“Honest” Nudes: Participatory Cultures and Public Agency in Representing the Body

Curator's Note

The Nu Project by Matt Blum and Kate Kessler is a digital photography Internet-based series that that relies on volunteer non-model participation to represent “honest” nude female bodies. The mission of the project is to feature “the subjects and their personalities, spaces, insecurities and quirks.” Prospective participants learn about the project from social networks and by word of mouth and invite the team to shoot them in their homes. There is no pre-screening process. On the website’s testimonials page, many women talk about the empowering effect of volunteering to pose nude, commenting on the newly found self-esteem and appreciation for their bodies. With its insistence on featuring “honest” portraits without make-up and in poses that do not resemble those found in standard beauty shots, The Nu Project fits with the larger tendency of participatory digital cultures to promote the image of a “natural” body and its liberated desires, contesting the mainstream objectified ideal of beauty. The popularity of the series certainly encourages reflections on the power of new media to re-conceptualize public engagement with and control over representations of the body. Unprecedented in their potential outreach, digital spaces create an alternative venue to question and shape cultural values. Democratized production of art and knowledge through social media allows women to engage in a grassroots movement of sorts, assuming agency in self-representation. However, the performative aspect of the series raises intriguing questions which complicate the one-dimensional assessment of volunteer nudity (without necessarily challenging the empowerment that the project creates). What statements might these images be making? A defiant challenge to the mainstream beauty ideal? A plea for validation? A testimonial of embodied trauma? The embodied histories captured in these shots are much more diverse and multidimensional than commercial beauty shots would allow for. Furthermore, there is the lingering presence of the photographer’s – and the public’s – gaze that the models look acutely aware of. While the artists intend to create a light-hearted, humorous, and comfortable atmosphere, the aura of the images is much more complicated. Shot in privacy of their homes, these women are at once comfortable and extremely vulnerable, a paradox to be expected given the collation of private spaces and the publicity of the Internet exposure. Often, women in the photos hide their faces (slides 3, 4, 6) or otherwise assume a defensive pose (slide 4 especially). Nudity almost looks like a necessary measure to make a statement.


Excellent post. I have a friend who dabbles in nude drawing (life drawing) of "people of size" (a PC term he uses to describe himself) as a means of interrupting standard tropes about male beauty. He contends that trauma experienced because of his size, particularly during childhood, drives his aesthetic choice. He isn't attempting to fetishize or even normalize being of size, however, but rather act as a discursive caesura. To him, what matters is exposing the hollowness of any beauty binary–non-skinny versus skinny being a false dichotomy that paves over vast differentiation in corporeal forms. I think he'd agree that The Nu Project is complex, and for all of the reasons you mention. Politically speaking, both he and I would likely contend that the project effective redistributes sensibility for non-mediatic bodies, though, since people who don't look like cover girls and boys are often silenced not just in beauty rags and runway shows, but all that stems from that, including coupling, sexual, and other romantic relations that stem from being another person's subject of desire. I wonder: does this project open space for its participants to become subjects of desire? More cynically, does articulating such desire mediatically present new opportunities for beauty-based marketers to circulate the material products that give us beauty-as-consumption, the beautification-industrial-complex? Advertising slogans like: Confidence, the gloss for full figured lips!

Following up on Kris's concluding speculation that attempts to mediate non-idealized bodies might enable profiteering by the "beautification-industrial-complex"...Natalia's post about The Nu Project put me in mind of Dove's ongoing "Real Beauty" campaign and the parody "True Beauty" ad that mocked Dove's not-so-subtle attempts to capitalize on cultural demands for more realistic representations of women: http://time.com/71764/dove-real-beauty-ad-parody/. The advantages of The Nu Project's approach are resounding, but how best can it stave off the colonizing gazes of online consumers and corporate interests while giving voice and visibility to a wide range of "embodied histories"?

Thank you for your responses! I agree that the project, along with other similar attempts to "redistribute sensibility for non-mediatic bodies," leaves open the larger question about the potential of such images to represent desired - and desiring - subjects. Maria's comment reminds me of other instances of "fem-vertising" such as Always' Like A Girl campaign (see http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/how-ads-empower-women-ar... for an enthusiastic account of how ads featuring women's empowerment are boosting sales, without acknowledging the opportunistic nature of such ads). I am wondering if parody is, indeed, the most powerful antidote here, and whether we can detect an element of parody in The Nu Project itself, with its intended half-humorous, half-refractory attitude to the conventions of mainstream representations of nudity? Can laughter be commodified?

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