In history, women’s bodies have been celebrated, venerated, objectified, and denigrated. Our bodies have been painted, sculpted, and used to symbolize purity, motherhood, and sexuality.
In Greek mythology, a muse was a goddess. She was the source of knowledge and understanding of art, music, and love. Over time, the notion of the muse has been reduced to that of an “inspiration” for men. Famous muses of modern history were Marie-Therese Walter, the muse of Pablo Picasso; or Iiona Staller, adult actress and muse for contemporary artist Jeff Koons. These muses were symbols of beauty and sexuality.
In Roman mythology and art, women were used to represent concepts and ideas. The tomb of Michelangelo in Florence, Italy, is adorned with the forms of three women, each representing a different facet of his life: sculpture, painting, and architecture. The female body was appropriated as a symbol in order to celebrate the life of a man.
A modern example of the muse is a “groupie.” The term originated to describe teenage girls and young women who had sexual liaisons with members of famous bands. Groupies are reputed for altering the artist’s wardrobe and influencing his music. Lori Maddox was the famous Led Zeppelin groupie who reportedly started dating Jimmy Page when she was only fourteen.
And we can’t forget the “manic pixie dream girl,” the female character with little development of her own, used to inspire a male character to change his life. A popular example is Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State. With all her quirks and giggles, she serves him from the sidelines and represents his healing, his awakening, his return to life. In the end, she saves Zach Braff’s character from “oblivion”.
Women’s bodies are used to sell products, inspire men, and symbolize purity, desire, and seduction. But when I look at my own body, I do not see any of that. I do not see the angel, the mother, or the whore.
Sometimes I wish I could be a side character in a man’s story, without any worries of my own. As a young woman, I wanted to be admired and longed for. I believed I would be most valuable as a stimulus for a brilliant man. The truth is, I don’t have the power inspire and change his life. If he thinks I do, he is not seeing me as I am—he is seeing Aphrodite, or perhaps a mother, or a lover, or a muse. But I do not want to be painted or sculpted or put in print to sell a pair of shoes. We are not symbols. I want to be autonomous.
Text by Abigail Baldwin
Photos by Allison Nguyen