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The imperfect but honest image of a woman's body
February 14, 2014 2:34 AM   Subscribe

How radical and provocative is an honest image of a woman's body? [possibly NSFW]

Beth Whaanga, a mother of four from Brisbane, Australia, is finding out after posting images on Facebook of her body following surgery for breast cancer late last year. Taken by Nadia Masot, the pictures are brilliantly direct, documenting Whaanga's ongoing hair loss, total bilateral mastectomy, navel reconstruction and hysterectomy scar. Whaanga lost more than 100 friends on Facebook after posting the pictures – and then they went viral.
posted by moody cow (39 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article is well written but doesn't break any incredible new things thought. It just states what most rational self aware people think.... But that picture. It's all in that picture. My goodness has that women struggled. It IS in fact brave of her to post it not for the normalcy which we all have but for the scars we neither have nor have seen. What a survivor she is and she has the battle marks to prove it. What a perfectly lovely women.
posted by chasles at 3:28 AM on February 14 [5 favorites]


I'm not trying to minimise what Beth Whaanga's body attests she's been through, or be some kind of fake-radical-ally-whatever, but I don't find those photos provocative or radical. I see a beautiful woman in a lived-in body that is, oh, missing nipples. I do often experience momentary visceral confusion at seeing women's bodies after radical mastectomy but without reconstruction; but her reconstruction is really good and her breasts look very natural. They fit a what I would expect for small-breasted woman after four pregnancies. I think Beth Whaanga looks... great. I also think that 100 of her former Facebook "friends" are vile humans.

Mostly, though, I am failing to compute XOJane posting a gallery of plus-sized women and headlining it "31 HOT SEXY FAT GIRLS IN SKIMPY SWIMWEAR." Is it that fat women are valid if they're hot and sexy, or is it that my irony meter is broken? I don't read XOJane very often.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:02 AM on February 14 [4 favorites]


I have a scar similar to Beth Whaanga's hysterectomy scar, and for similar reasons (surgery when I was 26). I used to make a point of warning new sex partners before I got totally undressed, just in case. But...uh, let's say that fairly recently I had occasion to issue a similar warning again, but didn't. The gentleman in question not only didn't react, it appears that he didn't even notice, because he was too focuses on the whole picture of me.

The right people don't care about such scars.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:25 AM on February 14 [20 favorites]


I think it's a really good thing not to find the photos provocative or radical. Some people will, but the more people who are like "oh, yep, an artsy photo of a naked woman, I like that," the better.

The melanoma scars... oof. My dad had a skin graft after getting a melanoma removed from his scalp, and it left a huge circular scar that could only be hidden with floppy bucket hats, which he started wearing all the time. He had an admirably positive attitude and a good sense of humor about having deadly cancer, but I always felt bad about that obvious scar and his self-consciousness about it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:26 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Why present these in black and white? Doesn't that have a minimizing effect, or at least allow the viewer to distance him/herself from the subject?
posted by lizzicide at 5:05 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


"honest image"

The camera can only lie.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:05 AM on February 14 [4 favorites]


Hm. I thought it was interesting. Moreover, brave for the woman to allow herself to be photographed this way. I go swim at the pool a couple times a week and am continually reminded the variety of body types that are fat but strong, dimpled but strong, scarred but strong, old but strong. I look forward to taking my daughter to the pool as she grows up. She will, no doubt, go through a long, hard phase of feeling incredibly awkward about her body and thinking that bodies are *gross* but she'll know that there is variety and, hopefully, that there is beauty in that.
posted by amanda at 5:31 AM on February 14 [6 favorites]


No matter how many times I told a lady that I felt she should be proud of those scars, because, hey, she fought cancer and won, and I would gladly look past those scars to see the person who managed to do that, she always was very self-conscious about it.
posted by DreamerFi at 5:39 AM on February 14


I go swim at the pool a couple times a week and am continually reminded the variety of body types that are fat but strong, dimpled but strong, scarred but strong, old but strong.

This, a million times over. I don't go to the pool often, but that is precisely what I notice and enjoy about going to the beach, outdoor hot springs, and other settings where totally normal people's bodies are exposed incidentally as part of their physical enjoyment. It's a reminder of how limited the range of images we get in movies, magazines, and on TV are, and how much that structures our ideas of "normal." Any attempt to broaden that is good in my book.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:43 AM on February 14 [6 favorites]


I go swim at the pool a couple times a week and am continually reminded the variety of body types that are fat but strong, dimpled but strong, scarred but strong, old but strong.

Yeah, there's this tiny older woman, somewhere in sixty or seventy that just swims and swims and swims, seemingly for hours, while young buff dudes get obviously tired and worn and hit the showers. I swear that woman is part fish or something, she moves through the water so gracefully.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:05 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


Beth Whaanga looks like she's in, what, her 40s somewhere? The scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, etc. don't seem pretty much the same as what you'd see on a male of similar age and a similar medical history involving a couple of major surgeries and some rapid weight loss. The difference being that on a guy it wouldn't be nearly so shocking (not that I'm shocked, but one of the assumptions of this piece – one that I think is correct – is that many viewers will be taken aback).

Granted, her body isn't exactly representative since most women never have mastectomies or hysterectomies, but then neither surgery is uncommon either. Many men and women have had surgeries by the time they're approaching middle age, for various reasons. And things like stretch marks, varicose veins, wrinkles, and hair loss are all totally normal – and all much more "acceptable" on men than on women.

I like things like this. It's not exactly a new idea, but it should keep happening until it sinks into the culture. Normalizing the idea that women's bodies in real life do not look like the platonic ideal promulgated by marketing, fashion media, and pornography is a very important part of establishing true gender equality. Until all people's bodies are automatically accepted for what they are – as neither sex objects nor targets for disgust, but as simply the physical manifestations of human beings – there will always be more work to be done.
posted by Scientist at 6:26 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


DarlingBri - i think the xojane headline is poking fun at cosmo and the like. the write up on the side does a pretty good job talking about the gallery and why she wanted it published.
posted by nadawi at 6:59 AM on February 14


"Why present these in black and white? Doesn't that have a minimizing effect, or at least allow the viewer to distance him/herself from the subject?"

The black and white treatment has also added a lot of contrast to the image, contrast that accentuates the various scars and markings.

I am not sure if the scars would be as prominent if displayed in colour. Certainly prominent, but perhaps significantly less so.

Just as photo processing can make someone look "more attractive", it can also do the opposite.
posted by striatic at 7:07 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Why present these in black and white? Doesn't that have a minimizing effect, or at least allow the viewer to distance him/herself from the subject?

Careful use of black and white gives a skilled photographer tremendous latitude when photographing people. For example, using a green filter would have darkened her scars and blemishes, making them more visible, whereas a red filter would have minimized their appearance while giving her skin a soft glow and faint translucency.

B&W also allows fine control of tonal range, allowing the photographer to emphasize texture and volume (with appropriate lighting, of course). That's what's happening here, and I like the results. Ms. Whaanga's conventionally attractive, carefully made-up face and the unvarnished truth of her battle-scarred body makes for striking contrast. There is a powerful beauty in these images that should be radical and provocative, because they force a visceral contemplation of what unseen lethal machinations work inside us. Seeing this on someone who fought these forces and won makes it a study in both powerlessness and strength.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:28 AM on February 14 [7 favorites]


It's not even processing, it's just ... everything about photography & images.

Like I'm on OKCupid, I have random non-artistic mostly low-skill snapshots of me up from random events. But I suspect I could noticeably increase my interest received by going to an old friend of mine for headshots for 50 or 100 bucks - and he may or may not postprocess, but this guy can do so much just with angles, lighting, pose, and quality equipment whether or not it's processed. Of course he never says anything, but he must have an excellent sense of everyone's attractive features, ugliness, and flaws. His skills are not common but can be found easily enough. I could probably do even better by getting him to do some candid shots or things posed to look candid.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:28 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


I have a feeling that most people don't have a problem with scars and blemishes, but that's not what the media and Hollywood has decided to give them.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:35 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


A 'regular' person who presents images with scars and blemishes is telling you something far more personal then a 'beautiful' person presenting a perfectly shot image.

I don't know about the general populace reaction, but there are Facebook friends who, quite frankly, I prefer it if they did not to share something that personal with me. That would also go for essay's on the process. There are others who I would welcome it. It depends on just how much a friend they are.

I don't want to participate in everyone's suffering. Not everything is about mass media's opinions of beauty.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:42 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


If you don't want to see a particular post from a friend on Facebook, Bovine Love, there are indeed a number of measures you can take to avoid seeing that post without unfriending the person on Facebook.
posted by BlueJae at 8:20 AM on February 14


(Personally, seeing all that suffering written on this woman's body just makes me want to give her a hug. And I don't even know her.)
posted by BlueJae at 8:22 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


The difference being that on a guy it wouldn't be nearly so shocking

Of course social construction of what's acceptable, shocking, or even laudatory is the major part of that, but it's also the case that -- at least for white people -- abdominal or thoracic scars are also much more likely to be hidden by body hair on men.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:27 AM on February 14


Good riddance to the 100 sanctimonious prigs who de-friended her.
posted by Mister_A at 8:29 AM on February 14 [4 favorites]


I also think that 100 of her former Facebook "friends" are vile humans.

Probably spent their lives soaking in Ivory liquid.

Bit of a tangent but there are guys with this attitude toward their own bodies. Some guys I used to lift with I tried to get to do stuff with me, fight train, play rugby, etc. They didn't want to muss up their pretty muscles.
Silly. Scars, at the very least, show you've actually lived through something. Why the hell there should be any shame in that I have no idea. Scars are beautiful because life is beautiful.

"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!" - Hunter S. Thompson
posted by Smedleyman at 9:38 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


As if losing 100 "Facebook Friends" really means anything at all.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:52 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


Not to suggest this isn't great art. But I also find that in this push towards full acceptance, people seem to forget that the archetype of the female body isn't due to some conniving secret plot. It's just we have a strong preference for fertile and nubile women, who tend to be young and have solid 'features.'

And that isn't necessarily bad either. It's perhaps the most base aesthetic preference across humanity, whereas these pictures require a more refined and less instinctual aesthetic and emotional appreciation. And I don't think it's fair or reasonable to pit them against each other.
posted by jjmoney at 10:33 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


It's just we have a strong preference for fertile and nubile women

Who is the "we" in this sentence?
posted by jess at 11:39 AM on February 14 [15 favorites]


It's a good thing that even though the ideal archetype of the female body has been constantly changing in GINORMOUS ways over centuries and is currently incredibly different given cultural influences of geographical location, it apparently has always managed to land on a preference that men like to fuck or we might have gone extinct or something.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:46 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


Men like to fuck.
posted by Bovine Love at 12:10 PM on February 14


(most) people like to fuck.
posted by nadawi at 12:11 PM on February 14 [6 favorites]


So a post about an "honest image of a woman's body" has now become a discussion of how straight dudes like to fuck hot young women.
posted by jess at 12:16 PM on February 14 [12 favorites]


So I recently aquired a pretty gnarly 10 inch scar down my left knee after having my broken leg surgically repaired with a handful of screws/hardware. It was July, and I was wearing short skirts and short shorts since they stayed out of the way of the beastly brace I had to wear for the next 3 months.

Lots of people commented on the scar, but the one I remember the most was an older lady in the physical therapy waiting room. She was talking like I should wear pants or opaque tights for the rest of my life to hide the scar, and how brave I was showing it in the exercise clothing I was wearing to PT (which, surprise! was about as dressed up as I got in those early months). And I'm like, lady I'm much more concerned with my leg functioning correctly. I'm much more brave for hopping around on these blasted sticks in a physical environment that doesn't accommodate people with different abilities. IDGAF at your discomfort at my scar or my body in general. We are all vulnerable bags of flesh.
posted by fontophilic at 12:34 PM on February 14 [8 favorites]


So a post about an "honest image of a woman's body" has now become a discussion of how straight dudes like to fuck hot young women.

Actually, I don't think that happened at all. You have added the straight and hot young, but I, for one, didn't add those for a reason. Men (I won't extrapolate to women, my understanding even more limited there) aren't nearly so 'picky' as many would have you believe, actually liking their mates for a whole wide variety of reasons, not just conformance to a beauty (or gender) ideal.
posted by Bovine Love at 12:41 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


we have a strong preference for fertile and nubile women, who tend to be young and have solid 'features.'

Well sure, but what does that mean? Take a look at these women from the 1930 International Pageant of Pulchritude contest; they don't have the super-small waists and flat tummies we associate with Miss Universe-type beauty today (although they do all have the hourglass thing going on). But they're young and attractive with "solid features"! Meaning the average size thighs and legs of healthy, beautiful young women.

Compare that to the 2013 Miss Universe contestants -- with the impossibly long legs and tiny waists and narrow shoulders. Compare the poses, for crying out loud: the 1930 women stand firmly on both feet, shoulders broad. The 2013 women totter on high-heels in a provocative, unstable contrapposto, emphasizing hips and breasts.

This is an often-sung refrain, but it's not just showing pretty, healthy young women with a bit of airbrushing; it's about posing and costuming and contriving to show women as unrealistically at the extremes of features screaming "nubile!" and "fertile!" and as implicitly helpless and childlike (often to the point of creepiness).

(BTW I looked for a group photo from the 2013 Miss Universe but found nothing like the 1930 photo; it seems not only do we not take pictures of women standing solidly on their two sturdy legs any more, but we also would rather have fetishizing, individual "glamour shots" whenever possible.)
posted by daisystomper at 12:46 PM on February 14 [13 favorites]


the 1930 International Pageant of Pulchritude

Why the hell did they change the name to "Miss Universe"?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:56 PM on February 14 [11 favorites]


Why the hell did they change the name to "Miss Universe"?

I have no idea, because I love saying "pageant of pulchritude" to myself over and over again.
posted by daisystomper at 1:17 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


That is a fantastic name, and a really interesting photo. Changing standards indeed.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:17 PM on February 14


The scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, etc. don't seem pretty much the same as what you'd see on a male of similar age and a similar medical history involving a couple of major surgeries and some rapid weight loss

I knew someone would try to put a man in the same position and make a comparison of how it would look if a man took similar photographs. And it's an entirely bullshit comparison to make because, please explain what similar surgeries a man could have that compare to a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and a radical hysterectomy. Please.

As if losing 100 "Facebook Friends" really means anything at all.

Man, are we still pretending that connections on Facebook are entirely meaningless? What is this? 2007?

I don't know how many friends I'd have to have on FB to not care if 100 of them went away. I don't know how many she had, but unless she had thousands - and even then - losing 100 of them is pretty sad.
posted by crossoverman at 8:24 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]


I find the significance placed on Facebook 'friending' and 'unfriending' enormously tedious. Facebook friends are not an aggregate of your self-worth. What's changed since 2007? (Other than that many ppl who were on FB in 2007 no longer have an account)
posted by bigZLiLk at 10:46 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Beth Whaanga, you are brave and I salute you. You are also gorgeous.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:57 AM on February 15


Seconding bigZLiLk. "Facebook friend" doesn't mean actual friend, it means "person who heard of you at some point in their lives and idly wants to keep tabs."
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:12 PM on February 17


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