The naked truth: 'We're all beautiful'

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"The human form just is. We are the ones who put meaning on it."

So said Larry Kirkwood, while many of the college and high school students listening nodded their heads thoughtfully.

Kirkwood was giving a presentation before a crowd of about 200 at Cottey College, relating to "The Body Image Project," an effort that has become Kirkwood's mission. Headless casts of nude human figures -- big, little, short, tall, young, old -- often in colors that don't appear in nature in the hope that such things as race, age and so forth are less the focus than is the uniqueness and beauty of each piece.

The colors, he said, help to show that "regardless of the surface color we are all unique."

And that uniqueness alone is beautiful.

For years, he said, the corporate world has been defining for the masses what is beautiful,

As a culture, "we become obsessed with keeping up appearances."

Kirkwood held up example after example of photos of stars that appeared in magazines; things like a current headshot placed on the star's body from four years ago, as if the truth were not suitable for publication.

What's perceived as beautiful is often artificial, he said, citing a list of beauty pageant contestants who'd had cosmetic surgery.

The narrow image projected is pervasive, Kirkwood said, relating a story illustrating that point, about a student who'd asked why he didn't have more "real people -- you know, like the ones we see in magazines," represented in the exhibit.

Kirkwood noted that women are, in general, so indoctrinated by the importance of their size and body that they usually will say, "I AM a size 12."

In talking with women of whom he has made cast images, only one said, "I wear a size ..." A woman's identity is not the size of clothing she wears. It's who she is within, he stressed.

Kirkwood believes that perceptions and prejudices about people's outward appearance stretch into far more than whether a man or woman seems to look like that image Hollywood and Madison Avenue keep showing us as ideal. There are prejudices about age, height, skin color, sex, and much, much more.

Kirkwood pointed out that looking old, aging, for example, seems to be seen as negative. "Antiques have greater value because they're older. Antique cars are the same. But we don't value humans more as they age."

There are prejudices having to do with height. And, he noted, there's still a disparity between what men and women are paid for doing the same job. "What if we all just looked at the person, not the image, not the outside. What if we paid them for what the work they do was worth?"

His works are displayed without faces, bringing a certain anonymity to the exhibit he says helps bring a sense of equality to each piece, allowing people to see both what is different and what is the same about a diverse group of figures.

And it's important to recognize, he said, that "it's not a woman thing. It's a human thing."

Men, too, have challenges brought on by prejudices based on outward appearance. There's too much focus on what's different and superficial; not enough on what's similar and real.

"We're all extremely similar; with an extremely similar emotional makeup," so he's hoping to in some way get past those outside differences and look at what's inside a person instead.

"If we have to divide people into groups, why not divide them into, say, reliable and unreliable people. Those groups would each have some people from different races, men and women -- it wouldn't be just one" of the segments often unconsciously created in the mind based on outward appearances.

"You can't trust what's on the outside," and this obsession with image takes away from the person's accomplishments as well. "Whether I'm going to be a good worker for you, or love you, or do you harm -- that all comes from the inside. You can't see that from the outside," Kirkwood said.

Kirkwood urged his audience to work to change what he calls an obsession with image, in their careers, in their futures.

"We're the ones with the money. We're the ones who can say, 'no'" to the hordes of advertisements and other influences that perpetuate those image stereotypes. Gesturing in a broad circle, he said, "If you want it to change out there, you have to start changing in here," stopping the circle by pointing to his chest. "If people say racist, sexist things, you've got to stand up and tell 'em it's not right."

Students left the auditorium, some of them at least pondering the new perspectives they'd heard.

Victoria Ireland, 17, said she'd expected more of a presentation about how the brain works, not so much about art. She hadn't thought about the disparity in wages having to do with images before.

Zachary Clapper, 17, said it was interesting to him about how discrimination based on things outward could have to do with anything -- height, weight, and so forth -- not just racial or sex discrimination.

Across the country, people who view the exhibit have a myriad of reactions. Some attribute a sexual aspect to it; others see only the general shapes of the bodies; others see beyond to something else. One person, he recalled, wrote about viewing a particular piece -- the form of a woman with a well-rounded midsection. "I think this woman is very brave," the writer said, continuing a description of what this person might be like and the challenges they might have endured. Kirkwood admits that some believe his works of humans au naturel have to do with human sexuality, but those who do are missing the point, he says. His project has even been censored at some of the most unexpected places -- a medical school censored the show, telling Kirkwood it would be upsetting to the students.

"Sexuality is important. We wouldn't exist without it, but it's only one aspect of who we are," he said.

Without the trappings of clothing, the viewer can see objectively, and can move from viewing for identification, as one might view a staircase, take in information, to viewing aesthetically -- appreciating shapes and textures that make up the body.

"There are three shapes -- the triangle, circle and the square or rectangle. Try to see those shapes. Once you start to see those shapes, that's when you start seeing the real beauty," Kirkwood explained.

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