Naked Women Change How We See the World

Monday Magazine | August 12, 2004
Once in a while, Brooke Finnigan finds herself watching television shows like The Swan or Extreme Makeover—popular entertainment that lately seems to be focused on the most unreal aspects of reality. Tongue planted firmly in her cheek, she calls it “research”—as someone who works with people who have body image and eating disorders, she’s acutely aware of the deeper issues at stake with such so-called entertainment.

Even so, she admits she can’t help but be drawn in to the mentality, at least a little. “I find I’m looking at my partner, and thinking, ‘I’d just change his ears a bit’.” Suddenly, she says, she’s planning plastic surgeries for friends and acquaintances, putting others under the same intense scrutiny as they put themselves whenever they hold up a mirror and don’t like what they see because it doesn’t look like it belongs on television.

Ironically, it was Finnigan’s Fox network viewing that sparked a connection that will hopefully challenge the attitudes that thinner (or more sculpted, or surgically enhanced) is better. Earlier this year, Finnigan saw Fox anchor Leslie Miller acknowledge in an interview segment that there is pressure on women in television to look a certain way. Miller was talking with Seattle photographer Amanda Koster, whose photography project, This Is Beautiful, emphasizes the belief that all women are worthy of being seen as beautiful for who they are.

Finnigan, who works at the Community Eating Disorders and Related Issues Counselling (CEDRIC) Centre, is helping to organize Koster’s next photo shoot, which will take place in Victoria this month. So far, the event has drawn a lot of attention for the fact that, well, it’s not your ordinary photo shoot, with plenty of makeup, mood lighting and fabulous outfits. Rather, it’s one in which any woman who wants can pose—naked. She doesn’t have to be a supermodel. Doesn’t have to be young, or white, or stereotypically beautiful. She just has to be willing to doff her clothes and be herself. Ironically, in this era of media-driven body image obsession, that in itself is a radical notion. So far, more than 30 women have signed up to participate, and Finnigan is keeping a waiting list.

Koster began the project—entitled This Is Beautiful—in 2001. Her nude photographs of all kinds of women—living in all kinds of bodies—have become a show, are becoming a documentary, and will probably become a book, too, she says, once she’s collected enough images of a wide enough range of women. So far, she’s done three such shoots, and they have turned out to be surprisingly empowering for the women who participate. While they may initially balk at the reality of taking off their clothing and, even more frightening for some, signing model releases that say their images can be used anywhere, anytime, they began to loosen up. “Women aren’t totally un-used to being naked around each other, because of locker rooms,” says Koster. But as the shoot wore on, and women traded stories about their favourite (and most-disliked) body parts, relaxed more, and became more comfortable with themselves. “At the end of the day, people were dancing, laughing, giggling,” Koster says. “They felt more beautiful, more empowered.”

Think of it as plastic surgery for the mind, in that it changes women’s attitudes about themselves without actually changing their bodies.

“You don’t have to change anything about yourself,” to participate, says Finnigan. “You just show up as you are and you’re beautiful.”

That instant makeover stands in stark contrast to the kinds of body modifications that have become not just de rigeur, but popular entertainment for a population suffering from a so-called “obesity epidemic.” A growing public appetite for plastic surgery (even if it’s just voyeuristically experienced) has created a booming industry. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there was a 293 percent increase in the number of cosmetic procedures performed in that country between 1997 and 2003. And for those who don’t actually have the surgery, they can watch it on TV, on programs like the aforementioned Extreme Makeover (ABC) and The Swan (FOX—the network that brings you “reality” programs like Trading Spouses and America’s Most Wanted).

In The Swan (and Swan 2, which cast its participants by having them send in a three-minute video of themselves wearing nothing but underwear and telling stories about why they “deserve” to be on the program and describing—with video close-ups—the body parts they most wanted to change), participants undergo intensive diet, exercise, counselling and—of course—plastic surgery, from liposuction to breast implants. They compete with each other over who’s ultimately the most transformed—or, as critics have repeatedly noted, who looks most like Barbie.

“I think they’re really scary,” says Finnigan. “They’re mainstreaming plastic surgery . . . [and] normalizing hating your body, in the search for physical perfection.”

Finnigan isn’t the only person bothered by such manufactured images of beauty.

About-Face is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works to counter public images of women that it considers negative—from anorexic supermodels to surgically modified Swans. This spring, the group organized several protests and letter-writing campaigns to let Fox network chair Gail Berman know what they thought of the show—not much.

Even so, the program was some of the spring season’s hottest television, bringing 9.2 million viewers to the Fox network, and an even hotter topic for women, who debated the pros and cons, and hated themselves for being drawn in to what was undeniably an anti-woman, unfeminist, shock-driven product. If nothing else, it got people talking—and Swan 2 premieres October 25, in case you need something else to protest.

Given the climate of such efforts to glamorize plastic surgery, extreme diets and an apparent desire to improve one’s life through improving one’s appearance, it’s no wonder projects like This Is Beautiful are gathering their own share of attention, particularly from women who, in empowering Vagina Monologues style, are ready to say—or show—their truths in the name of debunking a few myths.

Karen Gallagher, one of the Victoria women who have decided to participate in the upcoming photo shoot, says she wanted to join in because “we all come in different shapes, and as a lesbian, I think it’s important we see all different kinds of women.” Gallagher has noted that “a lot of women have problems accepting their own body as their beautiful self, because we don’t see our images reflected in the culture, in the media.”

A number of especially good examples can be seen at, where the nonprofit’s online “hall of shame” has several galleries of advertisements that show women who are impossibly skinny—but somehow construed by the ad as being desirable. “Repeat offenders” get mailed a certificate from the organization, though whether they take it to heart is difficult to determine. Given that we’re still seeing Diesel and Calvin Klein and Versace advertisements with skinny models, you can make your own assumptions.

As Gallagher points out, large women, and middle-aged women, are rarely shown for being who they are—and as a result, the myth that only one body type is desirable gets perpetuated onto another generation. Mothers watch makeover programs, follow weight-reducing diets so they can be like the women on television, and dream about how perfect their lives might be if only they could fit into a smaller pair of pants. All the while, their daughters watch, learning what it is to be female. “I grew up with that,” says Gallagher. “Either you were too thin, too heavy . . .” and no matter what you were, it wasn’t right. She acknowledges that some women and girls probably feel all right about their bodies. “But for a larger proportion of women, our bodies are not OK.”

In a society where there is an apparent “obesity epidemic,” a growing focus on weight and size is bound to have serious effects on how women and girls see themselves.

“It’s a pretty scary world when four-year-olds are thinking they need to go on a diet,” says Gallagher. “This is tragic.”

Body image issues are not all about physical beauty, though, notes Koster, and neither are they about seeing nothing but skinny women in advertisements. “It’s not only the media to blame,” she says. “For a lot of women, who used to be [sexually or physically] abused, their bodies have been a source of sadness, pain, oppression.”

In Victoria, says Finnigan, about 90 percent of the CEDRIC Centre’s clients say their main concern is about the size of their body, whether they think it’s too large, or too small. “Most people aren’t satisfied with the size of body they have.” But their size isn’t really the root of their concerns. As Finnigan points out, the underlying issues—perhaps a lack of self-esteem, happiness, satisfaction with their lives—don’t go away once someone’s body has got closer to whatever ideal they hold for their own appearance.

Plus, dieting can lead to other problems. “Eighty percent of eating disorders start with a diet,” she says. “Most people don’t diet for their health. They diet because they’re trying to reach an ideal of beauty . . . and the closer you are to the idea, the better [you believe] your life will be. It’s a physical manifestation of grace.”

Finnigan points out that acceptance and feeling good about yourself is more important than how much you weigh or how you look. “Beauty is innate in all of us,” she says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with how you look. We all have a tendency to forget that.”

We also have a tendency to blame all of our problems on our appearance, an attitude that is supported by television programs like The Swan. But Finnigan says that body image issues, and their related eating disorders, are actually “coping mechanisms.”

“If you’re obsessed with your appearance,” she says, “you don’t have to look at the bigger picture.” Rather than face relationship problems, or do something about the job they hate, people focus on an aspect of their body that they’re unhappy with.

“The cure isn’t to change the way your body looks,” says Finnigan. “It’s to change the way you relate to the world.”

And, to change the way others relate to the world, too. Gallagher laughs when asked how she feels about posing naked. “We’ll just see how that works, won’t we?” she says. “It’s a risk, but sometimes we need to take risks … so women aren’t feeling so damned about their bodies.” M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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