Seven months ago my best friend and I started sending each other nude photos of ourselves. Our interest in this interaction stemmed from the same place. We had both upped our fitness regimens and instead of silently reveling in the shapes and angles that were forming under our skin, we wanted to share our progress.
Sure, a bicep or a calf picture would have sufficed, but there was something intimate about taking and sending a nude picture. Trust was being exercised, and a new level of intimacy was created between us. After exchanging a few pictures with captions like, "nice haircut," my friend jokingly asked, "Are we sexting?" The answer seemed obvious—no! However, what determined that "no," beyond a guttural reaction, remained unclear.
What constitutes a sext? Wikipedia defines sexting as, "the act of sending sexually explicit messages, primarily between mobile phones." The urban dictionary elaborates, noting that it is "the act of text messaging someone in the hopes of having a sexual encounter with them later; initially casual, transitioning into highly suggestive and even sexually explicit."
I had no intention of having sex with my friend. I texted her back an hour later, "Not really, I think we are participating in body affirmation." When sex wasn't the objective, when there was no fear of being judged, and when the goal wasn't self-validation through another individual, the action became something entirely different.
I took this idea to Facebook. I wanted to see how other women would feel about sexting in this capacity.
I set up an email account for submissions, composed a one pager explaining the concept and requirements, and asked dozens (probably hundreds) of women to send me nudes: the most explicit form of sexting. The project, "Are We Sexting," asked women to submit for the sake of submission in the absence of critique, and asked them to obtain validation from the experience of participation. The project would culminate in a banner of nudes, curated in a way that discourages viewer comparison.
Needless to say, not everyone was into the project.
While some politely declined, others suggested that I was sexist for not asking men to contribute. Both men and women sext—true—but women do a considerably larger amount. According to a 2011 study conducted by the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Washburn University, "Females are more likely to send sexually explicit text messages, often containing nude photographs of themselves than men… Approximately two-thirds of women surveyed sent such text messages compared to less than half of men."
I would suggest that the way we are taught to view our bodies, directly responds to the amount that women are sexting.
With the digital revolution came a rise of body image issues, and younger and younger people are participating in sexting. Visual digital communication has become an intrinsic part of self-discovery for adolescents, and it carries into adulthood. For the young people who are developing their identity through sexting, and in a landscape that is already so hypercritical of the female form, we have to ask what this language means.
Struggles with self-esteem for women are occurring at an increasingly younger age.
Today, more than 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. When girls reach middle school, 40-70 percent are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body. A 2011 study by the University of Haifa found that "The more time adolescent girls spend in front of Facebook, the more their chances of developing a negative body image and various eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and exaggerated dieting." This isn't to say that men do not face the same issues. In fact body image issues for adolescent boys are on the rise, but when we discuss nudity, we should consider the difference in perception between male and female nudity.
Our society has accepted that there is something inherently sexual about the naked female form.
It is reflected in the 5,000 advertisements the average American living in a city is bombarded with on a daily bases. I remember being a young girl and seeing my first pair of nipples in a movie, and thinking, "my nipples don't look like that! Is something wrong with my nipples?" The same internal monologue occurred after seeing my first full-frontal porn shot. Visual culture offers few options for what is acceptable for women's bodies, and in ways that are more insidious than many of us realize.
Piecing these nudes together, carefully placing them next to other images that had different lighting and positions, was relieving.
Before I started forming the banner, I was overwhelmed. The context had altered the photos; the mise en scene of each image represented the relationship every participant had with their bodies. Together they were no longer sexts they became data of personal understanding that was being shared with an invisible ally.
Join me this Friday for the presentation of "Are We Sexting?" at Little Berlin's Annex space for a multimedia showcase. The night will feature a large collage banner of all the submissions, a video instillation by BARBARISM, a performance by theater artist Manon Mavavit, and music by fade sunshine. A panel discussion/speed symposium will be held featuring Mavavit, Director of Crux Space Andrew Cameron Zahn, and Dan Pasternack of Never Forget Radio.
The event is free and open to the public.