How do you approach an industry that has a preconceived notion of your identity?
When I was younger beauty heavily influenced my decision when choosing my favourite contestant or member of a girl band. I would go with who I then thought was the prettiest, and she wasn’t the dark-skinned girl or the thicker girl. The fashion industry has set unrealistic beauty standards for women that we adopt from a young age. I wasn’t given the opportunity to know what I thought was a desirable image, I consumed what fashion photographers, art directors, and casting agents decided. People who hold these positions are usually rich white men who abuse their advantage in a patriarchal society and make choices for women.
This unrealistic image of women which is seen across the media is the male gaze. The male gaze is a fantasy. It’s the wildest thoughts and imagination of what women should look like to men. The male gaze takes worse forms when it comes to depicting black women, LGBT+ women, and plus-sized women. This representation of women has become embedded in fashion and normalised a toxic perception of women.
Although the male gaze is very much present, women are fighting back and redefining how we should be seen in fashion. What made me come to write this article was examining how women are fighting against the male gaze. I looked at nude images of women taken by female photographers. The question that came to mind was: how can someone tell the difference of a nude photograph taken by a woman and one taken by a man? And if you can’t tell the difference is this problematic?
I discovered the work of London based photographer Yasmine Akim, whose work has featured in VICE, AFROPUNK, The Independent and more. She also founded Vagina Dentata Zine which champions women, LGBTQIA+ & POC creatives. Exploring her work I concluded with fashion photography it is not how we see others but how we see ourselves. Unleashing the nude female body in a state that is understood by women creates a platform to talk about ourselves.
To explore the female gaze in fashion, I asked Yasmine Akim her thoughts on representations of women, the male gaze and how she is challenging unrealistic beauty standards.
Why is it important that women’s representations of women are presented in fashion?
Yasmine Akim: It is important because we need a change from what is presented to us on a daily basis in the mainstream media, the status quo makes women feel unhappy with themselves because of unrealistic portrayals of beauty, this is damaging and people are sick of it.
We are all made in different ways, and we need to embrace feeling that we are beautiful as we are and that we are enough – plain and simple! Empowerment is sexier than letting the clothes you wear – wear you, people should be encouraged to feel inspired and express their identity in a way that is original and figure enhancing. This desperate longing to be accepted by a society that represses agency in women is draining – We need more representations of women as strong and defiant rather than the dried out fetishisation of youth and submissiveness in general.
It is important to work towards breaking down these social norms of usually only seeing fashion models who are European, size 0 and fresh out of school, or even still in school in most cases to be fair.
Is the male gaze still a problem in fashion?
Yasmine Akim: Yes, how could it not be?
How can men and women avoid being influenced by unrealistic representations of themselves?
Yasmine Akim: I feel like it is difficult to avoid being submerged by sinister expectations, it is ok to not be ok. No one is perfect, and we have been brainwashed to the point where patience and self-love are the only solutions. Instead of resenting yourself further for not being affected by derogatory representations of women, you turn the filth into gold by getting angry. Unlearning is the only way forward, seeing the fashion industry as outdated rather than your enemy makes sense. It is a mirage – hold your head high ladies, these campaigns are airbrushed and several models themselves feel like they will never be enough because of this bizarre Eurocentric idealisation of beauty.
Is the female gaze something you think about when photographing?
Yasmine Akim: Yes, I want my sitters/models to feel comfortable around me. Collaboration is all about fair exchange and respect. A lot of men are intrusive when they photograph their models, they have this vision, and get frustrated if women refuse to comply. The female gaze unravels something that is powerful and unique, women feel like they are enough without exerting themselves in a way that is rigid or contrived. It is what I think about for sure – as it makes me feel like I am making progress as a storyteller as well as a feminist and a practitioner.
Yasmine shares an editorial she produced for Judy Zhao’s Lookbook. This topic is explored as part of our self-love series. How we see ourselves in fashion is important to the role that we want to play and how we execute that.