May, 2015 | By Zornitsa Stoyanova
In 2012 I was asked to take off my clothes for money. I said yes.
The project was produced by a major Philadelphia presenter, Fringe Arts, and funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The piece had a concept I deeply resonated with and I was in a cast with 6 other performers from both sexes. It was the first time as a professional performer I was asked to shed the social constructs living on top of my skin and face mine and society’s issues as a woman exposing skin.
The psychological journey was one I never expected. I always considered myself more of a nudist than most people, but after having conversations with my partner, who was concerned by “What it means to take your clothes off for money in our society.”, I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was worried about family members’ judgement and their shame. Then I remembered something from my childhood.
Around the time I was 7-8 years old my mom taught me modesty. I remember not understanding why she kept asking me to close the door to the bathroom when my dad was around. I don’t think I understood that my dad was a man – different from me and my mom and that difference somehow equated division and hiding. In my little mind, I was constructing something that I needed to be ashamed about, but wasn’t quite sure what that was. I did not understand sexuality or sexual feelings, which in retrospect was probably what my mom was trying to protect me from. Now in my 30’s I have a better grasp of it and could internalize all the possible sexual implications brought by my female nudity. However, I was not sure why that should make me intrinsically uncomfortable or equate to shame and hiding. Sexuality is part of humanity and thank god for it, because otherwise we would not have humanity at all. I though myself as an empowered woman not shying away from her sexuality.
On a personal level, I felt more or less comfortable in my form. Like most women I had insecurities, wishing I was skinnier, or had more muscle tone and worried about breasts moving too much. But was that a learned behavior/feeling forced on me by the clothes covering and hiding my skin? What was my ideal body, other than my own real body at the time?
I turned toward art history, where most of the “best” paintings in the world are of the female nude body (much heavier than I ever was). Most of this “best” art created by men. The dichotomy of observer and object has been present since the dawn of society. Bodies have been objectified and immortalized, going as back as the prehistoric sculpture of Venus of Willendorf. Knowing these facts did not ease my conflict. I kept reminding myself that the relationship of the male gaze toward the female form was nothing new and was celebrated tremendously thought out history. I tried to break down the act of objectification and what it meant for me. In its nature objectification is passing judgement on a body and I found that I do this every day. In my dance practice I would see a moving body and would isolate and name its parts. In my mind I would shift the meaning of these parts to suit myself, using imagery different than what was presented, but with the goal to understand it better. I would use objectification as a tool to gain knowledge and find ways to connect and copy. My desire to copy movement was coming from an emotional place of empathy. So may be the act of objectification was fueled by desire to connect and empathize? But then the act of objectifying the body has such negative implications in feminism. Was I not a feminist by allowing to be objectified and even liking doing it myself? Women’s equal rights movement has created incredible freedoms and potential for different ways for men and women to relate to each other, but by doing so, it condemned the previous established voyeuristic nature of the (male) gaze.
I knew that by taking my clothes of on stage I was addressing the biological wiring and the long history of praise of the female nude in the arts. Yet, in our western puritan roots society, this was perceived as a weakness, as using my body because I have no mind of your own, letting myself become victim of other people sexual fantasies. I was not happy with how society viewed me as a woman and its general perception of my body.
This was MY body and I could do whatever I wanted with it.
Why is our society so scared of nudity? It segregates sexes in dressing rooms, in bathrooms and anywhere there is potential for skin exposure. Your exposed body does not change who you are. Are we all monsters without self-control, who need protection from one another? Why are we scared to openly face all the possibility of perception? Yes, we are bodies who can be objectified, can be related, be different or similar, be big or small. Why are we scared to be part of that diversity and address it in our thoughts? Why is nudity such a big taboo still?
My brain was firing in confused patterns. I couldn’t answer these questions in a comprehensible way while addressing all the pressures of our society, all the self-consciousness and history of violence against women. As a woman, my body has been objectified and sexualized regardless of the “costume” I wear, so I came to expect that being nude on stage would be exactly like being clothed.
I was wrong.
The first rehearsal we took our clothes off we shed skin we didn’t know we didn’t need.
Some decided to sit while taking their underwear off, some started from the bottom down, exposing chest first then lower body, some did it in perfect symmetry taking one piece of clothing at a time alternating from top body to lower body. The act of undressing was the most uncomfortable part of it all.
All seven of us nude in a studio.
Don’t look down. Maintain eye contact, do not stare.
Her breasts are just like mine, but bigger. Does she also pluck the hair around her areola?
She has red hair… don’t look down, not yet.
He is beautiful. O, she shaves down there. I didn’t shave, should I have?
Penises, who is circumcised? Or not?
Am I attracted to these people? To one more than others?
What would my partner think of this? Thinking about him in this context makes me think more about sex. I don’t want to think about sex.
Do I spread my legs for this section (would people see down there?) Does it matter?
So many bruises on the body – it’s from that section in the piece.
I see vertebrae.
I feel wind and sweat on my skin.
My breasts lying on top of my ribcage.
I feel intimately connected to these people.
I feel the hairs of my body moving.
I see skin tones.
I see people.
I was asked to stand in front of an audience member and move very slowly while looking them in the eye. It was just me, allowing a stranger to see me, to judge me, to objectify me. I felt powerful, strong and in control. I was not ashamed by him or by me. I was not ashamed by their fantasies or mine. I felt that using gaze and posture I could lead our unspoken connection much more than if I was wearing clothes.
Was I art?
It felt real.
I simply was.