Gaze at Something Else
Isabella Millington, Content Creator for OHNE on why feminist artists, brands, and movements are embracing the female body - body rolls, bleeding and all...OHNE is a bespoke, organic tampon subscription service dedicated to breaking down taboos and hustlin’ for healthy vaginas. Find us online at ohne.co or on twitter and instagram @im_ohne.
The Male Gaze
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a pair of eyes must be in want of a slim, white, voluptuous woman to gaze at… or so contemporary social conditioning would have us all believe.
It’s no secret to anyone who has taken the Feminism 101 that is activist Twitter or body-posi Instagram that women have, for millennia, been held to an unrealistic standard of beauty designed to appeal to the Male Gaze™. This model is necessarily unattainable, because not only is capitalism built upon selling women shit they don’t need to solve problems they don’t have, but the very model of ‘beauty’ itself depends on the woman never realising her own attractiveness.
The second a woman relishes in her own beauty - especially if said beauty doesn’t fit the conventional model of acceptable femininity, slenderness, cis-ness, whiteness, etc. etc. ad nauseum - she is suddenly deemed unacceptable by society’s standards. Women exist forever in flux between one point of the double-edged sword and the other; we must be beautiful and must strive to be so, but to acknowledge our own beauty is to make ourselves necessarily less beautiful. To find ourselves beautiful when we don’t in any way resemble the societal ideal is even more repulsive - not only are we daring to exist in the world, unashamed of where we have placed in the genetic lottery, but we have the audacity to celebrate it. A beautiful woman must be looked at but must not look at herself. A non-beautiful woman must not be looked at at all.
Capitalism thrives off this paradigm. A beautiful woman is one who does not know she is beautiful, a beautiful woman is insecure, an insecure woman is easier to sell to. From razors to wonderbras, telling women that they are too much or not enough just the way they are is a profitable industry.
Which is why the notion of running a feminist business can sometimes seem like something of an oxymoron. When Jazz - founder of Mude Threads and creator of the blog you are currently reading - wrote this brilliant article for our website, ohne.co, she explored the idea that feminist businesses don’t have to be run by the tried and tired rules of traditional business models. These models weren’t created to serve us, but rather to exploit and manipulate us into parting with our money. So we - self-proclaimed feminist brands - are creating our own model. One based on mutual support, admiration, and sharing - of ideas, skills, even followers.
But what are businesses like OHNE and Mude Threads contributing to feminism beyond the way in which we interact with other businesses? What are we doing that rejects Old White Male Capitalism more explicitly, more publicly?
Women’s bodies are ‘supposed’ to be under the gaze and control of the patriarchy. As soon as you wrest back that autonomy you’re seen as controversial and contumacious, but no one blinks an eye at Great Male Artists™ depicting female nudity for their own pleasure.
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity”, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing.
Art, be it an oil painting, a t-shirt, or an Instagram photo, which depicts the female body in a real, confronting, tender, personal way; art which addresses the bodily functions of the female body; art which celebrates all the parts of our bodies we have been taught to hate - is repulsive to this traditional male gaze, because it de-sexualises female existence. A woman eating, peeing, masturbating, or bleeding is a woman who is not serving a man, the male gaze, or the patriarchy more broadly.
Female artists and businesses such as Mude Threads, Pot Yer Tits Away Luv, Liv and Dom, and many, many others, are reclaiming the female body and the bizarre societal rules that allow men to paint naked women and have their art be considered beautiful, visionary, respectable, but prohibits women from doing the same thing. With their own goddamn bodies. With every lumpy, small, or spotty boob sculpted, every menstruating vulva sketched, and every roll of body fat lovingly hand-embroidered, women are re-asserting power over their own bodies.
Running a feminist business means you are inevitably going to run up against criticism from those who think your work is too controversial or simply too different from what they are used to seeing. Images of periods, body fat proudly displayed, saggy boobs hanging free (sidenote: check out Chidera Eggerue, AKA The Slumflower’s #saggyboobsmatter movement) are censored and shamed because these aspects of female existence are supposed to be hidden. It’s become taboo to show, talk about, even to acknowledge the functions and so-called flaws of the female body simply because they are not considered beautiful by this elusive, disembodied Male Gaze.
Periods are an especially salient example of this. They have always been considered inherently repulsive in much the same way as a breastfeeding woman has always been shamed in the public sphere; because these entirely natural bodily functions serve as reminders of the myriad ways in which the female body is not, in fact, designed to serve men and their fantasies.
At OHNE, we pride ourselves on being not only unashamed of periods and the realities of living as humans who menstruate, but being deliberately and specifically proud of them. We want women and other people who menstruate to feel emboldened when they look at an OHNE image, to know that their blood is not shameful, that their hormones do not make them crazy, and that their bodies are beautiful and hashtag-insta-worthy just the way they are.
Social media is often criticised for allowing people to show a filtered or even false representation of their lives online, but rarely do we talk about the ways in which this kind of autonomy over our own image and story can be a powerful tool for social change. Social media, for all its flaws, offers brands, like those in our little community of feminist artists and activists, the chance to make a real difference in the narrative young women and other people are being sold about the way in which they should exist in the world. We can post images of our period blood because it belongs to us, just like we can make stunning, uncensored, and downright confronting art out of our own naked bodies. Because they belong to us.
And attitudes are shifting. In our little corner of the internet we’re seeing women and brands living out Shine Theory every day, reclaiming their image, joining the Self Love Club both literally and metaphorically (sidenote: check out @frances_cannon on Instagram) and refusing to feel ashamed or less than because of the bullshit we’ve been taught to believe about our looks and our behaviour.
We’re seeing mainstream media outlets talking about periods and period poverty more and more frequently. In my own life I’ve cheerfully observed the ways in which young men and teenage boys do not flinch as their fathers or grandfathers do when I tell them I work for an organic tampon company (though I have to admit I do quite enjoy making my dad’s colleagues squirm and desperately try to come up with anything to say in response that won’t result in having to hear me say the word ‘tampon’ again... ). We’re seeing more awareness and activism of how we should be caring for our bodies in ways that doesn’t shame or trigger us; in ways which demands more of our education system (better sex ed in public schools, please) and more of the companies profiting off our existence (less chemicals in our tampons, please); in ways which opens up more space for any and every type of body to be celebrated.
On social media, in the hands of these artists and brands and activists, the male gaze becomes redundant. There is absolutely no question of who these images are made for and who these bodies are serving. They’re for us. You can only look at our bodies because we chose to show them to you, chose to upload them onto your social media feed, chose to create the products that serve them, and chose to love them enough to paint them, photograph them, sculpt, embroider, stitch, perform, model, collage and sketch them.
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