‘Topless’ and Underage Sexting

I produced this first piece, “Topless,” as a response to the pressure that I felt put under to send a topless photograph of myself to a boy at the age of fourteen. I felt that this would be an appropriate first post given the coverage that underage ‘sexting’ has had in the British media in the past few weeks.

One of my favourite processes to use in my artwork is hand embellishment, sewing in particular. Only using three simple materials for this particular piece: card, graphite pencil and cotton thread, for some reason just seemed really appropriate in my mind. I wanted to make ‘Topless’ simplistic, I didn’t want to use my usual garish color schemes as I felt this detracted from the meaning behind the work.

Although I make my artwork for myself, almost as a form of analysis and reflection on certain events in my life, I feel that other women or young girls who’ve been in a similar position to myself could relate to ‘Topless’. Certain viewers might feel that the lack of facial features means that the woman depicted could represent any woman who has ever had to deal with something similar. However, I didn’t intentionally leave out the features on the face, just like the material choice, this decision also seemed somehow appropriate during the production process. I think the main reason the woman remains unidentified is it is similar to  the process of sharing a topless photo with someone, who then passes it on, which makes you question your identity. When it happened to me I no longer felt like myself, I felt like just another sexualized image that’s been shared and leered at.

The female form is something that has been depicted throughout history. The art movement that immediately comes to my mind is the Renaissance, the rich nude paintings in particular. While I can appreciate some of the artwork produced in the Renaissance, I don’t find it overly engaging. I think observing and exploring something that addresses the female form in a more obscure way is far more interesting for you as readers of these posts. This is what led me to ‘Nature Study’ and ‘Tits’ by Louise Bourgeois.

For those of you who have never heard of Louise Bourgeois, I hadn’t until the end of last year, she was an American sculptor, painter and printmaker of French birth. She has been identified as one of the pioneers of confessional art, exploring her own life experiences within her work, which is what influenced me to produce ‘Topless’.

    Louise Bourgeois 2

In both ‘Nature Study’ (above – top) and ‘Tits’ (above – below), Bourgeois takes a pair of breasts but completely transforms them into a grotesque image. While this particular version of ‘Nature Study’, cast in 2001, touches on the female sex by using a stereotypically feminine color, ‘Tits’ takes an altogether different approach. The use of bronze in this piece gives the pair of breasts a much heavier, weighty feel, contrasting significantly with their actual weight and appearance. Louise Bourgeois also explored the idea of what it means to be a woman in a lot of her work, which led her to producing breast costumes and looking at natural processes such as giving birth, something which is usually thought to be ‘inappropriate’ or unpleasant to look at in a piece of artwork.

As I said earlier, ‘sexting’ has received quite a lot of media coverage in the UK recently. It’s been suggested that teenagers who send explicit pictures of each other could be threatened with prosecution, as sending a naked picture of a person under-18 is classed as the “distribution of an indecent image”. The police have stated that they don’t want to criminalize children and would consider each case individually however.

Whilst I agree that sending a naked or semi-naked photograph of a person under-18 is distribution of an indecent image, and that people should be prosecuted, I feel that young people under the age of 18 who take and share these images should be spoken to first before being threatened with prosecution. I think that the distribution of naked or semi-naked photographs of young teenagers is definitely a breach of trust, and also completely unacceptable. However, I feel that it would be a far better approach to actually talk to these teenagers. The police force probably feel that the threat of prosecution will scare teenagers into not taking or sending the photos. While this might work, it would leave these young people with no explanation for why it’s not appropriate. I think that firstly explaining why sharing these images isn’t acceptable, even if they innocently send them to one friend, would have far more impact on the individual or individuals than potentially being prosecuted and then not really fully understanding what they’ve done wrong. Educating these young people about their actions will be more effective in stopping such behavior, rather than being threatened with prosecution after the event.

In my experience, after receiving multiple pressuring messages like “send me a topless photo *winking face*” on MSN, I thought this particular boy’s response of “I won’t share it with anyone” was genuine and that he was trustworthy. Little did I know that he’d later share it with his friends and my peers at school. I felt pressured at school to fit in with my fellow female students, some of whom were already sexually active at this point, so I thought that by giving in to this particular boy’s demands I would be found attractive by the ‘cool crowd’ of boys at my school, and therefore somehow accepted. It made my skin crawl that people, some of whom I deliberately chose not to associate with, had seen a topless photo of me. I almost felt like I never wanted to take my top off again, although now that I’m older and I’ve matured, I can see that this was just irrational thinking at the time.

I felt ashamed and embarrassed. People came up to me on the school corridor and said things like “I know what you’ve done” and “I’m ashamed of you,” even if these were said in a joking manner, I did feel ashamed. It was me that was receiving all of the criticism, as opposed to the person who had completely violated my trust and shared the image, and at the time I thought that I deserved that. I thought it was all my fault for taking the image in the first place. Some people would probably agree with this, but my view now is that the person who violates the trust and shares the image is far more responsible than the individual who takes it.

I know that my fourteen year old self would most definitely have benefited from some sort of workshop or discussion, during sex education at secondary school, that explained to me the repercussions of sending a semi-naked photograph. Had I had one of these, the likelihood is that I would never have sent the image in the first place.

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