Simi Johnston is a student at Sarah Lawrence College who works in mixed media arts and studies gender theory. She grew up in vermont and recently went on birth-control.
A week after my 20th birthday, I had my first naked photo taken of me. At the time, I was in Alaska with my family. With thousands of miles separated us from society, my sister, a professional photographer, asked if she could take photos of me. We wandered deep into the rainforest. Among the trees and my kin, I removed my clothes. I left nothing on; no shoes to elongate my legs, no thong to frame my ass, no bra to erect my breasts. As she photographed, I stood proud of what I had to offer her lense. I felt the woods, my body free from manipulation of society, my sister looking at my shape in awe of my growth. It’s corny as fuck, but I felt liberated. At the time I didn’t care who saw these photos. I was in art in a purest way, untouched by all the labels I had in “real life.” I was not sexy, or beautiful, or even female. I did not bend my shape into the given female form. I did not push out or suck in. I did not think about my angles or mimicking the images I wish I looked like. I was simply a naked creature.
When I returned home, things changed. Two months after we returned home from Alaska my sister asked if my photo could be shown in galleries in Los Angles. Suddenly, I felt nervous. I wondered about the consequences of having a nude photo in public. My female friends were split on the subject; some said it was just art and “they would do it.” Their nonchalance reminded me of my attitude before I was faced with the issue. Others worried about negative judgment. One of my male friends told me he would not want a girl he was dating to have public naked pictures, even if it was “just art.”
Eventually, I decided to allow my sister to show the photos. I did not want to devalue my experience by not allowing others to see the photo. I knew audiences might label the photo, but I realized this was not different from labels females receive every day. This experience validated for me what many female artists have expressed in the past: that being female in the art world is a double-edged sword. There is a liberating aspect of art, a liberation that women are not often given the space to feel. Art provides us an outlet to process or escape confining labels or critique. However, as a woman creating art, you subject your work and self to these very labels and critique your art may have attempted to question in the first place.