Maya Stackhouse, a Denver native studying anthropology and economics at Barnard College, shares her thoughts on how people affect culture. She may not consider herself a writer, but she definitely has a lot to say.
This is not going to be a media-bashing, underdog-cheering, “why can’t we all just get along” fem-bot spiel. When I read Jug Report’s review of Samm Newman’s Instagram rejection, I was derailed from my normal impulse to blame the world around me for bad things happening to good people by Newman’s own words: “Fat is not a bad word. How confident can you be if you keep censoring yourself because people don’t want to look at you?” I am as much a part of the world as the other 7 billion folks whose “fault” I’d like to think it is that Newman’s photo got reported. And I feel like shit for cringing when I saw Samm’s photos myself, but I did. And that got me thinking about this concept of self-censorship. If Instagram is subliminally asking Samm to censor her own body, is it not reasonable that I should have to censor my reactions? If, as I lackadaisically scrolled through my ‘friend’s’ posts on Instagram, I saw Newman’s photo, I imagine my response would be “Why the fuck did she post that?” (And as I will explain, that has very little to do with her weight). But the relationship between members of a culture and the media outposts of that culture is a symbiotic one. What is “newsworthy” depends on the rise that news can get out of me. If I control my response to the culture forced in my face, can I not control what is in my face in the first place?
I personally find it jarring to encounter any semi-nude picture of friends on social media, regardless of body type, gender, or intention. The unwanted and forced vulnerability of seeing a social media contact with less clothing than publicly accepted makes me feel violated, and angry at the person for the public affront to my eyes and online rights as a Instagram/Facebook/etc user (as if such rights existed). To me, it’s akin to seeing a teacher outside of school. Maybe I don’t want to know that you are human being just like me, that you might need to make a target run at 4 pm just like me. And trust me, I am not defending my position. I am simply trying to figure out how to take some responsibility for the way my culture has shaped me.
Despite my aversion to almost-nude mirror selfies, my Instagram feed is probably 40% partial nudes. I follow several body builders, models, and artists who feature the human body in nearly every one of their posts. I am impressed and motivated by super-fit bodies as I navigate my own twisted path toward fitness. I think the naked body can be a powerful image in media and art. My own paintings tend to include some aspect of nudity because I am captivated not only by the vulnerability of nakedness, but by the capabilities that the body’s system of sinews and bones can master. Ultimately, I see beauty in nakedness. But for some reason, nudity has to be packaged in certain specific ways for it to be acceptable to me. When nudity is presented as an artistic medium, or as a display of physical accomplishments and hard work, I not only accept it, but marvel at it. I have spent an immeasurable amount of time pouring over tattoo artists’ profiles on Instagram, but I refuse to look at selfie of dude who wants – needs – everyone in his social circle to know that he has decent muscle tone in his abdominal region. In the same way, Newman’s photo is offensive to me out of the context of this discussion. I don’t want to know what her stomach looks like and that has nothing at all to do with her weight. And guess what? I don’t have to look at her photos EVER if I don’t want to, just as she can choose to take herself off Instagram if it no longer provides a safe place for her to express herself.
However, the way she has used the reported photo and the reactions it has garnered IS a powerful use of not only nudity, but of the media. I was pleasantly surprised by her consideration of self-censorship. Cloaking her weight is as much of choice as displaying it. Similarly, every person has the responsibility to evaluate and condition their responses to the world around them. Yes, I cringed when I saw the photo, but then I asked, WHY? I didn’t like it because it was unfamiliar and unwanted. Yes, it was unfamiliar because there is an expectation in “Western” culture that what is displayed must be beautiful, and the Western conception of beauty is as inconsistent and indefinite as it is unjust. But I am so goddamn tired of us using our culture as an excuse. I am tall and physically fit. I have modeled. I get asked out on dates and bought drinks. And I personally don’t find obesity attractive. BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT. The point is that we have to recognize that our values ARE culturally-constructed, and move on from that. We have to start viewing the media through the lens of “This is offensive/appealing to me BECAUSE…” “I want that new product BECAUSE…” “That girl shouldn’t post that photo BECAUSE…” We need to quit blaming the cultural climate around us, and recognize that we are the ones creating it. We have to take personal AND cultural responsibility for our opinions because each one of us is an active member of a global society with constantly shifting goals and values whether we want to be or not. If we want a culture that employs a broader perspective on beauty, we each have to take some of the blame for the way things are presently. Culture and media are DYNAMIC. They are forever in a state of change, just as people are, because culture is MADE OF people. So blaming culture without recognizing one’s own membership in said culture is an incredibly ineffective means of doing right by Samm.
I applaud Newman for her courage, but I don’t know if the solution is for every person who doesn’t fit the mold of Western beauty to post a nude photo of themselves. Because that’s most people. We don’t like looking at normal people because it hits a little too close to home. We want beauty to be unrealistic so that we don’t feel so bad when we can’t quite attain it. But what are the implications of our culturally-conditioned, and therefore outlandish, expectations? The consequence is that we, as a culture and as individuals, no longer know how to deal with reality, so we hide from it by trying to suffocate it (i.e. reporting Newman’s photo). Or, as Newman’s done, we force it in each other’s faces in an attempt to cure our aversion to it. But that’s like making a kid smoke a pack of cigarettes when he’s 12 so that he never wants to smoke again. It’s a reflection of how badly we need a reality check, and how very little we know about how to do that. I really don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that “culture” is indefinite. And when I allow who I am and what I value to be malleable in the hands of “culture,” I become a person I no longer recognize, let alone control.