A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. … From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others – and particularly how she appears to men – is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.

The Judgement of Paris, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

The words above hold true for many. They were spoken forty-five years ago by John Berger. The art critic had turned heads with his radical leftist thinking on the image of women in his BBC series Ways of Seeing. What he said in 1972 is still relevant today.

Everywhere women look there are photographs, films, and magazines depicting the perfect image of women and the idea of women as objects of desire. We see women in magazines and on advert posters portraying the bodies that society claims every woman should have. They are what we aspire to and look to when thinking about the way we look. More often than not, it is for the male ‘gaze’ that these images come to our minds. Modern society seems to continue to play to the ancient idea that woman are there to feed the appetite of male sexual desire.

The many oil paintings of nude women from hundreds of years ago existed purely to be looked at and consumed by men. Women pose in such a way that displays her body exclusively for the eye of the viewer and no one else. They exist purely for the judgment of men. This idea seems to have changed very little. We are constantly criticising our own appearance and ignoring the reality that there is no one perfect image. The sad thing is that the images of these nude women in age-old paintings have influenced the way women see themselves. We are stuck with always seeing the image that we want to see, and one that is depicted by others. Women always seem to strive for the idealised image of the underwear model when perhaps we should be working towards being comfortable with who we are instead.

Yet, there is something that has changed since the 1970s – the idealised image of the male form. Instead of standing next to the nude woman in elegant clothing, almost in humiliation, the image of the man has become one that women desire. The scales have been balanced, as it were, with magazines portraying physically fit, ‘masculine’ men with bare chests for the purpose to be looked at and judged by others. Women, it seems, are no longer the only gender to aspire to a certain socially idealised image.

John Berger died on 2nd January this year. But he turned the world upside down and made us think about the way in which we view the world around us. Ways of Seeing made some question the images long held in people’s minds and allowed others to feel more confident in speaking out against those images. What we need now, though, is a way out.

You can read more about John Berger and Ways of Seeing here.

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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