Saturated pastel colours, pretty girls with beards and nipples are all in a day’s work for artist and photographer Arvida Bystrom. I first discovered the Internet phenomenon on sexually charged artist platform The Ardorous and instantly fell in love with Bystrom’s images which explore gender, sexuality and identity. The recurring colour themes of pastel pink and blue which tint many of her images evoke or mimic the colours associated with the gender binary: blue for a boy, pink for a girl. It’s these visual aesthetics which can hold a much more meaningful agenda as well as looking good, which gives Bystrom’s images an irresistible edge. The light colours, the gender bending all seen through a filmic, Sofia Coppola-esque gaze make for some truly exciting images. Bystrom’s images make me think and move away from the normal representations of males and females, which is precisely what I intend to do in my own photographs exploring gender. Bystrom is a dream maker and challenges views on gender, sexuality, beauty as well as nudity. Let me first explain how the nude women depicted in Bystrom’s images are distinct from other visual media representations of females.
Women are frequently seen nude or semi-nude, whilst men remain fully clothed in much of mainstream visual media. This highlights that there is an apparent double standard for men and women’s nakedness in everyday culture. Naomi Wolf in her book “The Beauty Myth” suggests that whilst breasts are not as “naked” as penises or vaginas, breasts do correspond to men’s penises as the vulnerable “sexual flower” on the body. Women’s genitals are physically concealed, whilst men’s are not and women’s breasts are physically exposed whilst men’s are not. And so exposing breasts and not exposing penises seems unfair, as they are both physically exposed traits in the sexes.
In fact, cross culturally, unequal nakedness almost always-express power relations. For example, in modern prisons in America, male prisoners will be stripped in front of clothed prison guards. Hence, the controversy surrounding Helmut Newton’s photography, which exclusively features men fully clothed and women fully naked, something still current within visual media today. Women are routinely seen naked whilst men remain covered up. Women are often reduced to their mere body parts, such as the breasts, in order to sell products (thanks Playboy) and topless women in sexually suggestive poses with orgasmic facial expressions has long been the “normal” representation for ideal femininity. In Killing Us Softly 3 by Jean Kilbourne she states: “Women’s bodies continue to be dismembered in advertising over and over again, just as one part of the body is used to sell products which is of course the most dehumanizing thing you can do to someone. Not only is she a thing but just one part of that thing is focused on” [08.29].
However, with creative minds like Bystrom on the scene these representations of women are changing. The way Bystrom depicts her female lovelies; despite the nudity challenge what we consider sexy, beautiful and feminine. In some series, she does this by exploring or accentuating gender traits which we would usually associate with males, whilst in other she highlights how males and females can resemble one another quite easily.
We All Have Nipples
In her series, “We All Have Nipples” she portrays female breasts in an entirely different way from other images within visual media of topless ladies. The series consists of females, removing their upper clothing, revealing their nipples whilst hiding their identity as male torsos flash over the top, resulting in animated gifs. Some girls are flat chested, some are more voluptuous. Sometimes you wonder, is that a boy? But the clue is in the title, as to what Bystrom is trying to get at. We all have nipples so what’s the big deal with females having their nipples out and depicting them in a more every day, regular pose. They can be equally as beautiful and feminine. And why the big focus on breasts anyway? We’re bombarded by male nipples in these images emphasised by the flashing of them. It reminds us how much we are bombarded by female breasts in visual media, so here’s some males to bring back a little equality.
I particularly like her series entitled, “Bearded Ladies” which again sells exactly what’s written on the tin. The series features two beautiful ladies, with polished nails, immaculate make-up and beautiful lingerie, all the while wearing fake beards and/or moustaches. Again it’s called into question, are these ladies still feminine? Could a beard worn by a lady ever become the “norm”? It also highlights the performative nature of gender and that both masculinity and femininity can be reduced to parts. Beards are masculine, sexy lingerie is feminine. Hello?
Females are predominantly reduced to pieces: breasts, nipples, legs and mouths all parts for exploration, satisfaction and marketing. The sexualisation of women in the media is seriously damaging and concerning but Bystrom takes these representations and twists them. She mocks gender “norms” as well as what is “beautiful”. Thought-provoking and pretty, Bystrom has given me much food for thought!
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage.
Kilbourne, J (2002). Killing Us Softly 3 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation
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Murphy, G. L, (2002) The Big Book of Concepts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT Press.