Women’s bodies have always been policed in society. Our bodies are always presented as something that needs to be refined and improved, whether that’s through beauty products, dieting or exercise, and social taboos act as another form of policing. The taboo subjects that I am discussing are primarily in relation to cis women, as I wanted to base my post on my own experiences, and this is what I identify as. Taboo subjects in relation to the female body is also a theme that I explore in my artwork. I mainly make pieces of work that combine childlike aesthetics and traditionally feminine crafts, such as stitching, focusing particularly on the transition from being a ‘little girl’ to a young woman, and the role that your sexuality plays in this transition. You can see more of my work at: http://www.robynnichol.tumblr.com.
One of the main taboo subjects in relation to the female body is periods, and this is reflected in the advertising of sanitary products. Until 1988, advertising sanitary products on TV was banned, and it has now become normal for an alien-like blue liquid to be used to represent menstrual blood. Sanitary products and their advertisements are centered around hiding periods through girly scents that float around among flowers, feathers and all things delicate. Before carrying out some research, I wasn’t aware that there are restrictions surrounding just exactly when sanitary products can be advertised: between 9am and 5pm during the week and after 9pm on weekdays, half-terms and school holidays. I understand that periods and sanitary products are a topic that perhaps a lot of parents don’t want their children, whether they’re male or female, to see when they’re young, maybe because it’s an awkward topic to have to discuss should their children ask questions, or simply because they feel that their children aren’t mature enough to understand. However, this regulation simply reinforces the fact that periods are constantly being censored, despite being a natural body process.
In society, periods are presented as something to be hidden, and at no costs should they be discussed in detail or in public. The recent rise in popularity of mooncups is the first time that I’ve actually heard a period-related object discussed openly, which is what inspired my hand embellished mooncup, ‘The Future of Sanitary Protection’, and wax mooncup casts (pictured above). For ‘The Future of Sanitary Protection’, I wanted to use embellishment to explore how sanitary products are designed to be discrete through the use of colours and patterns. Due to the fact that women are supposed to completely hide the fact that they’re on their period, it’s something that we constantly have to worry about – hiding the potential smell, and the risk of blood leaking onto clothing. Periods are also something that are used to silence women, and this is something that I’ve experienced. If a woman is upset, angry, or frustrated (emotions that men also feel, but are not criticised for) she is automatically labelled as being “on her period”, almost as if women can’t show any strong emotional reaction for any other reason. On the other hand, when men express anger or frustration, it’s assumed that it’s just a reflection of their passion and drive, whereas women are reduced to being ‘overly emotional’.
Due to the fact that periods are something that goes undiscussed, if anything occurs during your period that you might think is abnormal, such as the formation of clots or a change in colouration etc., it can be blown completely out of proportion, as it’s hard to determine what’s normal and what isn’t during a period if it’s something that’s constantly swept under the carpet. I simply assumed when I first got my period, and still sometimes naively do now, that it’s always going to be the exact same colour, the exact same amount of pain and last for the exact same amount of days every month. This really isn’t the case. But it’s this taboo surrounding periods that leads to false self diagnosis, whereas if the censorship enforced by advertising and society ceased and we were able to talk a little more about our own experiences, it wouldn’t be such an awkward topic for a lot of women. This is also the case with how periods can potentially be affected by contraception, another taboo and undiscussed subject, as in some cases, contraception cause the formation of clots in menstrual blood and stop and start periods so you are never fully prepared for when they might arrive.
Although periods are accepted to the extent that they’re a bodily process that occurs, even though sometimes it seems like they’re supposedly non-existent, body on women hair is not so easily accepted. I feel that this is largely derived as a result of the impact of porn on young boys and men, and this therefore alters their expectations of what a woman’s body will look like. As a result of porn, the general expectation in society, which is further reinforced by the popular media, is that a woman will be hairless on her legs, armpits and vulva. There are constant claims that body hair on women is ‘disgusting’, they’re labelled as ‘lazy’ if they don’t shave, and funnily, that it’s somehow ‘unnatural’, although I’d argue that it is the demand for women to shave that is unnatural. It’s interesting to note that the same reaction isn’t generated in relation to male body hair, it is seen as a symbol of masculinity, whereas female body hair is seen as a symbol of the unfeminine.
Personally, I’d love to have the confidence to be able to stop shaving my armpits and legs. The vast majority of the time it’s the last thing I can be bothered doing, it’s an inconvenience and I feel that my time would be better spent doing something that’s actually productive rather than agonising over the fact i’ve missed a few hairs or my legs still feel stubbly. I’ve tried it once before but after about two weeks I had to shave, and it was during this time that I produced a series of stitched photographs, one of which is pictured above. I felt incredibly unattractive, and that’s because I’ve had it drilled into me since the age of 11 that having body hair as a woman is unattractive. Even now I get paranoid when I’ve not shaved for a few days and I lift my arms up in public with the risk of showing short new-grown hairs. When I shave I try to convince myself that it’s my choice, I have the ability to choose whether I want to or not, but realistically, I’m doing it to live up to the expectations of society, with fear of humiliation if I suddenly stopped.
I’ve always been particularly interested in the taboo surrounding unprotected sex and pregnancy, it’s something that I’d not experienced myself until last year and the process of having to take a pregnancy test was a really bizarre experience for me. I made a piece of work titled ‘The Fear’ (pictured above) almost as a form of self analysis after I’d taken the test. The process was quite clinical, the only person I’d told at the time was my mum, so we were both huddled up in the bathroom together staring at this white stick for what felt like the longest three minutes of my life. While I was waiting for the result to show, I remember feeling really surreal, as the two potential results would have had completely different outcomes in the terms of my feelings and future. In society, there are a lot of stigmas surrounding having to take a pregnancy test and teenage pregnancy, identifying young single mothers in particular as ‘scroungers’ or deliberately getting pregnant in order to rely on welfare. Young women are scrutinized, with people telling them “it’s your fault, you should have been more careful” or “you’ve thrown the rest of your life away”, acting as if teenage pregnancy is something that has never happened before, and refusing to accept the decision that a young woman has made.
Losing your virginity is another topic relating to sex and pregnancy that goes undiscussed, with the main source of information about it coming from supposed ‘horror stories’ that obsess over and exaggerate the pain, blood and embarrassment. It’s also something that isn’t discussed enough in sex education. In my experience of sex education, it was only heterosexual relationships that were covered, and heterosexuality was the only sexuality that was focused on, reinforcing the already established prejudice in society that heterosexuality is the supposed norm, and therefore every other sexuality is viewed to be abnormal. As a result of being told almost nothing in sex education, the prospect of losing my virginity was really terrifying, it was something that I antagonised over for months and led me to producing a simple stitched sculpture titled ‘First Time’ (pictured above.)
Along with losing your virginity, masturbation, particularly female masturbation, is another topic that is overlooked. Male masturbation is widely accepted, almost seen as a right of passage for boys, whereas female masturbation is thought to be weird and unnecessary, almost as if women are being asked “Why do you need to masturbate when you have penises to fulfill your sexual needs?” A few months ago I made a piece of work that explored my interest in the transition from being a ‘little girl’ to a young woman, titled ‘Pink to Make the Boys Wink’ (pictured below.) For me personally, becoming sexually active was one of the main events that I felt signified my new ‘young woman status’, and it was through sex that I felt I’d left the shy, unconfident version of myself behind. I wanted to combine a number of objects that signified my years as a young girl (some of my favourite objects from my childhood) and my years as a young woman (the vibrators symbolising sexual activity.)
Robyn Nichol is a first year undergraduate student studying Fine Art at Lancaster University. Her artwork is mainly inspired and motivated by the presentation and role of women in society, particularly the unachievable perfection presented by the media and the flawed expectations that women are told to live up to. She has recently been exploring the transition from being a little girl to a young woman, and the role that your sexuality plays in this. In her work, she uses stereotypically feminine crafts, mainly combining sewing, hand embellishment, sculpture and photography.