The majority of nudes in major art museums are female, and male nudity tends to earn movies R ratings while naked women are deemed PG 13. By disproportionately displaying female nudity, we're left with the cultural impression that men should look and women should be looked at. A new photography book by NYC-based author and artist Abigail Ekue is here to dismantle that stereotype, playing with concepts of masculinity, vulnerability and the female gaze. Bare Men features 495 images of men, young and old, with all sorts of body types, in their natural state. In advance of a pop-up exhibit for the book opening today in Brooklyn, we spoke with Ekue about the motivations behind her project and the double standard for how we view naked bodies.
See Ekue's images in the gallery below and read on for our interview.
What inspired you to start this project?
I wanted to add male nudes to my portfolio. I liked seeing male nudes, but I didn't see a lot of them. The responses I got to the images were a good trigger. People were like, "We usually don't see men like this. We don't usually see full-frontal, and if we do, it's usually a certain type of man, and not your average man."
Why is it that we don't normally see men this way?
Some of it is people putting sex and nudity together all the time. So, if you see a penis, and especially if it's erect, you're automatically thinking "sex." And because of that, if people aren't thinking "sex," they don't want to see a naked man and they don't think it's pretty. Some people don't think nude men are attractive outside the gay community. There's this thought that women aren't triggered visually the same way men are.
Where do we get this idea that women aren't visual and people don't want to see men naked?
It's from men. Most of the stuff is societal, but it's societal through a male lens. If they're not gay, men want to see naked women, so that's what we see, and women are taught that in order to be considered desirable, a man has to think you're hot.
How have you seen these ideas impact men and women?
It impacts women because we're always striving for a standard that is set by men. How it affects men is that they're never seen. They're never desired. They think, "People don't want to see me. I'm not good enough." There are a lot of body image issues that men have as a result of this idea of"I don't look good naked. People don't want to see me this way."
Are there artistic conventions that perpetuate these gender norms?
I think posing is a big part of it. If you're doing nudes and the subject is looking at the camera or looking at the viewer, that's supposed to be for arousal. You'll see a lot of nudes with women where the woman is looking at the viewer — usually, for a male audience or a male photographer. Even if it's supposed to be fine art, there's this dynamic of "I'm here for you. This is for you."
With men, it's very statuesque — lines and form and muscle. They always position them in a way so that you don't see a penis, which is awkward. You're like, "He's facing me, but I don't see a penis. This is weird." When you look at old statues like the Romans or the Greeks, they'll either covered the penis or it was miniscule. With women, you see all the curves and all the mounds. It's kind of strange, the way they went in opposite directions with the two genders. Even in porn, you will see the woman and see everything. You don't see the man so much. He's just a penis — just from the waist down. There's a disconnect from the person.
What did you do to create the opposite effect in your photographs?
I liked the idea of having them home or just someplace where they're comfortable. Some of them were able to use a friend's place or a hotel. Some were comfortable outside. There was no obligation to be erotic. You didn't have to get an erection. This wasn't about showing how big you are. It was always just me and the model — no chaperone. They had significant others who were fine with them being alone with a female photographer. I think that was a big thing — just get them comfortable and have a conversation as we're shooting. They're a part of the creative process when we're shooting, and that helps them relax.
It seems like showing women naked all the time has served to objectify them. Are men in danger of that? What makes a photograph empowering rather than objectifying?
Because men haven't been on that side of the coin, a lot of them want to show off. Straight men would want a woman to say, "Oh, who's that?" They've never received that kind of attention. [For some men,] it's a reason to do something they've never done before. One man said, "I can look back at these photos when I'm in my 50s and 60s." In that situation, I think it's empowering, when men are doing it for themselves to overcome trauma or body image issues. They can see themselves from a different angle. If they just want to show off, they should be free to do it, just as women are.
A lot of the comments and emails I receive are from women who are like, "Thank you. These are normal men. Our men look like that, and we like to see our men naked." We just have to get to that point where it's okay for women to want to see it.