The nude human body has been a site of fascination, intrigue, and control. The use of the body as a tool for artistic and political expression has always sparked debates that entail notions of legality, morality, as well as social acceptability. Largely, such debates veer towards how one must control displays of the body in public forums, by invoking questions of decency, and shame.
Being the object of immense scrutiny and surveillance, the nude human body is socially mandated to be covered and hidden away through constant monitoring, as well as body shaming. A sense of curiosity is perpetuated by keeping it under covers, only to be unraveled through control and power.
While the moral policing around appropriate dress codes and modest exposure of skin are implied largely on women who are expected to be the ‘bearers of culture’ and ‘honour’, a recent incident displays how the male body too does not escape the anxieties around exposure.
A few days ago, famous Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh, shared images from a photoshoot for PAPER magazine, where he is photographed nude. The pictures, inspired by actor Burt Reynolds’s nude shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine, went viral, receiving largely positive feedback about embracing the nude body. The actor has previously been known for his experimental and striking fashion choices, which make him stand apart from his counterparts. The photo shoot went on to further cement the actor’s radical, eccentric expression of himself.
Messages came flooding the comment section of Ranveer’s social media post praising the actor’s looks, daring poses, and emboldened sexuality. The comments described the actor as “fearless”, and “confident”. Amidst these, were also comments which mocked the actor’s choice to be completely nude.
While the post was re-shared by many, praising the photoshoot and its encouraging impact on body positivity, soon after, a post comparing the comment sections of the male actor’s post and Esha Gupta, a female actor’s post, where she is seen posing similarly, went up online. The disparity in comments highlighted the extreme and opposing double standards individuals have to the exposure of nudity in photographs when the subject’s gender is changed.
It is important to acknowledge that Ranveer’s images received negative feedback and trolling as well, however, the nature of comments on the female actor’s post rarely discusses her bold choice and is intended to shame her for her lack of modesty.
Nudity, morality and tarnishing ‘culture’
With debates, trolling, and praise emerging after Ranveer Singh posted photos from the shoot, an FIR (First Information Report) was parallelly registered by the Mumbai police, based on a complaint by Mr. Lalit Tekchandani, who runs an NGO named Shyam Mangaram Foundation. The complaint claims that the post “hurts the sentiments of women”, and intends to “outrage the modesty of women”.
The FIR lodged against Ranveer cites violation of Sections 292 (sale of obscene books), 293 (sale of obscene objects to young people), and 509 (word, gesture, or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Information Technology Act. The FIR also includes that the post by Ranveer Singh has affected the sentiments of the entire nation and alleges that the photos tarnish the “good culture” of the nation.
Lawyer Vedika Chaubey, one of the complainants, during an interaction with NDTV expressed her displeasure with the photos and when asked by the host what was vulgar about the photos responded: “Of course this is vulgar, we can see his (Ranveer Singh’s) ‘bum’, his video is with me he is completely nude in that video.” She reiterated that this is a “national issue”. The comment made by the lawyer goes on to express the deeply ingrained reservations our society has with the portrayal of specific parts of the body, and the inherent sexualisation of human bodies in general.
The unraveling of this incident is interesting to interrogate since male bodies have often been glorified and accepted in their entirety, while the female body has been kept under wraps with the intent of ‘protecting’ it and maintaining the cultural modesty of communities. Women regularly face slut shaming and body shaming on social media, as well as in society, and are from a very young age trained and policed into dressing ‘appropriately‘, and maintaining modesty to protect the honour of their families and communities.
The backlash faced by Ranveer Singh, a prominent and established artist makes one wonder whether women who want to express themselves similarly will feel conflicted in doing so out of fear of similar or worse criticism. A comparison of the nature of comments received by Ranveer Singh and Esha Gupta, the other actor mentioned earlier, goes on to show the extent of negative, lewd reactions and comments that women receive when they choose to use their bodies as tools for artistic expression.
Several fashion models too have often reported instances of their photographs being removed on account of “violation of community guidelines” on social media. This controversy has sparked debates on the notions of modesty and vulgarity, outdated laws, and most importantly, the expression of sexuality and the material body.
It also throws light on how in the name of protecting culture, and in the process of monitoring individuals and their behaviour, our laws are conveniently used as a mechanism to disempower those who threaten dominantly reinstated social norms and ideals around decency.
When explicit scenes are portrayed in films, the audience reaction is not as extreme, as when the artist independently chooses to share a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves, a choice made out of their free will.
The agency exercised in sharing images of one’s body raises anxieties, while when the same body is excavated out of curiosity and without consent on pornographic websites or using hidden cameras, the footage is consumed rapidly. This raises the question about the inherent control we demand over other bodies.
As artists, individuals like Ranveer Singh are expected to be open to public scrutiny of their identity and body. Where does one, however, draw the line for this scrutiny? When does the artist’s agency kick in, allowing them the freedom to express themselves? Most importantly, what about the human body and nudity are exactly ‘offensive to culture‘?
While actors and artists are expected to succumb to the pros and cons of being popular presences, and they are more liable to be open to the criticism they receive, it is important to highlight that it is normal and healthy for artists to not at all times be tolerant of the negative feedback they receive. Expecting artists to play by the popular morality of a society is restrictive of their expression and creative agency.
We must, as a society, investigate the root of our intolerance towards nude bodies, and address how our reactions differ when the gender of the individual in question changes. At the heart of this, we will be able to see the remnants of patriarchal conditioning, morality, and gender bias, which need to be acknowledged, interrogated, and remedied.
Featured Image: India TV News