Theology of the Body, Topless Picnics, and the Message Our Body Sends
So, women and men are pretty different in many ways and very similar in others. As someone reading a Catholic think site on the internet, you probably realized this at some point in your life. I think for me, that moment came shortly after a growth spurt during a 7th grade cotillion ball. I realized that my waltz partner was not exactly at eye level with me any more. Men and women tend to have some pretty key differences that follow on that whole male/female division thing.
Now, I’m also a Californian, so I’m pretty lax about some stuff. You want to wear a burkini? Go for it. Want to show off your spin class and juice detox abs? I’m jealous and kind of numb to it honestly. You want to breastfeed and keep talking to me? I’m flattered you think so well of our friendship. You want to go start a nudist intentional community with your housemates, live in tiny homes, and raise alpaca? That’s a thing you can do with your life, and hey, it’s not a pot dispensary, so there’s that.
But for all that, I do think it’s worth remembering that what you do with your body sends a message, because we are not ghosts in a machine. We are humans, body and soul. What we say with the body, and how we say it, matters. Because, communication. So with this preface, let’s talk about the whole topless picnic think going down in Helena. By which I mean, let’s talk about what a woman’s body can communicate.
Now, bodies, being all multifaceted and stuff with their opposable thumbs, can communicate a lot of different things. For example the face can convey that we are happy:
Photo Credit: Pixabay
It can also convey how quickly our life is spiraling downwards:
Photo credit: Pixabay
So the same parts of the body (here the face) in similar arrangements (mouth open) can nevertheless tell us very different things, based on nuances and context. Likewise, the physical form of the person convey different things. Let’s say this now: the female form is good. It is not intrinsically lustful or sexual or erotic in a way that the male form is not. If you cannot look at a Greek marble nude without lust in your heart, I will be so bold as to say the issue is not that women exist. However, that is not to deny that the human body cannot have a sexual or economic or political or educative dimension, among the many ways it communicates the person who is embodied within its limits.
So the female form, as the male form, can communicate the person according to two different modes of material existing, which I will borrow from Roger Scruton: the person’s existing body or the person existing as embodied. This can also be called the difference between being naked and being nude. A naked person is one who has, to follow Scruton, “disappeared behind his own flesh, which is no longer the person himself but an object, an instrument…the eclipse of the soul by the body.” A nude person, however, is the form of a person as embodied, “flesh animated by the individual soul, and expressing individuality in all its parts.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is not to say that the parts of the nude lose their instrumentality when revealed in connection to the embodied person—the Venus of Urbino can still hold a bouquet with her hands. However, even the blending tones Titian uses remind us clearly that they are her hands, holistically united to the entirety of her body. So softly does Titian draw her through his use of tonal gradation that it becomes difficult to identify any particular bodily aspect of the Venus distinct from the whole that is her, embodied. In fact, the darkness of her eyes and lips draws the viewer’s line to her face, which is what we most specifically associate with the embodied person—reminding us that the body is she, she is an embodied person. Moreover, the Venus as an embodied person cannot be separated from her body: it is the embodied Venus on whom we gaze. To receive her embodiment, we must receive her as her own, encountering her as the person embodied in her face if we are to encounter her embodiment in her other parts. She does not have clothing, but it seems almost inconsequential—she would still be as self-possessed, an end, whether or not she was clothed.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
For the sake of contrast with being a body, let us consider Manet’s Olympia. This painting is an obvious and intentional contrast with Titian’s work. It is worth noting that Anne Hollander describes Manet’s tonal predominance in his art as making his subjects perceived and rendered as “contingent, ephemeral and immediate, rather than timeless, remote and beautiful.” Hollander suggests this is due to the stark tones and intentional lack of tonal gradation meant to lift the veil concealing the vigor of her “unqualified sexuality.” The lines of her accessories bids us to divide her body into its parts, while her hand acts as a barrier to her otherwise displayed sexuality.
Olympia’s face does not turn to the gift of flowers from her suitor; in fact, her person seems utterly disconnected from the body below the ribbon—she has disappeared within her own flesh below that line. The body might be had without the person, or, dare we look into her jaded face, the person might be known but then would you dare to have her body separated from the gaze that promises “I will not be there”? Olympia’s body is certainly hers, and she knows this, but should it be yours, she will no longer allow herself to remain. Unlike in Titian’s work, where we see the person as embodied and through her body, the self-possessed and ensouled nude, Manet forces us to consider the woman who so many reduce merely to her body, the woman naked. Olympia’s soul seeks to flee her body through making it merely her body; in doing so, the body is reduced to a means. But, as she can’t flee the body, she too becomes a means.
However it is worth clarifying: Manet is not making porn. Olympia, though a precursor to certain visual techniques common in porn, is an image not intended to arouse desire in the audience but to present her body in such a way that the audience is forced to confront their tendency to separate body from person. Pornography, on the other hand, is for the sake of sexual arousal in such a way that the person is all but erased from the image for the sake of subordinating that person as a means of sexual pleasure for the viewer.
So even a naked woman on a bed can tell us many different things. When a husband desires his wife well (and vice versa), he, through his body, desires her, through her body; he is an embodied person offering to and receiving another embodied person who receives his offering. This encounter occurs, to again borrow Scruton’s words, “not merely as our bodies,” but in our bodies. After all, if I want chocolate cake, any piece will do. But, as Tinder even has proven, even if every 20-something guy is a super good looking rock climber with a college degree looking for an adventure buddy, you still eventually find a reason to pick Chase over Cam for a boyfriend.
So this topless picnic. I don’t know if the government should regulate clothes—most of me hopes they wouldn’t have to do so. But the women organizing this event are pretty clear about what they intend their bodies to say: they want to “advocate for gender equality and the normalization and anti-objectification of women’s bodies.” I can go for both of those in at least some sense. However, the reality of our culture, rightly or wrongly, is that the female chest is associated with sexuality. This might be because they are associated with baby feeding, and babies are common end of the babymaking. Or they are associated with babymaking because, as HBO and the internet tell me, men (and some women) make that association. Though it is contestable that breasts are inherently, as the woman at the picnic argue, I do think we can see evidence of this dimension of breasts, at least culturally, in how Game of Thrones is still working on that whole “concupiscence of the flesh directs these desires toward the appeasement of the body, often at the cost of an authentic and full communion of persons” thing (TOB 31.3).
When a woman feeds her child in a way that isn’t about making the child a cultural statement, i.e. she isn’t doing it for the sake of posting a photo about it with captions daring anyone to come at her over it (as distinct from photos where she merely happens to be feeding her child), that’s great. Nourish that child. Sustain life.* She might feel like she has been reduced to a food source, but the fact is, she is an embodied person who is using her breast to provide food for her child. She isn’t doing this simply as body, but as the person who is a mother and has the ability/chooses to sustain the life of her child through the capacity of her body. It’s a really cool thing.
Here’s the thing: St. John Paul II hit the nail on the head when he noted that “the human body speaks a ‘language’ of which it is not the author” (TOB 104.7). What the former Holy Father meant was that the body has meaning inscribed into it by nature—being male, being female means something. That meaning is “the way of living in the body” (TOB 31.5), and as such the body had a necessarily communicative dimension in how it is for another.
The women who want equality through toplessness aren’t wrong to say we ought to be able to live in a body without fear that the communion of persons be replaced by a relationship of possession. However, the meaning, this way of living in a body has been deformed by concupiscence which really did a number on the ability of men and women to engage in reciprocal relations with each other in a self-giving and not desiring possession way (c.f. TOB 32.1). It might not be right, but it is the truth of things.
The inclination women in particular have when another attempts to reduce them merely to their body, and their body merely to a sexual purpose is, reasonably, to pull back. “Do not touch me,” or in the words of Meghan Trainor that a lot of women who have gone to either a club or high school dance have thought from time to time: “thank you in advance/ I don’t want to dance (nope)/I don’t need your hands all over me.” I too really wish we could normalize women’s bodies. I too hate catcalls. I too have felt unsafe simply because I have a female body when walking home in the dark from work through shadier sections of cities.
But I would venture to suggest that perhaps seeking to remove the spousal meaning of the body through replacing it with a political one in order to ultimately slough off the spousal dimension is at least not in a different order than those who would have it lose the spousal dimension of embodiment for the sake of a decontextualized sexual dimension of the body as body. The body as political statement is no less a disembodied one than the body as sexual object. In both cases the person is removed and the body reduced to an object of use, at least in terms of our thinking about it. Yet, as the person is still there, this attempted divorce of the person from their flesh ultimately makes the actually embodied person a means to an end. And persons, as Kant and St. John Paul II were fond of noting, must be ends not means.
So yes, stand for a society where a woman can breastfeed and it’s just feeding her kids, because she is an embodied person. Stand for a world where men don’t think they have a right to a woman’s body that has not been given to them in a reciprocally self-giving act that speaks and likewise teaches the spousal meaning of the body. Stand for a world in which we overcome concupiscence through Christ’s revelation of the redemptive meaning of the body. And when you do so, remember that the body does have meaning, and it is important to spend a hot minute thinking about what you are saying, and whether you are saying that because you are an embodied person or simply with your body. Because, being embodied, the body we have as embodied persons, is really rather important. After all, the redemption of the body, which is constitutive of us all as persons, body and soul, “must consist in retrieving this dignity, in which the true meaning of the human body, its meaning as personal and ‘of communion.’” (TOB 23:5).
Incidentally, on the topic of breasts and babies, did you know men can lactate? Now you do.
* If you choose not to breastfeed, or can’t, or sometimes use a bottle, or pump, or did until they were six months or six years old, or like however you get food into your child, that’s great. Because your child is eating. Which is important to being a parent—keeping the child feed. Keep doing that.