In college I spent a semester creating a solo show for the tiny student gallery outside the dining hall. I drew an entire room of eight foot tall self portraits, confronting my fat, nude body. My inspirations were women who cared about material and weight: Diane Victor, Jenny Saville, Eva Hesse. I remodeled my self image via the transitive property; my body was in a drawing, and the drawing was beautiful, so my body was beautiful.
I was intensely alone during the process. In my locked studio space, I would strip and prop my macbook up on its side, then take short videos for reference material. That way, I didn’t need anyone else — nobody to hold the camera, nobody clicking a shutter. Later, I scrubbed through each frame until I found something to draw. There was no outside viewer and no gaze in these moments. I even deflected my own gaze, putting off looking at myself until after I was clothed and finished modeling.
For my final critique, I was alone in the gallery with four professors judging my work. They asked for details of my process, and I mentioned using video as source material. On his turn to speak, my (male) advisor was very interested in the video aspect. He said to me, “you know, home video makes me think of amateur pornography.” I had never thought of my work having a connection to pornography; I felt naive and immature for missing it. Then he suggested I display my reference material alongside the portraits — how interesting that would be — maybe using projectors?
I remember saying no, no, I did not want to show my reference material while my professors discussed the best way to present it. The pressure was on: to expand my work in an interesting direction, I should get over my discomfort.
That critique stuck with me like a stone in my shoe, for half a decade. I no longer feel naive; now I feel angry. My work involved nudity and video but it was not in conversation with pornography. A man (a professor, a person in a position of power) looked at my body and all on his own he connected it to sex. He compared pictures of me to porn, then suggested I display them publicly and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t on board with the idea. Instead of reacting with empathy to my statement on body image, he dismissed it to become a voyeur. I created no space for the sexual male gaze in my work so he inserted it himself.
It is humiliating to have your carefully communicated thesis ignored in favor of one man’s sex thoughts. I showed him three months of being sore and tired and covered in soot in a cold studio with a concrete floor and he told me about his boner. I felt like a failed artist because a man looked at me and saw pornography.
This is the price of objectification. Men expect female bodies to revolve around them; if a woman’s nudity isn’t for male consumption, it must at least be about male consumption. It took me a long time to realize that my advisor’s reaction to my senior thesis was not my fault. It was the fault of a world that cannot imagine a woman without a man to look at her.