Think Tank on Privacy: The Body in Question by Naomi Skwarna


by Naomi Skwarna

Women don’t have a body so much as they have custody of one. If you identify as a woman, of any age, race, class, or biology, you learn this regularly and on no fixed schedule. Open the lens a little wider and it’s a true enough assessment of any vertebrate—mortality, the ultimate sublet. But for women, it can be a custodial task riddled with threat from both outside and in. When threats fail to materialize as violence, they inform our choices, consciously or not, as we try to circumvent the promise of it. Threat becomes inhabitable.

It begins when we’re young, on the cusp of finding out how unsafe the world is. The American photographer Sally Mann became famous for capturing that Edenic state and has, in her work and in the reactions to it, dealt exhaustively with the private body made public. In 1992, 65 photographs released under the name of Immediate Family took Mann’s work from distinction to infamy, each photo suggesting a story that is inextricably part of a whole—not unlike each member of a family.

Two years prior to Immediate Family, the quarterly photo journal Aperture published their fall issue entitled “The Body in Question.” The cover featured a black-and-white image of Mann’s youngest daughter Virginia, age four, naked as the day she was born. Surrounded by darkness, Virginia’s gaze is inquiring and confident, elbows bracketing her ribs at sharp angles. In her 2015 memoir Hold Still, Mann considered the reaction to that cover, particularly an illustrated feature in The Wall Street Journal. “[The] piece,” she writes, “a tissue of banality and non-sequitur that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, acquired an undeniably arresting force on the page, thanks to the accompanying illustration…The nation’s largest-circulation newspaper cropped and mutilated my image as if it were Exhibit A in a child pornography prosecution.”

The modified image follows Mann’s description. Magnified and cropped of its surrounding darkness, Virginia’s body is made obscene. Black bars strike through her chest, pelvis, and most disturbingly—her eyes. “When we saw it, it indeed felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence. It made her feel, for the first time, that there was something wrong not only with the pictures but with her body. Heartbreakingly, she wore her shorts and shirt into the bathtub the night after she had seen the picture with the black bars.” Mann calls this new awareness a “third eye”—a phantom gaze she observes her daughter withering under in real time.

I began learning about all the things that women’s bodies have done to them around the same time my body was first handled without consent. I didn’t see them as related, as evidence of a particular gestalt. Female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, foot binding, whale bone corseting—all these things occurred in another time and another place; something that used to happen, like racism. Male circumcision seems of a piece, and yet whether it’s done in the name of religion or hygiene, that violation is the only one that comes from a covenant with God promising the whole of Canaan in exchange. Mythology states that in sacrificing a bit of their body, males will inherit the world. Females will die with extremely small feet.

Of these lessons, the latter I learned about in grade five homeroom. The former, in a lake, with a hormonal teenaged boy who knew that holding me underwater was a clever way to hide his actions from the adults reading newspapers on the shore. At school, I learned that women were “forced” to wear hijabs as a show of modesty; a few short weeks later, I decided that I should wear my brother’s old No Fear tee shirt over my bathing suit when I went down to the beach. Better yet, stop going to the beach altogether.

As Emma Healey wrote on the Hairpin in 2014, “A story like this is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open.” The boy was only doing what he thought he had the right to do, and I also thought he had the right to do, even though it filled me with shame and a hatred of my body for having invited it in the first place. We’re all in this together, certainly when we’re children. I thought, and think, and dispute, and think again.

There’s another story, not mine, but made accessible to me through a superhuman act of public speech. On May 11th, 2016, writer and former CBC Q producer Kathryn Borel agreed to a peace bond with former Q host Jian Ghomeshi in lieu of assault charges. After hearing Ghomeshi’s equivocating apology, Borel exited the courthouse, approaching a crowd of people and microphones. In less than five minutes, Borel made the seemingly bulletproof defense Ghomeshi has been shielded by since late 2014 into a thing of glistening transparency. At the same time, she spoke to an entrenched fact about the female body—not in Imperial China or American fine art photography—but now, in Canada, at this moment.

Every day, over the course of a three-year period, Mr. Ghomeshi made it clear to me that he could do what he wanted to me and my body. He made it clear that he could humiliate me repeatedly and walk away with impunity… Throughout the time that I worked with him, he framed his actions with near daily verbal assaults and emotional manipulations. These inferences felt like threats, or declarations like I deserved to have happening to me what was happening to me. It became very difficult for me to trust what I was feeling.

I have redacted an example of Ghomeshi’s conduct, but it is intrusive, intimate, and physically violating. The first time I read it two years ago, it struck me as a fairly conventional example of the threats women face everyday—in the workplace, on the street, in the home.

What if I were to sever it from the whole like The Wall Street Journal did to Mann’s photo of Virginia? How would it read then?

There are at least three documented incidents of physical touching. This includes the one charge he just apologized for, when he came up behind me while I was standing near my desk, put his hands on my hips, and rammed his pelvis against my backside over and over, simulating sexual intercourse.

Seems conventional if you’re primed to think it is, and lazy enough to trail that thought into oblivion. When Borel identifies so concisely the sickening gaze we’ve grown accustomed to, not only do I feel fury on her behalf, but shame for not realizing until now that this is the water we all swim in together, temperate and chest-deep and capable of making us forget that these things are apparent on land.

Up until recently, I didn’t even internalize that what he was doing to my body was sexual assault. Because when I went to the CBC for help, what I received in return was a directive that yes, he could do this, and yes, it was my job to let him. The relentless message to me, from my celebrity boss and the national institution we worked for were that his whims were more important than my humanity or my dignity. So I came to accept this. I came to believe it was his right.

A private act was pantomimed upon Borel’s body in a public place. Her body, based on Ghomeshi’s trespasses, was rendered public—even in the way that she was then obliged to report it to her employers, who evaded the reality of the situation by implying that yes, he could do this, and yes, it is [your] job to let him. Borel’s body was no longer a privately owned thing. Maybe it had never been, but now it was bracingly clear.

Borel’s statement speaks to the way that we, men and women alike, can be tricked into believing that a private body is the factory default, impossible to preserve. Borel’s statement marks her transition from troubled acceptance to full knowledge of this breach of identity. The next morning, the National Post devoted its cover to a full-length shot, lens aimed up at Borel as if she were a Soviet-era monument.

The body in question belongs to a woman who was misused and then censored, her employers complicit in maintaining the position of their host. The body in question had her name and reputation probed and diminished because that is a task the law and the media collude on. By taking something so privately harrowing and converting it into a public experience, Borel claimed the body as hers, and for a moment, I wondered what it would take for me to do the same.

For Kathryn Borel’s full statement, click here.

Naomi Skwarna is a writer and artist. She lives in Toronto.

Keep the conversation going