Nude’s the Mood: a conversation



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What does a grown-up woman today claim as her right to power and privilege? What happened to women’s libers’ serious demands for professional equality, equal pay, and daycare centers? Their daughters or granddaughters may wear miniskirts up to their navels on the street, but they sport expensive makeup, jewelry, and sometimes designer jeans. With the rise of New Burlesque, some claim nudity as a means to personal empowerment.  

 

 

In May 2009, Michael and Letha, two of the authors of Three in Love: Menages a Trois from Ancient to Modern Times, interviewed Birgitte, a successful stylist who does make-up for stars and TV shows, and a well-known graphic artist. She is an attractive and outspoken woman from a background that was middle-class, suburban, yet partly European.

 

Michael:

In the movie about the New Burlesque scene, A Wink and A Smile, all 10 youngish women attending Seattle’s School of Burlesque are nervous and hesitant about showing their body–worried about what people with think. Why is that the case?

 

Birgitte:

This country was founded by Puritans and for Puritans nudity is scandalous. The media is still trying to shame people away from nudity. I, by posing nude for photos  and by painting nudes, choose the circumstances. I choose where, when, and how to show nudity. I celebrate myself. Shame is secret and leads to scandal. I show my nudity because if you don’t reveal it, it becomes shameful. Maybe if President Clinton had talked about his sex life beforehand, it wouldn’t have been such a scandal.

 

Michael:

There is a history of hypocrisy in this country that may be traced back to its origins. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story The Maypole of Mary Mount, which is about a group of Massachusetts Colonists celebrating spring by dancing around the Maypole, they are arrested by soldiers sent by the Puritan authorities. No gaiety, no fun allowed. See a summary of the story here: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/1790/

 

Letha:

In A Wink and a Smile, which Michael and I both reviewed at this site, the women students talk about overcoming their fear and a sense of personal empowerment through the study of burlesque. The director of the school, Indigo Blue, a beautiful woman who poses with blue ostrich feathers in her striptease act (a bow to Sally Rand), says women who study and perform burlesque experience “radical self-acceptance. It happens when the performer shares her entire naked self on stage.” You, Birgitte, have said that nudity in your artwork and modeling is your source of female empowerment. My question is: Who or what has the power? Are you borrowing power from an outside source? Does it come from within? Who are you fighting for power?

 

Birgitte:

Society. Empowerment is my personal choice when you intentionally appear in the nude, and you are not just caught in the act–like Vanessa Williams. A big part of why I pose nude comes from my being unable to achieve the female form I am supposed to model myself after–the sleek, slim model figure. At seventeen I had an eating disorder, and I decided to tell myself: “I am beautiful.”

 

Michael:

Some people would call that “narcissism” with a negative connotation. But in the Greek myth Narcissus sees himself reflected in an idyllic pool, an idealized version of self. He falls in love with a dream. I like the idea of having your own dream of beauty.

 

Birgitte:

My struggle is with society. My [fuller, big-breasted] body type comes from a different century. For me nudity is celebration, liberation. When you are liberated from shame, the body is glorified.

 

Michael:

That’s real narcissism: living up to the ideal image.

 

Letha:

I remember, in A Wink and A Smile, an opera singer who becomes a burlesque student and she has to strip before a crowded club, a little rowdy. She says, “Now I can do anything!”

 

Birgitte:

Yes. If you overcome your greatest fear you can do anything. I personally do not like nude beaches. I don’t like people casually looking at me, sitting crossed-legged drinking a beer. I want them to see me at my best.

 

Michael:

In an artistic way.

 

Letha:

You control the situation when it’s art.

 

Birgitte:

Right. I was posing nude even before my father died, but afterward I felt freer.

 

Michael:

In the Wink movie, all the students mentioned their mothers. They were mostly young women. But one woman was fifty and I thought she looked sexy because she was more mature. She was a mother. But the others all wanted to include their mother somehow. A few invited their mother to the graduation striptease performance!

 

Birgitte:

I had lots of criticism about my looks while growing up. I have more guts than my mother. My mother made a big deal about my modeling. Then I got her interested in it. Now she models. I have been like my mother’s mother.

 

Michael:

Our appreciation of female beauty has changed throughout history. And what constitutes “naked” is still up for grabs. There’s a law in New York that a performer in a club can’t get entirely naked, so the strippers still wear pasties on their nipples and a g-string at least. But in certain countries if a woman doesn’t cover all of her body and much of her face, she’s considered naked and can be arrested, at least.

 

When Adah Menken first played in Mazeppa, in Albany during the Civil War, she was supposedly stripped naked by a gang of soldiers, tied to the back of a wild horse, and sent riding up a huge stage mountain–the audience got a real good look and went wild. But though Adah looked naked to them, she was wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. This is the first recorded instance of “nudity” on the American stage. Incidentally, Adah was curvy and well-built, and in those days men admired muscular legs, so women would pad their legs. It’s all in the mind.

 

Birgitte:

In my professional beauty work, I teach women how to dress and make up to create a good impression. They can use clothes, cosmetics, jewelry, an expensive handbag, and movement to make the impression they want and need. My artwork is more personal. I paint women of all body types, old, skinny, big, far from perfect figures. [Birgitte’s paintings are on view as we speak. Some are of sexual couples and threesomes. A series of drawings called “She” is of naked women expressing strong emotions about themselves or their body.]

 

Letha:

How do people usually react to your art?

 

Birgitte:

Some are shocked, embarrassed. My mother to this day doesn’t bring her friends to my place. But okay, I paint the truth. My beauty work is different. With these celebrity clients, I wear expensive jewelry and a chic handbag to look like their set. I gear up with armor. I speak their language with my outfit, which makes them feel at ease, and I get invited to their parties. During the Presidential campaign, I was even asked to do John McCain’s makeup for TV!

 

Michael:

But with nudity the armor is gone. All defenses are down.

 

Birgitte

Yes, we are most vulnerable when nude, but potentially most powerful.

 

Letha:

There’s a topic we need to explore another day: naked power.

 

 

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