- Things I Told My Mother
I read Sarah Gerard’s new book, Things I Told My Mother, in one sitting. The writing is clean, welcoming and vulnerable. My palms were sweating when I read it. The book tells the story of Sarah’s topless walk through New York City in August 2013. You can purchase the book from Von Zos and in select bookstores.
LISA MARIE BASILE: You wrote, “While it is not a campaign for gender equality, my own feelings about gender equality unavoidably will influence my observations during the action. It is legal for women to be topless in New York State and I believe this to be a fair law. I do not believe that, just because I’m topless, people who would objectify me and reduce me to a pair of breasts have the right to do so, just as I don’t believe that, if I wear shorts, a construction worker, to use a real example, has the right to catcall me, thereby reducing me to a pair of legs.
Those people want to strip me of my personhood; I am no more to them than a body upon which to project their uninvited sexual desires. With that said, this kind of behavior is bound to happen during the action and I invite it; I’ll do nothing to stop it, but simply record it in my notebook.”
It is hard to be a woman in a world where confidence, self-love and even the embracing/displaying of one’s own beauty is recognized as a reason for harassment. I can’t imagine what you felt. What was your initial reaction?
While we were at the march, the activity was so constant and jarring that I didn’t have time to process it — kind of like when someone catcalls you and catches you off-guard, and for a moment you continue walking, wondering whether to respond, and eventually you don’t.
Later, on the train, you wish you had said all the things that it suddenly occurs to you to say.
I wonder how many women at the march simply weren’t equipped to deal with the kind of response they got: the jeers, the whistles, the hungry stares, the iPhone cameras. From what I could tell, many of the women just accepted this kind of attention as an inevitability. But acquiescence is not the same as consent, now is it?
Luna Luna recently published an article that went completely viral; it focuses on romantic ownership and agency. Have you read it? It’s called Stop Saying ‘I Have A Boyfriend’ and it argues that we shouldn’t have to use another man to thwart folks who harass, bother or want to talk to us.
You say you are just performing as you, as a woman who happens to be married, as if that somehow objectifies you less, or redacts the you that is naked and, thus, “available.” Do you think your wedding ring had an affect on the topless journey?
I can also say that, as an art model, I’ve often had to draw a line in the sand, and the fact that I’m married often seemed to make no difference in the way I was viewed. I was nude, or I got nude for a living, and therefore was available. Just the other day, a photographer sent me an email.
The subject was, “Had,” and the body said, “A dream last night I was taking a shower with you. Strange it was.” Setting aside the embarrassing grammar of the thing, I’ve worked with this person before but have been putting distance between us for quite some time — since the summer.
- Sarah Gerard, captured by Tam Nguyen.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Later, you write, “I confessed to my manager at the bookstore that I had started modeling nude. He was unsurprised: ‘I’ve worked at a lot of bookstores in my day. There’s always someone who’s modeling,’ he said. This seemed encouraging. I used the word ‘confess’ just now. It’s an interesting word in this context because of its religious overtones. A confession is not the same as a divulgence.”
SARAH GERARD: Actually, I think the order of events was kind of opposite: I was hoping my manager would take more of an interest because I was finding the work very interesting and wanted to talk with someone about it.His reaction colored the work as common, in the sense of “commoners” — lower-class, trashy. Mind you, he didn’t mean this intentionally. But it did make me feel differently about modeling. My feelings about modeling nude varied widely all the time I was doing it.
Nude modeling is not the same as sex work, although there’s nothing wrong with sex work, and sometimes, admittedly, the line can be blurry. The difference is that I always hoped, and I expected the photographer to hope, that something artful would result from our working together.
Sometimes what they thought was art and what I thought was art was not the same. And that’s okay — I’m not a critic, and they hired me for a service. But when the service I’m providing involves the direct use of my naked body, I don’t want to bargain, and I don’t want to compromise.
LISA MARIE BASILE: You write, “I was taught that I should scrutinize my body in parts, like an animal for butcher: legs, arms, tummy, ass, breasts. I should think of my body in terms of its weight and fat content. I should be passive like an animal; delicious like an animal. My body was only valuable if fit for consumption.”
We know that song and dance. I haven’t had a day go by without questioning it. Atrocious. I’ve been told I don’t have the right to feel those ways, because I’m not X or Y. When people think of beauty they often think of privilege.
Do you ever feel or recognize your own privilege when modeling?I’ve unfortunately been taught to associate “modeling” with the industry itself–an industry that has profited from proliferating the significance of skinny, traditionally beautiful bodies. Do you encounter photographers and models that break these expectations? Is it rare? Am I wrong? I often am.
I know art models who are 5’0 and white, 6’3 and black, curvy, skinny, red-headed, bald, ultra-femme, androgynous, tattooed, pierced, scarred, you name it. Three teeth, gold teeth. They’re all over the place. And to the photographers’ credit: the ones who are doing this because they love it really appreciate these differences and look for models who have presence in front of the camera above all other qualities. It doesn’t matter what they look like.
LISA MARIE BASILE: You say, “Modeling has taught me to be more courageous with my body. It has helped me to redefine my boundaries and has helped me to define boundaries I didn’t know I had. It has helped me to feel less ashamed.”
- get the hot chicks on the street with big boobs to show their stuff
- Looks like a bunch of really ugly girls trying to get some attention.
- The human body is a beautiful work of art in all shapes and sizes. NOT.
- It takes a ‘certain’ kind of woman to show her breasts. Nobody half decent would bother with such an exhibition…
- The Walk took place August 2013. Photo by David Formentin.
SARAH GERARD: I’ve talked to a lot of people about these comments and they’ve pretty much all said that it’s useless to argue with internet trolls, and I tend to agree. But, have you been following the events on HTML Giant recently, involving Kate Zambreno?
A whole conversation has erupted out of peoples’ responses to an internet troll, and it’s been so successful at getting people to talk about things like objectification, violence, ownership, and so on.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Agreed. And yes! Luna Luna published a reactionary piece (by Dena Rash Guzman) to the reactionary piece (by Leigh Stein) about the Kate Zambreno doll incident at HTML Giant. Definitely a topic that needed to be discussed.
So. You also write about an experience in which you told a photographer who wanted to shoot you that you wouldn’t do spread-open shots. Then you said yes, you would. When you got to the shoot, you then said no. You thought he felt guilty. You wanted him to feel pathetic.
What happened here? Do you think you left him with the understanding that he should not have pressured you? Do you often enter into modeling situations that make you feel objectified, or was this a rare case?
David Formentin is a filmmaker.