Last year I went to the Orpheum, the building which houses the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, as part of a school field trip with my kids. The google explains that the ‘Orpheum is one of the most beautiful concert halls in North America.‘ I don’t know if that’s true but I know breathtaking when I see it. Built in 1927 and refurbished in 2009, the Orpheum is something to behold. All around the theatre, on every floor, are murals, paintings and other art work, decorated wall fabrics, tiling, gilded mirrors, ironwork, sconces, tapestries. There’s even a huge, intricate and beautiful Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier smack dab in the middle of the hall. Makes it hard to want to close your eyes and just let your other senses be filled with the sounds coming from the musicians.
I get that for many among the elementary school set, artistic details may not be particularly noteworthy. Nonetheless, I expand my role as chaperone to include pointer-outer of the amazing stuff that surrounds them. While I enthusiastically point out this and that to my 8-year old charges, one shocked kid sticks a finger toward the ceiling and declares ‘that’s inappropriate’.
I look where he’s pointing and ask ‘what’s inappropriate?’ to which he replies ‘that girl doesn’t have clothes on’. I look up and see – gasp – a mural that includes a woman, head and torso, without clothes on. It is a small part of a larger and very beautiful scene.
I do my best to counter his claim that naked bodies are inappropriate. I gently challenge his belief and ask a couple questions to him and his friends to provoke a deeper consideration of the image.
The incident absolutely provoked me. My now nine year old has reached the age where his cognitive functions include a lot more independent thinking and the ability to categorize and classify stuff better. Where sex(ual imagery) is concerned, I want to help shape his ideas of appropriate and inappropriate.
But this is tough stuff. And almost never black and white. When it comes to art and advertising, our young children may see things that they don’t know how to interpret or which set a standard of decency that we may not approve of. After all, there are many conflicting perspectives on what’s appropriate and inappropriate for our children, any children or adults.
Bodies have been a part of art throughout history and is not limited to our oversexed North American culture. Our kids, at least those not living in a cave, are surrounded by sexualized bodies in a way that is relatively new. Advertising campaigns habitually feature bodies even when there is no connection between the product being sold and the bodies used to sell it.
I want my kids to have skills to interpret the images of bodies that they encounter in art and advertising. Our Orpheum visit made it excruciatingly clear to me that it’s time to help them develop those skills. I don’t want them to consider the human body inappropriate but I also don’t want them to connect every image of partial or full nudity to artistic licence or respect for the human form. And I don’t want them unconscious, unfeeling and unprovoked.
Instead, I’d like them to be able to assess the purpose of the body being shared publicly, the message they perceive from it and the value of that message (whether perceived or real). I didn’t have any hard and fast way of doing that until I found this TEDx talk by Caroline Heldman. Heldman is a Ph.D. in Political Science, and her talk, The Sexy Lie provides a checklist for assessing whether sexual objectification is happening.
- only parts of a body are showing;
- a person stands in for an object;
- a person is interchangeable with others;
- an image affirms the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a person (without consent);
- the availability of a person is the defining characteristic of the person;
- an image shows a person as a commodity; or
- an image treats a person’s body as a canvas.
This criteria helps me and my kids evaluate imagery and rationalize our perspectives around whether an image adds positively to our collective lives or doesn’t. I don’t talk about all of these in one conversation and I shift the language to make it more kid friendly. For instance, ‘violating the bodily integrity’ becomes ‘hurting’ and ‘commodity’ is ‘something people can buy and sell’. It’s not a perfect tool but it encourages critical analysis.
While these types of conversations can start happening all the time, I do fear that the overwhelming message will be that depictions of bodies are objectifying. So I’ve put together a list of things that provide opportunities for non-objectifying depictions of the human body to be seen and discussed with our kids. Maybe there are a few that you can fit in during the winter break!
- Visit Art Galleries and seek out painting and sculptures that depict nudes;
- Buy some coffee table books of nudes or art books that include the naked form;
- Point out women who breastfeed in public (but maybe don’t point at them);
- Visit a nude beach! – It’s a good place to look around. While I’d encourage my party of beach goers not to stare (it can be interpreted as rude), I would encourage kids to have a look around; To notice how different the bodies are and experience the comfort and acceptance of people without their clothes on.
- Finally, go to the Orpheum. The chandelier is awesome and you may get a glimpse of the girl without clothes on.
My kids may end up with different values than mine but I know that at this point my values are influential; if I don’t articulate them, they are less so. As I support critical and independent thinking, my kids may articulate different perspectives than mine. Art (and advertising) will do that. No checklist can guarantee an agreed upon outcome. But being provoked can be a good thing.