Comes Naturally #94 (March 10, 2000):
In the Eye of the Beholder

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March 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg


The issue of images of the body that people find offensive just won't stay out of the news. Several years ago, it was the radical sex photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the adolescent nudes of photographer Jock Sturges. More recently, it's been the availability of sexual pictures on the Internet, Jock Sturges again, and Calvin Klein's Times Square ads featuring young kids playing in their underwear, to mention only a few news flashes.

We've grown used to the fact that some people simply have trouble with images of the nude body that have anything erotic about them, and with anything visual that dares to address sex directly and without apology. But now, it seems, it isn't even necessary for images of the body to involve sex, unconventional sex, or children for people to get upset. Something is going on that goes beyond keeping sex and nudity out of sight, as two recent Bay Area incidents make clear.

* * * * *


The Breast Center Fund, a San-Francisco nonprofit organization working to increase public awareness of breast cancer, recently came up with a simple, powerful, seemingly straightforward idea for an ad campaign. TBCF wanted to draw attention to how our culture idolizes women's breasts as symbols of beauty and sexual appeal while at the same time refusing to acknowledge breast cancer as the major health issue facing women today. TBCF developed a series of ads to appear on donated billboard and bus shelter space, superimposing mastectomy scars on photos of conventionally beautiful and glamorous young models.

"It's No Secret," proclaims one poster that could, at first glance, be mistaken for a Victoria's Secret catalog cover. It shows a young woman in sexy lingerie suggestively revealing... her mastectomy scar. "But what are we doing about breast cancer?" the poster continues. "Mastectomy," headlines a second image, remarkably like the cover of Cosmopolitan. An attractive young model with both breasts removed looks coyly out at the viewer. Articles highlighted on the "magazine's" cover include "Your Breasts: Not Just for Looks," "1 out of 8: Your Chance of Getting Breast Cancer," and "Breast Cancer Quiz: Are You at Risk?"

"America is obsessed with breasts," TBCF observes in its press release on the campaign. "We should be no less obsessed with eradicating the disease that afflicts them."

The juxtaposition of icons of sexual attractiveness with the sobering realities of cancer and mastectomy scars is unexpected, jarring, and provocative -- effective, in other words. These are images that snap us out of habitual, idealized ways of thinking about women's bodies, breasts, and sex -- and out of habitually tragic, desexualized conceptualizations of disease and disfigurement as well. In these images, traditional notions of beauty and tragedy are inseparable, as are sexual fantasy and painful reality. They are nothing less than examples of art performing one of art's most fundamental and vital functions -- to provoke us to new understandings of the world around us and of ourselves.

But, alas, art of this particular sort -- even in the service of a cause as noble as fighting breast cancer -- is hardly welcomed by a culture and a public as body-phobic and sex-confused as ours. As soon as the ads went up around the San Francisco Bay Area, complaints began to pour in from people who didn't appreciate being disturbed by the TBCF images. Within two weeks of the ads' appearance on billboards and bus shelters, every advertising company and transit district involved in the campaign had gone into retreat and removed the offending images from public view.

* * * * *


Lynn Zachreson is a well-respected, usually non-controversial, painter and art teacher who lives in notoriously progressive Santa Cruz, a town one might expect to be well beyond these sorts of phobias about the naked human body. Last November, Zachreson mounted a show at Santa Cruz's main, city-run community center, a show that included a series of impressionistic watercolor nudes. Several of the nudes were of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. The rest were of a 78-year-old woman. The watercolors were neither graphic nor sexual, depicting nothing more than the two women sitting in various poses, their body parts muted and subdued as watercolors so often are.

To her surprise, Zachreson -- who had exhibited nudes at the center many times before without difficulty -- was told by Raymond Evans, the center's curator of exhibits, that the paintings were offensive and would have to be removed from the show. Evans's justification for the restriction, while somewhat inconsistently expressed, had something to do with the fact that the center hosted programs involving everyone from young children to senior citizens. Both the young and the old, Zachreson was told, might be offended or somehow harmed by what Evans called the "nudity and suggestive postures" of her paintings.

Oddly, two much more explicit nudes in the show, featuring much more graphically the bare breasts of young, conventionally attractive, women, were perfectly fine with Evans. Nor did Evans take issues with one of Zachreson's oil paintings that showed an attractive young man, entirely nude, quietly facing the viewer, penis and all.

Zachreson, nonplused that anyone would think her work offensive, refused to remove the paintings. Anxious to avoid an open confrontation with Evans, however, she offered a compromise: She would put her images of the elderly woman "in purdah," covering them with black paper chador, the body-concealing clothing worn by women in traditional Islamic cultures. She would also mask the nudes of the pregnant woman with semi-transparent white paper gauze. Evans agreed, and the modified watercolors remained in the show, accompanied by a good deal of local press coverage and an explanation from Zachreson, who invited the public to comment on "the censorship and the larger issues involved" in the show's guest book.

Comment they did. "As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse," wrote one person, "I am healed by honesty about the wild human body in its nakedness. These paintings are about God -- about us all." "What is so awful about the unclothed human body that children must be protected from it?" asked another defender of the work. Other commentators vociferously disagreed. "Why in the world would parents want their children to be subjected to such art?" one person wondered. "Take the smut out of the building," another critic fumed more bluntly over the phone. "How dare we allow this to go up in the first place?"

* * * * *


What Raymond Evans found offensive about Lynn Zachreson's watercolors and what upset so many people about The Breast Cancer Fund's billboards was not just that they included images of the naked body. Zachreson and TBCF ran into trouble because they broke an unspoken but fundamental rule that strictly segregates images defined as erotic or sexual -- images that may be (or are even required to be) beautiful, appealing, and attractive in conventional ways -- from images that are defined just as strictly as unerotic and non-sexual.

Some people, as we well know, still scream bloody murder whenever erotic or sexual imagery is publicly displayed in any form whatsoever. But there are many more people who are willing to acknowledge the legitimacy, and even the appeal, of sexual and erotic imagery, as long as these images remain ghettoized -- as long as they are restricted to marginal venues reserved for their exclusive use, venues that allow the "rest of us" (the rest of life) to go on as if the world inside this sexual ghetto didn't exist at all.

There are two separate ways that erotic and sexual imagery is ghettoized. Erotic and (especially) sexual imagery is grudgingly allowed to exist as long as it stays confined to its own network of publication, interaction, display, and distribution -- the specialized world of commercial pornography and commercial sexual entertainment. But also, as Zachreson and TBCF discovered, erotic and sexual imagery is expected to restrict itself to the sexual sensibilities that conventional aesthetics designate as sexually attractive, and therefore sexually appropriate. Thus, sexual and erotic images of young, thin, women -- and young, muscular men -- are tolerated and even (in the case of advertising) widely promoted. But sexual or erotic images involving any of the classes of people that society designates as sexually off-limits -- fat people, old people, people with disabilities, people with mastectomy scars, pregnant women, children, adolescents -- will be condemned in no uncertain terms.

Images that evoke difficult feelings such as pain, fear, or loss are welcomed in art. They are also not uncommon, for certain purposes, in advertising. Images celebrating the asexual wholesomeness of pregnancy are nothing short of artistic mainstays. But when evocations of beauty, with their erotic and sexual overtones, are combined with what the culture insistently classifies as non-sexual, the response ranges from confusion to open hostility. For the nay-sayers, this mixing of beauty and pain, of sex and non-sex, is nothing short of miscegenation -- the intermingling of two mutually exclusive groups that, these people say, must never be allowed to have intimate connection with one another.

"How dare you make us think of "beauty" and "ugliness" together?" the angry chorus shouts. "How dare you sully our idealized sensual and pseudo-sexual reveries with reminders of the mundane, even tragic, aspects of being alive? How dare you combine the potentially erotic impact of the nude body with the presumably asexual purity of pregnancy and motherhood? How dare you suggest that there might be something appealing or attractive about the body of an elderly woman, or about the body of a woman who has lost one or both of her breasts to cancer? How dare you assault viewers with images that may stir up erotic feelings that they find uncomfortable, embarrassing, even immoral?"

* * * * *


Sometimes the need to keep the worlds designated as sexual and non-sexual separate from one another provokes measures that can only be called absurd. What follows is a different sort of tale from that of Lynn Zachreson or The Breast Cancer Fund, but it shows just how far over the cliff this sort of compulsive aesthetic cleansing can lead. Besides, it's just too good a story to let go by without comment.

Muscogee County (Georgia) Superintendent of Schools Guy Sims took one look at the classic painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze, one of the most famous of all paintings depicting a moment of American history, and saw in it not history, but trouble. This is the painting that shows George Washington standing stolidly in a boat, one foot on the wale, staring determinedly at the distant shore while soldiers furiously row the craft across the Delaware River. You've seen it. I've seen it. All the fifth-graders of Muscogee County were about to see it too, which was what was troubling Superintendent Sims.

Fortunately for the tender young minds of Muscogee County, Sims was more alert to potential sexual endangerment than were the superintendent of your fifth-grade school district, or mine. His sharp eye noticed that the light-colored watch fob, hanging from George Washington's belt and resting on his thigh, could be mistaken by students -- you know how students are -- to be George's penis.

When I first read this story, I just had to see for myself how anyone could find something sexually suggestive in "Washington Crossing the Delaware." With the help of the Internet (, it took only a few minutes to evaluate the painting for myself. I can only salute the vividness, creativity, and single-minded intensity of Superintendent Sims's anatomical imagination. I mean, you could, I suppose, imagine the little white thing on Washington's pants leg to be a very sturdy, if slightly misplaced, penis. But, I dare say, you'd have to have a severe case of penis on the brain to ever have that particular thought cross your mind.

But, hey, maybe Superintendent Sims is just a lot closer to the mindset of 10-year-old Georgia boys than I am. It's certainly possible that one or two of those boys might have penis on the brain as much as Superintendent Sims, enough to imagine that Leutze wanted to include in his stern painting of the Continental Army in retreat a stiff Washington penis exposed to the cold Pennsylvania wind.

Is the extremely slight possibility of a few boyish giggles around the school yard something worth worrying about? For Superintendent Sims, apparently, it is indeed. Rather than take a chance on having penis jokes about the Father of Our Country circulate around his school district, Sims had a bevy of teacher aides spend two weeks meticulously painting the 2,300 offending white spots out of 2,300 Muscogee County textbooks, thereby putting all 2,300 of George Washington's mighty penises (or watch fobs) safely back in their pants, where they presumably belong and where they can cause no harm to tender young Georgia minds.

Good work, Sims! It was Barry Goldwater who once observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Superintendent Sims demonstrates just how far such vigilance must go if we are to keep every possibility of wayward sexual thought from despoiling the sanctity of our mundane, hopefully most carefully desexualized, lives.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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