Culture Trips

A cultural history of the ‘nude selfie’

“Sending nudes” is more of a live topic than ever, chiefly because the ease of taking, replicating and sharing naked images has led to anxieties about everything from revenge porn to celebrity sex tapes, hacked private images to sexting teenagers. But since the advent of smartphones, sending nudes has also become normalised incredibly quickly: any woman who’s been on a dating app in the last decade will likely have been asked to share nude pictures with eyebrow-lifting speed. 

But Ingles reminds me that sending nudes isn’t really new: “When I was in my early twenties, I sent nudes to someone – this was before the internet, so it was Polaroids”. It’s just that it used to be a private, little-spoken-of activity, rather than part and parcel of digital dating and contemporary life.

Its increasing prevalence as a phenomenon is neither a simply “good” or “bad” thing, Ingles – and the writers of Sending Nudes – suggest. While the potential for coercion, abuse and shaming are high, sexting can be a fun, consensual way to develop intimacy. During a pandemic, it’s also become almost a practical necessity for many – a way of keeping sexual fire alive, over enforced distance.

The artworks of our era?

Arguably, there are also positives to having a greater openness and diminished prudishness about real-life, normal human bodies. But then, few people sending nudes traffic in realism. Seductive nude selfies are usually staged and carefully framed, albeit often within the confines of a bedroom or bathroom; dressed up for as well as undressed for. Posed and carefully lit, cropped and filtered to flatter, they are crafted for the imagined appreciation of the viewer. In that way, are nude selfies part of a lineage of naked representation that runs back through art history?

Certainly, you could argue the selfie – including the naked one – is the artwork of our time. It’s estimated that over a million selfies are taken every day: self-portraiture meets self-promotion. We’re more aware than ever not only of our own image, but our presentation of it – how we make ourselves appear to the eyes of the external spectator. And nowhere is that more carefully manipulated, surely, than in the nude snap.

The art world is increasingly taking note of the selfie form. In 2017, Saatchi Gallery in London opened a show, From Selfie to Self-Expression, drawing the line between traditional self-portraits through to the humble camera phone shot, from Rembrandt and Van Gogh through to Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama. “Everything can be art if it’s followed through by the maker with enough conviction and coherence,” commented Nigel Hurst, CEO of Saatchi Gallery. “We’re not saying that the slideshow of a teenager trying out various poses is as significant as a work by Rembrandt, but the art world cannot ignore this phenomenon.”

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