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In the brief Introduction to Natural Beauties, Eolake Stobblehouse explains that this collection of photographs of young naked women represents a third kind of art, distinct from fine art nudes and pornography. "Simple Nudes" are about the beauty of the models. The models pose in nature, in front of trees, woods, the seashore, or in fields. Most are wearing very little make-up, and have no jewelry or adornments. Sometimes they hold a flower. They don't show signs of enhancements of cosmetic surgery. They pose often smiling at the camera, looking down demurely, or looking slightly behind the photographer. In some pictures they are fully nude, but they don't expose themselves in a crude way. While standards of taste vary, most people who would agree that pictures of nude women can be in good taste would agree that there is nothing obscene about these images. They are reminiscent of some images one sees in naturist magazines and websites. Indeed, they bring to mind some old "cheesecake" pictures from men's magazines of the 1950s.
The book gives very little information about the models or the photographers. We have only their names, and judging from those names, it seems that many of them are East European. The women are nearly all white, slim and very attractive by modern standards. Most look to be in their late teens or early twenties. The book is nicely constructed, with generally one photograph per page, or occasionally two or four, in good quality reproduction on high quality paper, 368 pages bound in hardcover.
The question is, what can we make of this book? Stobblehouse is certainly correct that this is not High Art; the pictures are simple and relatively unsophisticated. There's a considerable uniformity to the styles used, and photographers don't challenge the viewer to see nudes in a new way or rethink our conceptions of beauty. Similarly, while standards of pornography vary a great deal from one time period to another, there's nothing X-rated here by contemporary standards. It's certain that some people will find these images sexually arousing and erotic, but people can find just about any image erotic.
Can we take Stobblehouse at face value and agree that these pictures are just about beauty? It is hard to give the book an unqualified endorsement, but it is not so easy to identify why it is troubling. These women are of course very pretty and some of these pictures show them off very well. Most viewers, at least heterosexual males, will look at them and certainly say that the models look very good. The fact that they don't have breast enlargements or fake nails and are not manually opening themselves up for the male viewer to peer into is also pleasing. From all appearances, these women are just lit by natural light in scenic environments and are happy to have their images photographed. There is no degradation or self-abasement involved. The pictures are generally more positive in their portrayal of women than those in most men's and even women's fashion magazines, and certainly more positive than you will see on many pop/rock videos.
One might complain that the book presents a narrow range of natural beauty. Why not include older women, or women with different body types? The answer to this is pretty obvious of course: pictures of young naked slender women tend to provoke a reaction that other pictures do not. The publishers might well expect that the book would not sell as much if it had a greater diversity of women in it. Indeed, the photographers may simply have less interest in photographing other women. Whether this is due to nature or culture could be debated, but whatever the cause, the fact that images of women falling into its narrow conception of beauty are most likely to appeal to a male readership is hardly up for debate.
One might also worry about the notion of nature that these images employ. While the models appear as simple nudes in the sunlight in pretty settings with no human-constructed buildings in the background, there's nothing very natural about their poses. They look very conscious of the camera, and they position their bodies in ways that people don't normally stand or sit. The women are very aware they are being watched and they show themselves off, and so to call this natural is to suggest that it is part of women's nature. It plays into a stereotype of women as beautiful objects subject to the male gaze, getting their identity confirmed through the male voyeur. However, to single this work out as being particularly guilty of this is to make too much of it. The whole fashion industry depends on the artificial posing of women and creates distorted expectations of women's looks. Compared to a Victoria's Secret catalog or a Britney Spears video, Natural Beauties seems quite innocent. While those products don't contain nudity, they are far more salacious.
So to identify the problematic nature of these images, one has to look elsewhere. I'm inclined to think that there's something silly and naïve about the project of celebrating young women's natural beauty, because it is dated. It is trying to turn back the calendar to a time when our imaginations hadn't been polluted by the iconography of contemporary pornography, when so much of our imagery is saturated by that iconography, from MTV videos to perfume advertisements. To try to go back 50 years to a time when the multi-billion pornography industry was not a significant cultural influence is a nice wish, but it simply can't be done. Any cable-TV-savvy teen is an expert in assessing the objectivization of women's bodies, and so to hope that it might be possible to present women's natural beauty in a way that doesn't bring along the baggage of recent decades is futile. The book is hopelessly quaint.
To put it another way, all iconography of women is now in a broad sense political, and we can't simply assert that one book will be a non-political depiction of female nude beauty that shows simple sensuality. The only way to realistically interpret Natural Beauties is to see it as a political act asserting an ideal of women's looks, resisting the cosmetic enhancements, tattoos, piercings, and explicit sex of other depictions. In many ways, that ideal will be attractive to a large number of readers. But the narrowness of the conception of beauty embraced in this book that I discussed previously makes it an inadequate politics. Few women can actually live up to its ideal, and we need an iconography that enables our appearance-obsessed culture to allow us to feel happy with ourselves.
Despite my reservations, I must admit Natural Beauties is a pleasing book. Even though it has some similarities to some naturist books, it does not come with the laughable claims for the happiness of the naked life and the oppression of clothing. It does allow one to take pleasure in youthful beauty in a relatively simple way that doesn't involve explicit sex or underage girls. Even if it is quaint, it might be better to appear outdated than simply perpetuate the current trends. While the ideal of a simple natural beauty is much more a construction than a fact, and the hope to return to old ideals may be unrealistic, it is hard to see what's wrong in enjoying the images so long as we don't delude ourselves about what they mean.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.