Flickr Females

The Sunday Times recently ran an article concerning the phenomenon of female self-portraiture on Flickr.

As a female user of the website, I was interested to read of the controversy that has arisen with regards to women voluntarily posting revealing portraits of themselves on the site.

The debate centres largely on the age old issue of self expression and artistry versus expolitation and sexism.

To some observers, the nude or semi-nude photographs posted to the site, do little more than reinforce stereotypes of women as objects to be desired and leered at, and the fact that the photos are self-portraits, voluntarily posted by the women themselves, is seen nevertheless to run counter to ideals of female empowerment.

It’s interesting that this should be the case, for it has not been my experience of the site.

When I first started posting to Flickr, I was very self-conscious and careful as to what I posted.

My guarded approach however was not down to some sensitivity with regards to other people’s sense of propriety, rather it stemmed from a degree of self-consciousness, awkwardness and uncertainty that I have had since I was a child.

Quite simply, I was too unsure of myself, too critical of my own self-image to feel comfortable about posting portraits of myself.

For a thirty something woman, this sense of unease, which kept me from expressing myself, was far from liberating or empowering. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was frustrating and awkward.

Why was it, I wondered, that I felt so negative about myself and the way I looked, that I would shy away from my own image?

There are a thousand and one answers to that one of course – the usual arguments regarding social expectations of women, media portrayals of feminine perfection, a catholic unbringing – and while no-one is immune to the influence of their own cultural values, I think, deep down, the main reason was simply that I was afraid.

Afraid that, were I to post images of myself, nude or semi-nude, I would expose myself to ridicule, criticism, or even violence.

Regardless, I took the plunge and posted a few rather demure initial portraits.

I didn’t tag my photos, nor did I post them to any groups, but nevertheless, a few comments from strangers started to arrive. All from men.

It didn’t surprise me that this should be the case. I hadn’t been expecting any women to comment.

As a woman I hadn’t commented too frequently myself on other women’s portraits on the site, despite having admired them.

I don’t think I was merely being polite in refraining from commenting. I think it was more that, as a woman, it is very easy to be in awe of another woman’s beauty. To admire it, observe it and be chastened by it. Jealous of it even.

It is as if acknowledging this beauty in another, is some sort of admission that you are slightly lacking. Constant critical comparisson is inevitable.

The men however were different. They seemed quite at ease in posting appreciative and encouraging comments. I received nothing sleazy or leery or sexist.

Simple good humoured appreciation seemed to be the norm.

Some could argue that this in itself proves the inherently sexist nature of the female nude – the fact that men feel so open and at ease in commenting upon the female form, as of right, whereas women are more restrained, feel less entitled to enter into such an appreciation perhaps for fear that they are being expoitative or voyeuristic.

But I really do believe that that is an over-simplification in that it implies that women are incapable of appreciating female beauty. That we feel awkward about it and threatened by it, and that it is this unease that makes us silent.

Similarly, the debate over female nudity on Flickr doesn’t seem to be matched by a similar curiosity as to why men post their images on the site.

Is it really the case that the male form is less desirable? Less objectifiable?

Do women not gaze at men and feel aroused?

Still it is the case that we are exposed to images of women far more than we are to those of men. In general, it is the female form that allures and sells.

Appreciation of the male is far less ubiquitous.

So does this mean that men are less exploited when they appear naked? Are they less demeaned? Disempowered?

I don’t think anyone could argue that that is the case.

Whatever the reasons however, I kept on posting portraits to Flickr, and found a new confidence and daring, that surprised me and made me feel excited and upbeat.

Gradually I exposed more of myself, and it was, for a while, as if with each shot, I was becoming more aware of myself, of how I looked, of the impact that would have on other people.

It felt surprising, shocking even.

As someone who shies away from attention, walking head down along the street, sitting in corners in bars, it was a very new experience to feel as though I was looking the world in the eye, all be it, via the telephone cable.

I received a few bizarre emails in this time – the odd lewd comment or suggestion to “go further” but nothing too obnoxious and certainly nothing that couldn’t be ignored or laughed at.

For almost six months I left my online photo album as it was. Untouched, uncensored and open to all.

And then something changed.

Something within me.

Now that I had shown to myself that I was capable of doing something completely out of character, that empowering buzz began to dissipate.

The defiant sense of self expression and fun seemed to dwindle. I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had dared myself and had risen to the challenge and now I was done.

I still didn’t censor myself however. I kept all the images online. After all, it seemed rather hypocritical to take them down.

If the point of the exercise was to prove something to myself, to do something challenging, to feel free to express myself despite any learned behaviour or social expectations, then such censure would be self-defeating.

The doubt I was beginning to feel however, was increased when I came across some images of myself on other websites.

My Flickr account is open, which means that anyone can download my photos and use them elsewhere.

I had deliberately chosen to manage my account this way because it appealed to my sense of creative solidarity. My images should be free for others to use. I didn’t want to feel precious about them. The fact that they could be shared was an intrinsic part of their worth.

Still, it was disturbing to find myself out there, in the ether, exposed in places I was unaware of. Observed on forums that were less friendly and open than Flickr.

For that is also an aspect of the tale.

Flickr is a wide community, encompassing all walks of life. From baby photos to birthdays to holiday snaps to cats, dogs, cars and homes, it is all there.

And this makes it feel like a safe place.

It isn’t Suicide Girls or some other site (where a similar furore over exploitation ocurred last year).

The whole point of Flickr is that it is an expression of life. It isn’t some dark, sinister, avant-garde place.

So seeing my photos popping up in strange places, I decided to cull the most daring of my photos. Enough was enough.

Because at the end of the day, that was the good thing about Flickr. I controlled what images appeared and I decided which ones should be deleted or never see the light of day.

Granted, it was perhaps naive of me to allow free and open downloading of my photos, but that is simply a lesson learned.

All the remaining images I have on the site now are still downloadable and will always remain so. That after all is part and parcel of the creative commons ethos.

As for my little Flickr experience, well all I can say is that throughout it all I must admit that I never felt as exposed or as vulnerable as I would have expected. There was never a sense that I was being leered at or objectified or demeaned.

On the contrary, the whole experience was fun and liberating and a challenge, and I cannot say I regret it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel stronger or more confident a result, but perhaps I am a little more at ease, a little less neurotic and self-critical.

And that, surely, can only be a good thing?

More Flickr Females:

Irregular Girl
Dr Joanne

And let’s not forget the boys:

Boris The Blade


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11 thoughts on “Flickr Females

  1. irregulargirl says:

    I echo Suzanne…thanks for the nod…

    i so rarely read blogs and sorry for being so slow on the draw with this very engaging write up…

    i stopped posting any new photos of my tattoos long ago for the very reason that i do not want to be likened to suicidegirls…

    keep on keepin on…

  2. Eeeeeep! What a strange sensation to see my link below such a great piece of blog writing and amongst such highly admired Flickrettesร‚ยฎ like Rebekka, Dr Joanne and good old IrregGirl. O_o

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt so honoured.

    Thank you, Jen!

  3. brilliant thought provoking article. i’ve had a few profound things to say about voyeurism and the female body but it has all gone but yes, you are a very attractive women ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. In the interest of research, of course, I looked through about half of the seven hundred-odd photos still posted. Most of them made me feel like I was some clumsy oaf with a 35mm point-and-shoot, which until a few weeks ago I was.

    I think, though, that your conclusions do make sense: yes, there are pervs all about – one might even say that they are, um, pervasive – but most of them are more nuisance than threat, and while it’s hard indeed to imagine this experience as “empowering,” at least according to the current connotations of the word, you came through this with your self-respect intact, perhaps a bit enhanced, and the world didn’t judder on its axis in the process. Score a success for yourself, and smile.

  5. Have a wonderful vacation. Take pictures ๐Ÿ™‚
    PS: my middle name is Damian, I know you weren’t referring to me but I thought I’d throw that in.
    Thanks for the compliment about Dana :-):-)

  6. Jen says:

    Hey Yoda ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m sure I’ll take some more self portrait shots one day …

    As for photos of guys, well, you know, if they’re handsome then why not ๐Ÿ˜€

    Hi Brian,

    Yeah, I guess my little internet adventures show a pretty different side of me to the office rat I used to be.

    I think I did wander aboutthe office in bare feet one summer though ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s true what you say though, our learned response to be civilised and not be too overt in our admiration of another person’s attractiveness is kinda strange, if not a little sad…still there ya go, such is the way of the world.

    I’m not sure if I could undertake a brave act every day I must admit. I think I lack the nerve and the imagination for that ๐Ÿ™‚

    Still, I’ll keep ya posted as to any future bravery ….moving to Italy should provide me with lots of opportunities (like learning to make good fresh pasta for starters!)

    Hey Phil,

    I wish more people felt free to compliment one another – men and women.

    I have complimented some women in the past, and you can see their awkwardness sometimes.

    It’s funny, if as a woman you do say something nice about another woman, they immediately offer up a compliment of their own, as if it’s some sort of trade – which is some sort of sign of insecurity/competition or whatever _ I’m not really sure.

    I have also complimented guys in the past too -but they tend to think you’re coming on to them, so I gave up ๐Ÿ˜€

    All I will say is that Dana looks terrific in her bikini – really beautiful.

    Hey Damien!

    Thanks for the Blather link tis an honour ๐Ÿ™‚

    Right, I’m off on holiday now hiking in the Dolomites and kayaking on Lake Como. Can’t wait ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. Great post, I don’t look at the pictures, I just read the articles ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ll admit that I discovered you through Yoda’s site, but what I was in awe of was your travels at first. Then when I saw a picture of you I was smitten (is that the right word?) by your looks and I believe I commented and added you as some of my favorites. I do love the mud pack face one and the one you posted here is great too. I read an interesting factoid the other day where a high percentage of women are not pleased with how they look and an equally high nomber of men think they are God’s gift to women. We are so clueless. Back to Flickr, I posted a picture of Dana (my wife) in a bikini and made the mistake of tagging it as such. It had 85 views in a day and already was some guy’s fav even though I don’t know him. I didn’t even think about the tagging and the perverts. It is disturbing that your pictures would wind up somewhere else, it is a sick world and I get a little nervous posting pictures of my boys. I think I’m a fairly normal guy but I do feel that I am maybe a little different since finding out I have cancer 2 1/2 years ago. I never would have commented to women who are pretty as you are before all of this happened to me. I think I’ve become more brazen and I realize that life is short, women are beautiful and I’m going to enjoy looking at them. There have been many times I’ve told women who I don’t know that they have beautiful eyelashes or have paid their fare on a bus while I go into NYC every week for my chemo. Mostly it’s taken a what it is, a compliment or a friendly gesture. Maybe I’m a jerk who’e out of line. I haven’t been rude, lewd or stewed.
    I do think many women have a distorted view of hoe they look, my wife included who by the way looks pretty good in a bikini for being 50 in Sept. I’m glad you’ve posted pictures of yourself Jen, you’re an interesting beautiful woman and I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to get to know you as much as one can know someone over the internet.
    Your friend.
    sorry if my reply is all over the place, that’s me ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Terrific, thought-provoking post, Jen.

    There’s not much those of us on the male side of the spectrum can say honestly about how we view the female form without getting into deep twisting philosophical definitions of what constitutes attraction and the role that attraction plays in art. Those tiny little reptilian brains we have are hard-wired to respond one way, no matter how our more advanced and civilized brains may be responding, and knowing and admitting that is essential to thinking clearly about it.

    Human beings can govern their actions, but not their attractions. That’s an essential tension of the human condition.

    And I’ll say this: to see a human being that you only know in a professional context take a swooping risk in public as you did is exhilirating. There are sentences in some novels, images in paint, and musical twists that make me catch my breath and whoop at the daring and skill with which an artist steps out of their safe zone and takes a risk. Bravery. Bravisima. It’s all about living your life with the gusto it deserves.

    I love, but don’t always live by, that bit of advice that says we should do, every day, one thing we fear.

    Your post may be obstensively about the body, but I think it’s got more to do with the soul.


  9. Hey!

    What the hell … it was good while it lasted ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Just kidding ๐Ÿ™‚ I think you have a great figure and more than that, you’re a talented photographer who can do justice to self portraits.

    Um, about the relative rarity of male portraits? Uh, let’s keep it that way, please?? ๐Ÿ˜€

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