Homoerotic and art—dichotomous adjectives fallaciously analogous to the male and female nude, respectively.
When New York-based photographer and filmmaker Jessica Yatrofsky published I Heart Boy, a bare curation of photographs unveiling androgynous men of varying identities—both ethnic and sexual, with powerHouse Books in 2009, it was marketed as gay erotica. Yatrosky’s intentions, however, were to illuminate the male nude, its beauty, mystic energy and taboo, amid a loudening discussion of an evermore gender-fluid cultural landscape.
“I have a personal interest in self-expression as a woman and I feel it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the shift in culture as we begin to reexamine and rethink gender…If you think about the male nude and you think about male arousal, it’s very confrontational and people can be put off by that. But I think that’s the very thing that we should be discussing. I think that would help balance out men and women, if we started seeing men unveiled in the same way—and not in the stereotypical way we see it in gay culture or pornography. That to me doesn’t feel very authentic,” Yatrofsky said at her talk at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, where she’s currently the only female featured as part of the “Medium of Desire” exhibition displaying the ero work of 14 artists from China, Japan, Greece, Russia, Italy, Germany, Great Britain and the United States through March 2016. The exhibition, organized by Peter Weiermair, seeks to reveal that, when successfully represented, desire is an irrefutable commonality that transcends borders and cultural incongruences.
To level the playing fields, we shouldn’t have to, nor should we want to, rid the public space of female nudity, but rather familiarize with the male nude, Yatrofsky said. Doing so has the potential to mitigate the hypersexuality and objectification of the male gaze by diversifying the images disseminated in our society and interchanging the roles of the observed and the observer.
In her own effort to spotlight the female body with appreciation for its many forms, devoid of objectification, Yatrofsky released her second raw and candid series, I Heart Girl, in 2015. It was contrastingly marketed as an art book, exploring indefinable notions of both femininity and masculinity. The photographs in I Heart Girl are deeply impactful, reminding us that the way gender and sexuality are manifested through our bodies is best defined by each of us on our own terms. Regardless of skin color, pubic hair preferences, cup size—each of the women exude intuitive, authentic beauty by way of their own limits and ranges.
“Because I identify as a female, in many ways the work was very personal to me because I felt like I was representing myself and seeing myself represented. I wanted to represent the women as they represented themselves to me, whether it was masculine or feminine,” she said.
Yatrofsky recognized that the public responded to the release of her second book with far more acceptance.
“It was very interesting how I was treated with the female work. It’s like the world just opened up to me suddenly now that I’m showing female bodies—that to me shows a huge inequality,” she said. “The only aspect that separates the projects is anatomy. I look at each project individually as a celebration and expression of gender in a lot of ways.”
And despite the individual identities reflected among her subjects, Yatrofsky added that the theme of vulnerability draws similarities across both books’ subjects, male or female, naked or clothed.
“There’s a blurring that was happening and it wasn’t that I was consciously thinking about that; it just happened because I was looking at these people and seeing them just as beautiful individuals,” she explained. “I think that is why they look so similar. Even if you look at some of the subjects who aren’t the same race or nationality, they still feel the same way. You flip through the books, and even the people who aren’t totally nude—you’d assume everyone is naked—you can see the same level of vulnerability and, ultimately, that makes the subjects look so similar to one another.”
Perhaps it’s only when we accept gender and sexual identity as ineffable, customizable demonstrations of the self, and see one another as equally vulnerable and thus equally empowered, will the male and female nude be met with equity of treatment.