Does the Nu Project empower women? Two professors weigh in

Categories: Beauty
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cover image by Matt Blum
In this week's cover story, photographer Matt Blum explains how in the early days of his nude photography initiative, the Nu Project, something he hadn't anticipated started taking place.

As more women got involved, "Almost everybody who participated said it contributed to some part of their mentality about themselves shifting," Blum says.

Now, nearly 8,000 women from around the world have signed on to have Blum come to their home and photograph them. Both participants and viewers tend to reach for a particular word when describing why the Nu Project has moved them: empowering.

But the question of empowerment is a tricky one. When two University of Minnesota professors looked at Blum's photos, they were largely excited by the project -- but also cautious.

See Also:
- Cover: The Nu Project explores the art of female nudity
- Slideshow: Behind the scenes: The Nu Project and the art of female nudity [NSFW]

 
"These images really serve to broaden the visual resources we have for imagining what women's bodies should be," says Mary Vavrus, a University of Minnesota professor who studies gender in the media. "But what scares me about this is that it's easy to confuse an individual's sense of empowerment for serious structural change."

From one angle, Vavrus explains, the Nu Project strikes her as "a positive step in the right direction."

"It is new, and relatively unusual to have women's bodies out there that are not even attempting to adhere to that impossible-to-achieve beauty ideal that so many women, and now men, spend so much money and anxiety trying to reproduce for themselves," Vavrus says. "There are so few opportunities for women's bodies to be shown, and these photos are lovely for the fact that they include women in all their humanity, all the variations of our bodies, with no attempt to idealize or porn-ify the female form."

But, Vavrus continues, though Blum's images are a tool in expanding people's ideas of what women can, should, and do look like, they can't be the entire toolbox.

The project's message is welcome, she says, and even necessary. "But if women say, 'Once I feel good about my body then I've done enough,'" Vavrus argues, "then that's insufficient."
 
One of Vavrus's colleagues, Laurie Ouellette, expresses similar caveats in her support for the Nu Project. "On the one hand, it says that normal is more than the media suggests," Ouellette explains. "The photographer is changing the conventions of how women have traditionally been photographed, so they don't look as though they're on display for a male viewer, and that's very cool."

However, "I would be cautious in saying that this is empowerment," Ouellette says. "Empowerment is increasingly individualized, where it's about our bodies, our lifestyles, our personas, our brands, and what gets lost in that idea of empowerment is some of the earlier ideas of feminism."

"It kind of dovetails with the YouTube culture, the blog culture," Ouellette continues. "People saying, 'Hey, here I am,' is not necessarily progressive. I think increasingly for young women one's ability to find success on individual terms includes a kind of media visibility, and there's danger with this approach."

Ouellette also notes that the Nu Project is in keeping with a recent pushback against conventional beauty standards, exemplified by the recent attention focused on plus-sized women in magazines, Lena Dunham's HBO show Girls, and Dove soap's "Real Beauty" campaign.

"I think on the one hand it is riveting, and when you see Lena Dunham on TV with a body that's been designated as imperfect and she's embracing it, I think you do feel better about yourself," Ouellette says.

"But I would also say that we live in an era of heightened visibility for ordinary people," she continues. "My overall reaction is, 'Wow, this is terrific.' But I wouldn't discount the idea that having your image out there is also valued in ways that might be very different from a feminist project."

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