De-sexualizing Nudity: Five Artists Discuss Intent & Representation
© Digital collage by INJECTION
These five artists are tackling issues around body positivity one painted nude at a time - here’s what they say.
Kylie Marume (@plutoniangod), Bex Kemp (@verdad_art), Jess Hazell (@jesshazellart), Isabelle Sophia (@isabellesophiaart) and Sarah Courtney (@sc.artstudios) discuss all things art, feminism, body positivity and nudity. They all advocate self-love and empowerment and create beautiful pieces of art that reflect that. Head over to their Instagrams to learn more about who they are and the art they create!
© 'Aurora' by Bex Kemp; inspired by Japanese Kintsugi art. IG: @verdad_art
What drew you to paint women’s bodies? Specifically, why the nude body?
When I started painting my friends, I wanted them to see their nudity from my eyes. For them to see what I saw, and not all the flaws they would focus on.
It’s like when you look in a mirror and you can spend a lot of time nitpicking the things you don’t like, but you’re not looking at the bigger picture -
You are so much more than your body.
It would be really rewarding when I would have people message me or comment on a post and say things like “that kind of looks like me” or “I don’t really like my boobs, and not to be weird, but those look exactly like my boobs and… I guess I kind of like them like that.”
That’s why I create the art that I do - I want people to recognize parts of themselves within my art, recognize their body types, or even just their boobs, and just to see “normal” bodies represented.
Representation matters - I tried to find samples to create art from and there are a lot of really thin, model-like bodies, and it is a type of body, but there are so many other sizes out there that are not represented. So I started asking my friends and people I knew to model for me just so I could portray “real” and “natural bodies.”
All bodies are beautiful bodies and we all need to work harder to offer better nude representation for the amazing and diverse bodies out there.
How I present myself is definitely reflected back in my work. I use my own nudes and then make self-portraits and it’s nice to be able to present myself the way I want to be presented, or even to portray myself the way I want to look at myself.
I liked creating pieces that allowed me to confront myself - to confront the insecurities I had but to see them incorporated into a beautiful piece of art. It was important to me. In allowing myself to represent the imperfect parts of ourselves we usually try to hide away, and to appreciate them as part of something beautiful.
Painting is part of my life.
I like painting naked women because I find it empowering - I like art that has the ability to empower others. I want others to see their bodies reflected in my art and to find parts of themselves beautiful in my art.
I just want other people who see my art to see that nudity is art and not something that is inappropriate.
The censorship is horrible - TikTok is much worse than Instagram in censoring or taking down our work, and the censorship about nipples is infuriating.
It’s not even a battle worth having: after my first video got taken down from TikTok right after I posted it, I immediately just deleted the app. I didn’t see the point -
I feel like we’re all just playing to the algorithm to try and get our art out there.
© 'Grace O'Malley' by Isabelle Sophia. IG: @isabellesophiaart
How important are colors in the work you create?
Colors to me are super important and I like to use bright colors because it feels like a celebration - a celebration of energy and of nudity.
I can never stick to just one color palette - I will try and have it be just blue, but then suddenly there’s pink in there, and before you know it I’ve splattered in some yellows and reds. It’s just a lot of fun to play with colors.
To me, surrealism has a very important part in my work. I like playing with colors to show light and shadows - I want the women in my work to be vibrant and to have a goddess aura to them. I will usually try to paint them with a halo or glow around them. I also choose my colors so that they can demonstrate the importance of us living symbiotically with nature.
I am really drawn to greens and blues; I once tried a painting in red but it just turned brown - I guess it’s just what I am comfortable with.
Purple is my thing - I love the energetic quality it gives my work. It sort of strips back the flesh of reality and propels the viewer into a spiritual and aura-driven narrative.
© 'Embroidered' by Sarah Courtney. IG: @sc.artstudios
If nudity isn’t sexual, then what makes art erotic?
[best out of context comment:] If you ever get the opportunity to go to a naked party, I highly recommend it.
It is so important that we de-sexualize nudity, but what makes nudity erotic in the first place?.
Intent. It is the intent behind nudity that sexualizes.
I was thinking about these, I call them “vintage” body types, because they’re so old-fashioned, and it’s the hourglass, pear-shape or apple-shaped body, and I just suddenly realized I had been objectifying my own body all this time - literally comparing it to different objects. It gives me fire.
I was fuming.
I’m not a fucking fruit.
We should all get that printed on T-shirts - I’m not a fucking fruit.
You don’t hear about men being compared to apples or pears, so why are we?
But how do we challenge these notions and misconceptions that nudity is sexual?
I think nudity is sexualised because there exists such an extreme de-sensitization to it. We’re not used to seeing women’s breasts and nipples so when we do see them, it’s almost instinctive that they are assimilated into sexual conceptions of nudity.
We need women to be represented in art, because when I look around, everything is so fucking phallic.
The male gaze that exists in the art world is extremely inhibiting as well - we look at the kind of art portrayed in ‘traditional’ museums, and a lot of it is created by white-cis-men, and the women you do see on display there are highly eroticised versions of what the female body can look like.
The solution is representation.
When I started posting about my art on Instagram, my friends were like, “wow, there are a lot of boobs and breasts on your Instagram page”, and all I could say to them was “get used to it.”
Like, I am naked and I am here and I am awesome.
We have to normalize nudity - it is possible for nudity to exist outside of sexuality.
We need to create a space for the de-sexualising of nudity to happen - a safe space where you can internally challenge these notions within yourself.
I do a lot of commissions for my art, and it’s really nice when there are couples, because the whole intent is different. When gifting a painting to a partner - you are in control of how you want to be sexualised and there is something pretty powerful in that too - it’s about how you create that space. It was giving that person the permission to sexualise you; and it was an intimate and then an immediately more erotic perception of that nude painting. But it is about intent.
I’ve had men message me or comment on photos and ask why I don’t paint penises. And I respond in a respectful but serious way: I tell them that it is not the focus of my art, but I would be happy to direct them to someone who would take commissions like that. And then they very quickly change the subject, or laugh it off, or insist that they want me to paint them.
And that’s exactly it - they just say it to take the piss out of you.
It’s like that phrase - what is it again?
“Not all men.”
Yes, and they’re like saying ‘well, what about us?’
And I want to tell them that THEY’RE MISSING THE ENTIRE POINT. I paint women because it’s what I connect with; it’s what I represent; it’s what is important to me.
The other thing that INFURIATES me is when someone sexualises the entire painting process - they say it’s “hot” that I’m painting other women, and they ask me whether I’m attracted to the women I paint.
Yes, I’ve even had some people tell me to ‘be careful’ otherwise I might put the “wrong” message out there - that I might be gay - and I’m like, well, it really isn’t any of your business.
I have had some really positive experiences with men, because they absolutely too suffer from body image issues, but it’s about how they approach that.
They need to be open about that.
Like, I’m more than happy to have a conversation with you about it, but not if you’re not gonna take it seriously.
But something else that’s important to recognize is that feminism is a men’s issue.
Absolutely. It’s about equality - especially when we are trying to have conversations about body image and nudity censorship - they are welcome to be part of this conversation.
I think it’s partially up to them to start conversations like these - to challenge why nudity is such a sexualised concept.
And it again is about creating a space for the de-sexualising of nudity to happen. A space for these conversations to happen.
Giving space to women, that is my focus.
© 'Earthbound' by Kylie Marume. IG: @plutoniangod
I got a lot of negative responses to this piece and people would ask me and I would say that I am not a man-hater, but this was something I wanted to visualize. This is a black woman taking up space. You can see her using her weight on men: she’s sitting on men, crushing them, and you can see parts of body parts so I see why people may not like it, but notice the idealised female bodies freeing themselves from the male gaze. The bodies are emerging free from their distorted heads in this surrealist piece. There are no faces on these bodies, this contributes to the body objectification of women. It was very personal to me. I wanted to show a black woman taking up space. To revolt against “Westernized preferences.”
I love that it’s made people uncomfortable.
I think art to some extent has to make people uncomfortable - otherwise they are not challenged about their preconceived notions and ideas.
Regardless of the negative responses you’re receiving, you’re evoking change - and it’s precisely those people that need to be challenged, because you’re showing them something they’re not used to.
You’re challenging the way they see the world, and that’s kind of really cool.
My art is MEANT to be confronting, and so if you’re offended maybe it’s a good thing? Take time to read the message, LISTEN, and reflect.
© 'Shedding Snakeskin' by Jess Hazell. IG: @jesshazellart
To what extent does ‘queerness’ have a place in your work?
Queerness definitely has a place in my work, and you can’t differentiate a “trans woman” from “woman” - I’ve painted a transwoman, and you can look for her in my Instagram, but you won’t find her, because she is a woman. You can still have a variety in body types regardless of whether you’re a cis or trans woman.
If you identify as a woman, then you are a woman.
And unless they explicitly wanted something mentioned about their sexuality or transitioning, then it doesn’t belong in the piece.
Their nude art portrait is just about their nudity - their bodies existing outside of their sexuality.
What does play a part in my art is the acceptance of my own queerness.
But there are these really harmful projections that femininity is something that can be performed - it isn’t and it again originates from this male gaze - this presupposition of what women in art are supposed to be like.
This is why representation matters. Women aren't "supposed" to be any one thing - we're not "supposed" to just look one way. We are a multiplicity of things - complex and beautiful.
What is some advice you would give to others, regarding how they see their body?
Stop scrutinizing yourself.
You just have to think 'I am so much more than my body.'
It’s not about the space I occupy with my body, but about the space I occupy with my ideas.
It’s less about the body and more of how we see ourselves from the inside.
Please just stop comparing yourself to others.
Your insecurities that you think are unique to you? They’re not. There are so many other people who have exactly the same fears and worries that you do. You are not alone in your insecurities.
If your body does something you don’t believe is normal, please please do not reduce yourself; do not shrink yourself. You are normal, worthy and extraordinary.
You know your body better than anyone else, so trust your gut, trust your intuition and do what makes you feel guilt and without shame - leave that shit at the door.
Your body is always enough and worthy of love.