It’s undeniable how much John Berger has shaped my personal views on the depiction of the female body and the male gaze. I am one of many who was exposed to his work during university when asked to critically assess the way we portray women in our work. This piece of work is invaluable to both creatives and people in general who want to be more aware of what we see in advertising and art, and is as relevant now as it was then. As a brand, John Berger’s works have been instrumental in forming the way we allow the women in our campaigns to be depicted.
Ways of Seeing openly discussed female empowerment, agency and the relationship they have with their bodies, as well as how they are seen by men and even by the women we feel the need to compete with. Famously, Berger said “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” – a sentiment which poses the question about the way women are portrayed and the ideas imposed upon them, causing a complete contradiction of ideas. Let’s not deny the obvious – most people enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful women – beauty being a very subjective term. However, whether it’s a selfie, an ad campaign or any other form of presenting the female body, these women are often slandered for being vapid, vain, and often promiscuous. It’s seems hypocritical to insult females who allow themselves to be depicted and viewed, only to be condemned by the men who gaze at them. On the flip side, a woman who does not allow herself to be seen is prudish and stuffy. It seems women simply can’t win!
Let’s take a well-known example of a female who puts her body and image out there regularly – Kim Kardashian. The original “sex tape” that boosted her fame was something she consented to making, but did not consent to the distribution of it, and by and large she is the one who has taken the brunt of the abuse from it, not the man in the video or the one who leaked it. She’s not embarrassed about her sexuality, and it’s refreshing. The man who released this video allowed her agency to be stripped of her, and yet she managed to turn it around and have a career. She’s famously known for her selfies, which are an image she constructs (seemingly) by herself.
A very brief look at the comments on one of her selfies brought up phrases like “Why r u so popular u r dumb and immature and your a mother how do you live with yourself”, “your a bad mother”, “You want to show your mouth but you show more tits to have more likes” and “your tits saggin”. Not everyone agrees with the Kardashians and how they choose to make money, but if we assess this impartially, here’s a female who has used the power of her body to create fame and a career for herself, and it’s worked. Yet, these comments strip her of her agency. Claiming someone is a bad mother because they show their cleavage is nonsensical at best. Condemning a female because she’s showing her body, yet you’re the one viewing it is hypocritical, and finally body-shaming a woman for having the confidence to show certain, hyper-sexualised parts of her body says more about that person’s jealousy and resentment than it does about her. John Berger was an advocate for females having control of their own image, and in a way a promoter of the selfie. His point was not about female bodies themselves, but how they are presented negatively by the same people who enjoy looking at them.
This idea - women allowing themselves to be gazed at by men – is something we have a lot of experience with as a lingerie brand. Of course, our imagery features scantily-clad females – something hard to avoid in a lingerie brand – but what is always interesting to us is the way people react to the women in the photographs. Often men impose their sexual fantasies on them, and women, while mostly positive about the women in the photographs, condemn themselves for not looking like them. It’s not so much an issue of the portrayal itself, but the way people react to it. The subject becomes the object, a 2-dimensional woman to be looked at as opposed to a person with agency and purpose. As John Berger succinctly put it: “men act and women appear”.
Comparing the comments women write on our photographs with the comments men write is an interesting exercise. As aforementioned, women are mostly positive about other women, but often compare themselves to other female bodies:
“hot pic it’ll look quite different on me since my (peach emoji – modern shorthand for buttocks) is bigger lol”
“I’m too self-conscious to wear anything like this cause I’m not flat 'down there'”
“I've had a hard time embracing my new body, the extra curves, the purple stretch marks on my hips, belly and beasts, the squishy belly. I feel like something sexy like this would boost my confidence and help to make me feel feminine, and beautiful again.”
Men, however, sexualise and objectify the female bodies:
“Beautifull brazzar & boobs”
“Look very nice and sexy and hot picture of you and nice sexy body and sexy lingerie and sexy boobs”
“WOW,....have to comment again...really LOVE Women in Stockings and LOVE to see a Woman wearing Stockings...wish I could say this is true for my other half....it's hard to get her to wear anything!”
“I kiss your pusy”
To elaborate on the idea of females envying women presented in art and advertising, Berger makes an important point about how consumers are made to feel about themselves; “The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.” This proves that the way retailers make their customers feel about themselves with their imagery is imperative in relation to sales and reach. As a brand who try to present a range of body types and shapes, models and non-models, we still experience women comparing themselves to others regardless. Never being truly happy with your appearance is almost expected of women, and we as females know that and internalise it. If we were a brand like Victoria’s Secret, who only present one body type, this notion of enviable beauty ideal would be much more prevalent as proven by comments on their last Instagram post:
“Damn I wanna be like you!!”
“Wish I look like that” (disturbingly, this account is run by a girl under age 10)
“I’m so ugly”
These comments differ from the examples taken from ours, as they are directly saying they want to be the model, or that they are ugly, instead of assessing why they feel that way.
It’s not healthy to try and incite envy with imagery by using unrealistic standards of beauty as a default, to sell a product by making women and girls struggle with the reality of their own bodies. This creates a negative message. In fact, brands should use a range of models (where possible) so that consumers can relate to them instead of put them on a pedestal. This creates a healthier body image as well as a more moral approach to advertising and commerce. For every comment we get on our social media wishing to look like other women, we also get comments from people who are grateful to have their body type represented:
“Thanks for posting this, especially on a curvy shape like this. I had really liked this but was wondering would it look good on me because of my bust and shape. I like the way you switch it up. Thank you for showing all shapes and sizes.”
“Great models! Real women, real figures I relate to. Thankyou” (as much as we dislike the phrase “real women”, we get what this is trying to convey)
“this company sells really nice stuff and their diverse line up of models really helps you get an idea of what things would look like on different bodies!”
The point John Berger makes to the enviable body relates to this. Women should not have to justify loving themselves by buying a product to look like the women in the photograph, but they should be justified in loving themselves by seeing their bodies represented positively.
Interestingly, the subjects of the art from centuries ago that John Berger speaks about still encapsulate what we see as the marks of beauty today; buxom, white, hairless bodies. Surely this incites the question about whether our current beauty ideals are outdated. Trying to diverge against these ideals is not always easy when it’s been so ingrained in society for this long, but brands are slowly latching on to this idea of being more diverse and critical about their models of choice. The goddesses in the art are still prevalent in today’s advertising, only photographed instead of painted.
John Berger was an advocate of females having control of their own presentation, and not under the thumb of the male gaze. As females in an industry that widely designs products for females, allowing the women in our imagery to have agency and be empowered is something always at the forefront of our minds. We won’t allow the male gaze to impact our brand, and we don’t create imagery with men in mind or facilitate the derogatory comments imposed on our models. Brands should all be aware of Ways of Seeing, and apply it to their image accordingly.