The Sex Appeal of Being Seen

Getting dressed and undressed is a political act, especially if you are a woman. Personally, I have always been the sort of girl who dresses like Rita Hayworth just to spend an evening standing next to the snack table. But in the back of my mind I have always harboured doubts about this tendency to over-dress: am I buying into an ideology dreamed up by capitalists to sell lipstick? In 2010 the now President of the United States bragged to David Letterman that when he bought the Miss Universe Pageant he “made the heels higher and the bathing suits smaller”, and has openly abused women for not meeting his beauty standards.[1] Suddenly it seems hard to deny that the need to be seen can be just as oppressive as it is enjoyable. In a day and age where female beauty is a commodity being bought and sold by the likes of Donald Trump, does wanting to be seen make me a bad feminist?

dianaactaeon
Diana and Actaeon, based on an ancient Greek vase.

In my search for answers I have turned to the Roman poet, Ovid, who had a talent for portraying confusing sexual encounters from mythology, that continue to offer wisdom throughout the ages. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid presents a series of love stories in which the desire to see and to be seen leads to disaster. The goddess Diana, for example, swore to remain a virgin for life. She lived with a band of nymphs in a secluded forest, hunting deer, and avoiding the male gaze. When the unsuspecting Actaeon was hunting and stumbled upon Diana bathing nude, the vengeful goddess turned him into a deer, and let him be hunted down and eaten by his own hounds.[2] Seeing Diana naked transgressed not only social norms, but the boundaries between gods and mortals. Actaeon somehow injured the goddess simply by looking at her, and threatened her power in a way that only bloody revenge could restore.

Yet in other cases, Ovid presents women who are eager to be seen, and become deeply frustrated when they are not. Salmacis was a nymph who unlike her sisters, the virgin handmaidens of Diana, devoted her time to bathing, combing her hair, and admiring her reflection in the pool. When a handsome and naïve young man, Hermaphroditus, came upon the pool, Salmacis fell so in love that she instantly proposed to him. When he refused, she pounced on him and their two bodies became merged into one. From one point of view Ovid portrays Salmacis’ sexuality as first and foremost, the desire to be seen, and second, desperate and suffocating clinginess. Her unfulfilled desire to be seen leads Salmacis down a path of assault and self-destruction.[3]

salmance-e-ermafrodito-i-roberto-ferri
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus I by Roberto Ferri

The power dynamics between every couple in the Metamorphoses are anything but simple, and much is left for the reader to interpret. Each character has a different relationship with their physical appearance, and how they wish others to perceive it. Whether a character appreciates being seen depends on their attitude towards sex, their age, and their status as god or mortal. If gender is a factor, it is not easy to define how it plays out. Diana and Salmacis are both female, yet both have different preferences for being seen or being hidden, and apparently both base their preferences on their own personal pleasure. While some modern ideologies may be tampering with our ideals of beauty, modern capitalists certainly did not invent exhibitionism, nor should we allow them to own that concept.

Aphrodite of Knidus
Aphrodite of Knidus

My favourite account of female beauty in the ancient world I have read comes from a conversation between three men admiring the statue of Venus in the Greek city of Knidus. The statue was infamous not only for its erotic nudity, and for its sculptor, Praxiteles, who apparently modelled the piece off his own mistress, but also for the almost supernatural power it held over anyone who looked at it. One man was so obsessed with the statue that he locked himself in the temple at night and tried to make love to it. Finding the stone unyielding he was driven mad and threw himself off a cliff.[4] We typically think of the person who does the looking as being active, and in control, and the person who is observed as passive. A statue seems like an object made to be seen by others, and unable to experience feeling of its own. Yet here the statue of Venus is in control, and the viewer is helpless.

To make matters more complicated: consider how limiting it must be to never be appreciated for one’s appearance. In my previous post I discussed how sports are an age-old excuse for seeing and being seen. The truth is that many of us, men especially, do need an excuse. I have never experienced this so clearly as in my visits to gay nightclubs, where many highly groomed men happily strip off and take to the dancefloor, and occasionally poles and cages, in full view of all. Sexually revealing clothes for men are generally stigmatised in a misguided attempt to protect male autonomy: as if looking at someone is tantamount to controlling them. Yet seeing these nightclub exhibitionists enjoying themselves, made me realise how much straight men are missing out on. Gym selfies and dick pics are some of the few means available to straight men to show off, and even then, they are controversial.

This does not mean that looking at someone in a sexual way is always empowering. The desire to be seen still needs to be differentiated from objectification. For many women, our cultural ideals of female beauty are less of a choice, and more of a hamster wheel of unending despair. This was true in the ancient world too: Ovid also advises women to enhance their appearance with the makeshift cosmetics available to them at the time, including poisonous white lead foundation, and red nitre blush.[5] The desire to look good can be literally toxic.

Ultimately, the fight against objectification in the media isn’t about hating sexiness, or hating those who enjoy being seen. Fighting objectification is important because it allows us to take control over our own sexuality and not have it determined for us by advertisers, other people’s expectations, or fake-tanned Dictators. Our culture has a long road ahead to achieving true sexual liberation, and history provides an interesting perspective on how far we’ve come (or not, as the case may be). In the meantime: hands off my miniskirts.

[1] Rolling Stone has compiled a timeline of Trump’s abuses while he was the owner of Miss Universe: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/timeline-of-trumps-creepiness-while-he-owned-miss-universe-w444634

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.138-252.

[3] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 4.274-388.

[4] Ps. Luc. Am. 15.11-12. 16.2-3.

[5] Ovid, Medicamina faciei femineae (Or Remedies for the Female Form).

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