Monday, August 09, 2010

What are you lookin' at?

What seems to be missing from l'affaire toesox (as Carol Horton sensitively discusses here), is any acknowledgment of the difference between the way women and (straight) men perceive the use of naked women in yoga imagery. Or any imagery, for that matter.

In her book,
The Male Brain (2010), Louann Brizendine takes a close look at the chemistry of the male brain, as a follow-up to her earlier book The Female Brain. In her article "Sex, Mating and the Male Brain," she reminds us the main goal of any species is to procreate; to that end, the male brain has evolved to specifically seek out a female that offers the greatest potential to meet that goal--young, shapely, healthy, and not pregnant with another man's child. She writes, "Researchers at the University of California found that it takes the male brain only 1/5th of a second to classify a woman as sexually hot or not. This verdict is made long before a man's conscious thought processes can even engage." She also notes that the male brain has an area for sexual pursuit that is 2.5 larger than the female brain.

So, perhaps, therein explains part of the gulf between the "what's the big deal?" camp and the "How can you not see the big deal?" camp. They are seeing different images, while looking at the same picture.

The history of Western art is full of pictures of naked women (none of them selling any yoga accessories, by the way), often depicted in all their reproductive glory. Until very recently, almost all of these were painted by men for the use and enjoyment of other men. That's who had the power, the money. Whether immortalizing a mistress (Louis XV's, in this case), celebrating a munificent donation to the church (many an altarpiece), or serving as a beautiful decoration in a palace, wealthy donors regularly requested the inclusion of the idealized female form as a part of the composition.

Francois Boucher's Mademoiselle O'Murphy (1751), from the Wallraf, Richartz Museum in Cologne.

We've been looking at examples of beautiful naked women on display for a male audience for centuries, nay millenia. It's a hard habit to overcome and has become the standard for us all. As Carol astutely notes, "But that’s the thing about the dominant culture: If it’s invisible to us – if we uncritically accept it as normal and natural without reflection – we get sucked into it and end up reinforcing its norms unintentionally."

So I wonder if we're stuck in a place where the twain-shall-never-meet. One group hopes to challenge a status quo, that is reinforced both by culture and biology. The other sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Some want pretty, some want realistic. I'm hopeful we can talk; I'm hopeful we can stay civil--How about fair amounts of each aesthetic?

This issue is obviously much bigger than the yoga world. I guess that's why I got my feelings hurt this weekend by so many of the comments on elephant journal (and that's exactly what it was, feelings getting hurt, I should not be taking so much of this personally). Judith was so calm, so reasoned in her letter, I thought it would inspire a really good conversation about the contemporary yoga industry and where it seems to be headed. Maybe some one would have insight into why naked yoga ads are a good thing and make me question my assumptions. Instead it was internet-commentary-as-usual: emotional and defensive and far from the original ideas in the letter or roseanne's post.

Maybe the topic is too confrontational, too raw. Maybe this is the same old battle being fought. I had hoped this conversation could be the start of something beautiful, but I am wary.


Linda-Sama said...

When I was in college in the early '70s -- you know, all that feminist rage going around...;) -- I took an art history course on the images of women in art. My paper was on the Madonna (no, not THAT Madonna) and Whore duality.

has it really changed all that much? or are old paradigms just repackaged?

Linda-Sama said...

I would also like to point out that the woman you show would probably never be used in a modern ad for anything about yoga -- unless it's a "yoga diet" ad....;)

just sayin'.....

roseanne said...

oh brenda ~ i felt the same sense of hurt feelings when i read all the commentary on ele. it made me sad and frustrated.

the irony here is that in addition to being a yoga teacher, judith hanson lasater is also a practitioner of nonviolent communication (her most recent book, what we say matters, is all about it). and yet the conversation around her letter has been so full of aggression and emotion.

it's so disappointing to see people respond to the image without reading the post, and many don't even seem to know who JLH is. they're just reacting to a concept, to the image itself.

i guess that's what effective advertising does, appeal to people's base instincts. it's just unfortunate that people can react from these instincts, too. and it's so much easier to express an opinion and assumptions about a picture than to read a whole blog post and think about what has been said...

anyway, my friend, i don't believe the conversation is over (a little bird has told me that it will be continuing, actually...) and i'm surprisingly optimistic that it will open up to greater things. whether that is change, i don't know. but it will be something.