success of the man she stood beside. The more extravagant the hairstyle the more trophy-like she appeared: a symbol of masculine wealth and objectified femininity.
After completing this body of work, I realized my studio practice had also changed through the course of my investigation. I discovered I liked to work in series. When I began the MFA program, I painted from photographs. My work was very literal and my methodology was one of copying what I saw. There was very little open space for interpretation. Over the course of the MFA program, I have moved away from a literal translation of my subject to one that is more conceptual in nature; the viewer now has the opportunity to interpret the art. Creating work using a series format has allowed this. This format has given me the ability to explore and experiment conceptually with a variety of materials, including printmaking, collage, photography and ink. Working in a series has also brought more specificity to my work because I am no longer trying to fit multiple ideas within a single work. The different mediums and tools, in combination with a series, have enabled me to approach my subject from different directions within the collective whole; this has given my work greater depth.
In the series Voices, I render my mouth close-up, caught in the act of speaking. The fluidity of the oil paint and the richness of the color felt sensual to me, making it the ideal medium for this series. In each painting, the shape of the open mouth and the dark cavity between the two lips were both similar and dissimilar in the compositions. This ambiguity aimed to create the impression of a breathless whisper. My brushwork came from years of studying the paintings of John Singer Sargent. The warm creamy skin tones created by combining colors of cadmium
scarlet, permanent rose, and alizarin crimson enhance the sensual quality of the paintings. While mixing the skin tones, I looked to the portraits by Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velazquez who I consider masters of flesh. The irony of referencing Rubens is that he was notorious for catering to the male gaze by painting fleshy feminine and sexualized women.
Again, I removed my face from these paintings, trying to paint pure femininity and sensuality, using the lips as my subject: a second attempt at denying the power of the male gaze. By focusing on the sensuality of the woman, however, the paintings have captured the thing they sought to eradicate. The sensual quality of the lips are also sexual and alluring—perhaps even bordering on pornographic; they are an appeal to, rather than a dismissal of, the male gaze.
After creating this series of paintings, I discovered that very similar images are commonly seen in magazine advertisements for beauty products and women’s fashion. This led me to question my own ideas of femininity. Who are these magazine models, with their lips parting and inviting, soliciting? The female gaze or the male gaze? Have women so internalized the male gaze that the two are the same? Is a female gaze even possible? My quest for non-objectification is proving more difficult then expected.
Unlike the close-up compositions in the Voices series, the photographs in the Steam series have a sense of depth and space between the figure and the viewer. This illusion was created by the atmospheric quality within the pictures, which were taken inside a steamy bathroom. The photographs were taken with my iPhone 4, enhancing the grainy quality of each image. The pictures were also printed on watercolor paper, because I wanted to connect the ideas of water and steam both literally and metaphorically. The steam in the photographs defused the details of the bodily form. What is visible is a ghost-like image showing a soft curve of the hip. A second portrait of a woman’s face is visible within each photograph. This portrait is drawn in steam on the shower wall. It is this image that I originally intended to capture on film. Together the drawing and the apparition create a complexity, making it visually challenging for the viewer to absorb the whole image. Through the use of steam, combined with the drawn portraits, I try to remove objectification of the female form. Interestingly, as I study the sensuous quality of the line that defines the hip, I realize my interpretation of that line is again influenced by the male ideal. It is soft and curvilinear and calls to mind the sexuality that is present in Rubens’ paintings.
The idea of using photography as a possible medium to explore the concept of femininity and objectification came from studying the film stills of Cindy Sherman. Many of Sherman’s early female ‘characters’ are beautiful in appearance, often well-dressed or in some cases half-dressed, and appear to play to the voyeuristic nature of the ‘male gaze.’ Thus Sherman objectifies these female figures often with sexual under/over tones. She comments on the power imbalance between male and female viewers. The pleasure of the male gaze is active while the female gaze is passive.4 This concept relates to my photographic series, in that as creator and subject I took on both roles, seeking to create a non-objectified feminine art form.
Non-objectifying the female form is my attempt to make the visual realities of middle age and external beauty become irrelevant. However, in my pursuit of non- objectification, I’ve come to understand that the male gaze remains embedded in my perception—if not our perception as a collective female culture.
As a middle age woman with preteen and teenage daughters, this topic is real and personal. Today, I welcome the concept of being solid as I view it as a manifestation of my being in shape. Perceptions change over time. I don’t look like my mother, nor do I need to. As I grow older, I understand physical appearance is window dressing for the person inside. In studying this topic and working to disempower the male gaze, I hope to teach my girls that their female bodies are beautiful as they are. I hope to keep their self-esteem intact, so they view themselves through their own eyes, rather than through the eyes of another. That is the generational legacy that I aim to give to my girls.
In Pursuit of Non Objectification is the beginning of a life long journey. As I scratch the surface with this body of work, I realize the great opportunity I have in raising awareness and attention to the topic of objectification of women. As I continue to conduct my visual experiments, I find that taking control from the male gaze may be impossible. I wonder, is it even possible to define femininity outside male standards? I do not have an answer to this question, yet.