Candice C. as she appears on Herself.com. Photo: Jennifer Toole
CONTAINS NUDE IMAGES
In an era where insincere viral advertising masquerades as feminist ideology and women of note frequently dodge the question of feminism with soundbites like "I like men too much!", to see a project where women's bodies (ordinary, human bodies) are celebrated without the lack of agency that can go hand-in-hand with nude portraiture is refreshing. It's especially captivating when you know it was created by one of those aforementioned women of note.
Enter Herself.com, a feminist web project where nude photo essays are accompanied by extensive interviews with the woman in question, recontextualising the 'full frontal' portrait into something altogether more honest (yes, there are additional levels of honesty that can be added to the naked body).
Caitlin Stasey in an image from her new feminist website Herself.com. Photo: Jennifer Toole
Caitlin Stasey, our Ramsay Street expat turned star of Please Like Me and Reign, and outspoken champion of women's liberation, created Herself.com out of a desire to tell the stories of the women she met as she travelled and worked around the world.
"It was really born out of hearing the incredible stories of the women around me, both socially and online," she tells me, crediting online social justice campaigns for helping to fan the flames of inspiration. "With #yesallwomen and #freethenipple I was opened up to a whole world of women struggling for equality, demanding to be heard and finding empowerment through honesty and solidarity. I want to help demystify the female form, to assist in the erasure of coveting it, and to help celebrate the ever changing face of it. We consider a woman's sexuality so linked to her physicality that for a woman to appear naked publicly is automatically an act of sex and not for herself. There's also a very specific construct of woman we are all used to seeing, and while those women are no less women, I was so desperate to see different faces, different bodies."
Perhaps cognisant of the inevitable comparisons (given that the mass media isn't terribly original when it comes to its compare-and-contrast commentary), we talk a little about the commodification of "body image" via campaigns like Dove's 'Campaign For Real Beauty', and the gradual emergence of 'feminist' advertising. "I much prefer them exploit our desire for diversity than our desire for 'perfection', and that's across the board," she says. "The commercialization of a movement is tricky and exploitative territory and can go horribly wrong - I'm imagining a 'feminists' drink DIET coke [ad] - but I think our greatest weapon against body shaming and criticism are desensitization and exposure to all the diverse manifestations of a woman's form."
Caitlin Stasey as she appears on Herself.com. Photo: Jennifer Toole
Despite a keenness to display said diversity through photography, a crucial factor in the the project was for the women to appear, as Stasey puts it, as "subjects, not objects", so much so that the focus was initially on the interviews rather than the portraiture. "My prerogative was to share the stories and plight of women just like you or me," she says. "I wanted these women to be subjects not objects - but then I met photographers Jennifer Toole and Georgia Smedley, and [they have] such an incredible eye and manner that the photography element really took on a life of its own."
Stasey is aware that, at least in terms of its photographic element, Herself.com is just the latest in a long line of artistic exporations of the female form, however she sees it as a chance to deepen the approach. "There have been so many inclusive photo shoots this year that have certainly exposed a wider audience to what 'woman' currently means, but I wanted to go a step further," she explains. "Society very cleverly and insidiously compartmentalizes and pigeonholes women, and we are so often isolated because of it. I hope more than anything that women will come to Herself.com and find themselves there, scattered throughout the stories and bodies of others."
Indeed, the site features a call to participate; the photographers are currently based in Los Angeles and Melbourne but Stasey has plans to expand. And given that the site has already crashed a number of times due to immense traffic, chances are she will not find herself short of future subjects.
An image from Caitlin Stasey's new website. Photo: Jennifer Toole
As one of the first Herself.com subjects, Stasey's frankness impresses, but I wonder how easy it is to maintain perspective when working and living in Los Angeles; I worked there for two years, on 'the other side of the camera', and was amazed by how much Hollywood affected my view of my body. What must it be like when you're in the spotlight?
"It's definitely hard to keep perspective when my job requires me to care so much about how I look," she says candidly. "I've been on and off with [skin medication] accutane, fad diets, fad workouts, all to fit the mold of what is required of women in this industry. Things are certainly changing, our tolerance for bullshit body stipulations is lessening, our desire to appease the male gaze is wavering and our ability to forgive ourselves is increasing. I've spent so much of my life mitigating and apologizing: for my thoughts as a woman, my body as a woman, even my taking up of physical space as a woman. And now through Herself.com and the work of other women's projects like it, I'm able to maintain sanity and self love through loving these women, who despite the odds are telling the patriarchy to go f-ck itself."