Frances Goodman tells us about the creation of her new project, Sub Rosa, now exhibiting at the Goodman Gallery.
I had wondered: “Who is going to agree to do this?” It’s quite a thing – to go to a stranger’s house, take your clothes off, lie still for hours whilst she works on your most intimate, private area, and then have your photograph taken, not of your face, but your naked torso. Not for the faint-hearted, the shy, embarrassed or self-conscious woman you’d think. It smacks of exhibitionism, the need to over-share, which is the stuff of reality TV, the contemporary obsession with the camera lens and the fleeting celebrity it proffers.
But the women who came to my door and told me stories and secrets about themselves, as they lay exposed on my bed, were not celebrity hungry exhibitionists. Most of them had snuck away from their partners and families to come to me, they had no intention of telling people they’d participated, the anonymity of the process was the very reason they’d agreed to do it.
The first woman to respond to my invitation/appeal/ad in Grazia magazine wrote: “I’m a mom, 52 years of age with 3 grown sons and a daughter. I have always had and still do have a very poor self and body image. I think this is an amazing opportunity for women to celebrate their God given attribute under anonymity. As a Muslim it is compulsory to remove one’s pubic hair and this has made me more self conscious of how I look down there as I age. It would be very liberating and empowering to have this done, albeit under anonymity!”
The mails kept coming. “I got divorced 4 years ago, today would have been my 7 year anniversary. My husband cheated and at that time made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I did not feel pretty, or confident and I felt too self-conscious about my body and I thought sexually I wasn’t good enough for him. Thankfully my best guy friend made me realize that I was beautiful, and there was nothing wrong with me and that sexually I was fine. He taught me to appreciate all parts of my body, especially there. So for me my vajayjay is my celebration of being a woman and not being scared to do anything. And I know just how powerful it can be.”
I hadn’t known what to expect, but why the women who came forward wanted to participate and who they were surprised me. “I’m a very outgoing person who loves challenges, I’m 1.7m tall and I wear a size 30 and strictly stilettos, I’m a bit light but not quite light rather choco” read a mail from a beautiful, leggy woman who towered over me in her stilettos at 9am on a Sunday morning. As she lay back and I started applying the stones I asked her what she did. “You’ll never believe me”, she said. My imagination ran wild – erotic dancer? Underwear model? “I’m a policewoman, in homicide”.
Women approached me through friends, in restaurants, at parties. Unexpected women, of all shapes, skin tones and ages. A softly spoken nursing student “with some extra weight around the edges (hips, tummy and thighs)… and some light stretch marks on my hips and thighs mostly” was introduced by one of my students. I’d never seen skin so white, so translucent, her veins and stretch marks interlaced to look like marble. She told me in her soothing voice of her dream to specialize in obstetrics, to become a midwife. In front of the camera she slowly started moving, hips swaying, fingers fluttering, a hypnotic belly dance that left us mesmerized.
There was a quiet intimacy to the whole process: women shut in a room together for hours; it felt conspiratorial, confessional, cathartic. As the time passed I could feel the temperature rise in the room, the glue would dry more quickly as it came on contact with skin, the stones would stick fast. One woman became strangely aroused by the process: as she lay sedately telling me about her job, her body betrayed her. She became more and more sensitive to the light touch of stone to skin. She found it hard to concentrate, squirmed and giggled, wriggled and writhed. I found myself in the strange position of provocateur and wondered about boundaries and how easily they can be crossed or blurred.
Each visit was a different experience: many women told me their life stories while some spoke little. One woman slept for the two-hour session, another bubbled with enthusiasm about the project and insisted on leaving with her vajazzle intact as a gift to her fiancé. Another woman was no stranger to a merkin, but had mixed feelings about revealing her exposed body to the camera. She jumped about nervously for the shoot, mimicking the dance moves of R&B music videos.
I met an outspoken lesbian, vegan activist at a drinks party. “I want to do this,” she declared, “…to show other lesbians the beauty in their femininity.” She was strident and clear in her reason for participating: “In our community, lesbians are being targeted and correctively raped by men who feel threatened. The rape doesn’t end the ordeal; these lesbians are brutally beaten, scarred and often murdered after their corrective rape. This is my protest against that ritual. Just because this part of the body can be violated doesn’t mean it is also de-feminised.” She arrived with three friends as she felt it was important to get her community involved. Two were camera shy and felt awkward being naked; the third reveled in the attention.
Whilst the emails kept coming, I concluded the project for the time being. Vajazzling fifteen women in six weeks had left me exhausted and confused. Instead of reinforcing my critique on the media and the complicity of the women it targets, I felt the women I had met had complicated it. They’d internalized my project, appropriated it, and loaded it with their own issues and histories. Whilst their personal celebration and empowerment reinforced the problematic relationships women have with their bodies, it was still a celebration and they still felt empowered, regardless of what I had to say on the matter.