As a model and an activist, I regularly post photos of myself – clothed and not clothed – and have been photographed nude several times over the span of my modelling career. Does this make me not a feminist?
A week or so ago, Emma Watson came under fire for a photograph in Vanity Fair that critics said undermined her work for women's issues and as a UN ambassador. The photo showed half of her bare breast. If she were “plus size” what would they have said then? Would that have been more feminist?
While Watson doesn’t need to be wasting her breath defending the literal inch of her skin on show, of course she is right that you can be a feminist and show your body. And while I won’t waste (much) of my time discussing idiotic comments from people like Julia Hartley-Brewer and Piers Morgan, they do represent the resurgence in super-conservative views in mainstream media that need to be addressed.
The first problem is the gender assumption that nudity is intended for the male gaze. It’s not just men who like to look at women’s naked bodies! Women like it, too! Why? Because no two bodies are the same, and it’s fascinating. Most of the time, nudity isn’t about arousal. I personally love to look at naked women. As a kid, I remember being captivated by my mother’s body. I would watch in awe as she got undressed to bathe and then dressed in the morning – this body that had given birth to me and my two siblings was so different from my own, and I was fascinated by everything from her freckles to the folds of her flesh. We are complex human beings and I, for one, like to see and be able to connect with that human aspect of other people.
While there is a huge difference between Page 3, a fashion editorial, and an Instagram picture, most of the time, the problem comes down to women judging other women and then we enter the territory of slut-shaming. This gets us nowhere. Personally, I’ve found that when I post these kinds of images of myself, I receive the most supportive comments, mostly from women. If I do ever see a gross comment from a gross guy, like "nice tits", I delete it. My Instagram is my space so if there’s something that feels negative on there, I just delete it. The most shaming comments I’ve received aren’t targeted at nudity, they’re targeted at whether I qualify as “plus size”. A lot of people disagree with the term; it’s a heated subject. There have been instances where thousands of people have been deliberating online over whether I am plus or not and arguing among themselves about my body, and it’s got very political. At a size 14, I am the normal, average size in the UK, so I understand why people get mad when I’m categorised as plus. I’ve worked in this business that insists on putting you in a category for so long that I understand it’s an industry term – it’s because I’m plus compared to the average, size zero catwalk model. So I just try to disconnect from all that, and not take it personally. I know who I am, and where my politics stand – I do my best not to let the internet dictate what I can and can’t do.
I felt a social responsibility to be the change I wanted to see
When I shifted into working as a plus-size model, I really realised the lack of representation of other types of naked bodies. In editorials and fashion shows, bare skin was almost part of the design of a high-end outfit, and the skin was almost always white, and the body it belonged to almost always super-thin. Seeing this, I felt a social responsibility to be the change I wanted to see. After years of feeling not skinny enough due to my job, I suddenly understood the importance of expressing myself honestly, as I was. I didn’t need or want to hide the body that I had been made to feel ashamed of. It was functional, it was good to me and I was proud of it. I was nervous at the beginning – especially the first few times posting photos of my body – but I’ve been lucky enough to have been mostly photographed by lovely people who made me feel super-comfortable about being nude. There was one time, though, where I was working with a misogynist who, while I was naked, muttered that he "loved being able to tell girls what to do". I just got up and left. I felt gross and vulnerable. Nudity has to be done in the right context, and it’s shameful when people remove it from that context and turn it into something else.
I’ve never taken any of these photos thinking about what men would think of them. I take them for me, which isn’t something I’ve learned to say – it’s just true. As women, we are taught from day one to feel shame for so many things: sex, our bodies, lust, power, intelligence, menstruation – we are a culture completely driven by shame.
I’m not afraid to express that I am a young woman who is a sexual being and I’m having fun with it
I know that 75% of my followers identify as women and they are a supportive, kind, loving community. We keep each other going. Whenever I post an image on Instagram like the one above, it’s me experimenting with myself. I look back at it and I think it’s hilarious! Of course there is a sexual aspect to how I’m positioned, on all fours, but I’m not afraid to express that I am a young woman who is a sexual being and I’m having fun with it. I do not represent obedience.
Putting together "me" outfits and finding the perfect place to shoot them is all part of the fun experience for me. Also bear in mind that Instagram is one of the few places where I get to control the image, instead of a client or a photographer/ art director telling me what to do or how they want me to be perceived. The response is almost exclusively loving comments from other women.
Being unafraid to show this kind of vulnerability shows a type of power – which sometimes makes straight, cis-gendered, mostly white men feel uncomfortable. Boo-hoo.
As for Emma Watson, I think she’s just out here trying to live and show the world that she’s a grown woman who can do what she wants. Feminism to me means IRL liberation from sexist role patterns. A woman’s sexuality is on her own terms, whether it’s for pleasure or creative work. Life for women is hard enough, we need to turn that energy into something positive because we can’t make any real change when we’re picking each other apart.