Story and photos by Alexie Zollinger
As I walk the narrow streets of Arles, I find myself pausing periodically to admire a piece of graffiti, art displayed in storefront windows, or the occasional flier posted around the city, of which there are plenty. Many of the pieces I am stopping for are public art that display entirely nude figures or they incorporate messages of sexuality or love.
My assumption is that these are no more than your average piece of artwork to the French and to Arlesians, hence their public display. While I was eating lunch Tuesday and absentmindedly watching French cable television, none of which I understood, on came a commercial depicting a group of nude male and female models being doused in colorful plumes of smoke. It wasn’t until the end of the commercial that I even knew it was an advertisement for deodorant. I sat back and thought, “Wow, that would never fly in Salt Lake City, Utah.”
Utah is largely known for its five beautiful national parks, outdoor recreation opportunities and, of course, its impressive population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), in which I was raised. The religion itself is a branch of Christianity which shares many of the same beliefs as other Christian religions, but varies in certain aspects. For the purpose of this reflection, I’ll stick to the beliefs I grew up with surrounding sex, modesty and virtue.
As a young girl, I was first introduced to the concept of sex and intimacy through the context of the LDS church. I was instructed to treat sex as an extremely intimate and sacred act only permitted between a married couple, (additionally– only between a heterosexual and cisgendered couple) for the purpose of reproduction and an important stepping stone towards a primary goal of LDS members, to bear and raise children.
As a pre-teen and teenager in the church, I learned the church’s guidelines on morality.
For women, there were no tank tops, no shorts shorter than three inches above the knee, same deal with skirts, no midriff visible, no tattoos or facial piercings beyond one ear piercing in each ear, no low T-shirts or dresses, etc. What I disliked about these messages, even from a young age, was how closely these rules were tied to self worth.
In Salt Lake City, if someone is not viewing intimacy through a religious lens they are talking about it in a way that is so hypersexualizing that it is dehumanizing. It feels as though there is very little room for healthy sensuality.
Thankfully, being raised by a rather feminist mother, I was taught that I am very capable and what other people think of me is not my concern. I was never attracted to the “better than” narrative I was picking up on through these lessons: “Women who show lots of skin are often women of bad morals,” “Women who have sex out of marriage lack dignity and self respect.”
In high school, I pierced a second hole in each of my ears, and the glances and suspicion really only increased from that point up until last year, when I signed a letter, had it notarized and sent to the LDS Church’s lawyers, notifying them of my wish to be removed as a member and have my records erased. I had stopped attending church a few years previous to this, but the decision still made my mother cry, and my father sigh. My extended family still doesn’t know, as far as I know.
In Arles and perhaps in all of France, nudity and sexuality appear to be less of a taboo subject than in the United States with its Puritan roots.
I am grateful that through personal growth I have come to find my body as a gift given unto myself, one that is capable and is able to feel all things from sensuality to sadness. I am grateful for having open conversations with friends that help normalize intimacy and encourage comfortability in my skin.
I am grateful that in other areas of the world, such as Arles, nudity and the human figure are spoken about in terms of art and beauty, and not in privacy and shame. I hope one day to see nudity and physicality and intimacy portrayed in this manner at home, where women feel uncomfortable in their feelings and skin. I will bring more of this approach home with me, and will continue to discourage negative language around the human body, sexuality and intimacy, and act as the French seem to–as though it is something normal and even beautiful. Because it is.
This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.