Reflections on the Male Nude

“How beautiful maleness is, if it finds its right expression.”

D.H. Lawrence

I am over at Oleander Plume’s place today sharing some of my favourite male nudes. When I started that guest post I went down a rabbit hole of reading about the history of the male nude in art and photography. What I read was interesting, but not altogether surprising – analysis of the male nude continues to be largely focused on historical warrior imagery or the overt sexualisation of the body, most obviously seen in the work of photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Herb Ritts.

Exhibit A snuck in ahead of me on this issue yesterday and posted his own excellent reflections on male nudity, but I was pleased to read it as interestingly he touched on the same of the issues of aggression in male nudity that art critics frequently raise, saying some men “use their nudity as a way of imposing and asserting their power over women.” I don’t disagree that this is an issue to be mindful of, but I do think using this as a starting point can limit our ability to articulate, interpret and enjoy the beauty of the male body, sexualised or not.

Mapplethorpe bondageThere can be huge disparity in responses to very similar photography simply because of the gender of the subject. When Mapplethorpe toured his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, charges of obscenity were brought against a museum, yet Man Ray (who was not without his own critics, of course) had not faced such charges sixty years earlier: why are we allowed to appreciate Man Ray’s women in bondage as art but not Mapplethorpe’s men? Similarly, when Leopold Museum in Vienna curated a retrospective called Nude Men man-ray-reclining-woman-in-bondagefrom 1800 to the present day in 2012 public outcry forced them to apply ‘modesty’ stickers to publicity posters. At the time the museum director expressed disappointment that this should happen in the 21st century when they had held numerous exhibitions of the female nude with no complaints.

Some would argue that this is born out of art’s reflection of society’s casual acceptance of the objectification of women. I don’t disagree that this is part of the problem, but I am not taking this piece down that avenue and it’s stating the obvious to say that not all nudity is objectification. I think the more pertinent point here is that by continuing to attach labels of aggression, fear or distaste to the naked male body society censors opportunities to enjoy, appreciate and celebrate it. I enjoy looking at female nudes – sometimes I admire the camera work or composition, sometimes I get ideas for my own work, sometimes I become less (and if I am honest, sometimes more) intimidated by my own naked body, and sometimes I just think ‘wow, that’s hot’! Frankly, in the name of equality I want the same opportunity to seek inspiration from, artfully critique and perve at as many male nudes as I can women. And let’s be honest here, with current state of play there are far fewer good nudes of men than there are of women.

More than one person has asked me why there are no men on Exposing 40. I have photographed men and these can be seen elsewhere, but so far none under this banner. There are plans afoot to photograph a male friend for this project in a few weeks’ time, and as a result of Exposing 40 others have spoken to me about their changing relationship with their bodies as they age. Hopefully some of those conversations will move out of the pub and onto the screen, but so far the women in my life are definitely owning this project. I am pleased this blog is giving them a platform to discuss their bodies and insecurities, but I don’t want men to be left out. I have said it before but body positivity is not just a women’s issue. In fact it’s one of the things that’s easier to talk about as a woman and I would like to see that change.

Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait

Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait

Ongoing debate about how men responsibly present and consider the power of their nude body is important, and we can’t escape how male nakedness was historically used as an overt expression of power, but I hope the narrative evolves. I hope we are soon occupying an artistic space where men can more freely celebrate their beauty and use imagery to explore their own relationships with their body without self or social censorship.

34 thoughts on “Reflections on the Male Nude

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  2. I liked reading this, as a 41 year old who isn’t happy with my self image and is more comfortable behind the camera, it would be nice to see the discussion opening up about men who aren’t buff, tanned bearded or tattooed. I have moobs and love handles and a tummy so I’m doubtful that I would ever be brave enough to pose, but who knows, my partner likes my naked body I may let her loose with my camera for a while

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  3. I completely agree with you about body positively being an issue for both genders. I actually think in many ways it is a tougher issue for men because society is more accepting of women talking about such issue than men. Men are still meant to be tough and stoic about being men and yet like women they are constantly presented with male images that are unrealistic representations of ‘the average bloke’. I would love to see more male nudes and i would love to have the opportunity to shoot them too

    Mollyxxx

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  4. This is such a deeply considered, intelligent essay. Honestly, I kind of hope you write more in this vein. The way male nudity is read in Western culture is a fascinating tangle for me – one thing leads to a tangent and so forth until I’m nowhere near my original thought. You distilled the question of how we engage male nudity in such a way that I not only learned something, but got a nudge to consider it more.

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  5. An interesting read as was your other piece on Oleander Plume’s site. I think we tend to forget that a lot of men also have issues with body positivity. We’re used to them swaggering about letting it all hang out (so to speak) but they are also being confronted with media images of ‘the perfect body’ as much as women are and let’s face 99% of us don’t have the perfect body. It’s hard to be positive when you’re confronted by it 24/7.
    To be honest, in the past I didn’t find many depictions of the male nude attractive. I felt uncomfortable looking at them and I have no idea why as I never stopped to analyse my feelings. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was more acceptable to look at the female nude, there were also a lot more of them about. I’m learning to overcome it, to see the beauty in all shapes and sizes of the male and female form.
    I think that the more we celebrate the diversity of the human body the more we will come to accept ourselves and others.
    And on a personal note – the more pictures I see of myself the better I feel. I definitely don’t have the perfect body but I am learning to love each and every bit of myself 🙂

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  7. Very thought provoking blog. The male nude in both photos and art has been undervalued for some time now. It’s time it took it’s place and get similar attention as the female form. Finding volunteers will not be hard to come by, like others on this page I would pose for either.

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  15. Those who follow my blog are aware that the naked male form is celebrated every Saturday under Saturday Eye Candy. Also other images of the beauty of the male form can be found on other posts. I started this for the reasons mentioned here. To turn the tide that there is beauty in the male form when shown in more than a violent way.

    Times are slowly changing. And the lie that women are not visual is dying… at least I hope so! 😉

    ~ Vista

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    • Vista, we would hope you are correct in your assessment of women’s views on the nude male form. My husband and I had lunch with two younger female business associates last Friday. One is 24 and married, the other 29 with a significant other. Through the course of conversation it came up that my husband and I are nudist. We invited them both to join us at our locale resort with some interest being shown. However we were both somewhat surprised when both related as to how much they admire the nude female form and that the male form would be OK too if they didn’t have to see the penis. Seriously !? !? I personally find them to be beautiful, fun and very erotic. We did not realize there is such fear and disdain for the most essential part of the male form. We hope your work succeeds in influencing these prejudiced minds.

      Kim

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is shocking that even today there are views such as the ones these two women expressed. It makes me sad for the men in their lives. I’ve had men contact me thanking me for making them see the beauty in their sexual member. They hear so much put down and negativity even in these open minded times.

        But I do see things changing as more women get to know and understand their own needs and vocally praise the cock for the magical organ it is. It’s slow.. but we are here! ; )

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  19. I came across this post when I was looking for an uncensored original of Mapplethorpes self portrait as I’ve just posted my own version on twitter as part of my #SelfieWithADifference /#NakedAdventCalendar project.

    I think the lack of focus on the male nude is generally because if its not aggressively sexual it’s seen as effeminate to project your own image. I’m no youthful model, but I hope my photos are interesting …

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