Nude selfies: are they now art?

Lockdown has triggered a boom in the exchange of intimate shots – and now a new book called Sending Nudes is celebrating the pleasures and perils of baring all to the camera

Have you ever sent a nude selfie? The question draws a thick red line between generations, throwing one side into a panic while the other just laughs. And yet, as far back as 2009, that fount of moral wisdom, Kanye West, was advising how to stay safe. “When you take the picture cut off your face / And cover up the tattoo by the waist,” he rapped in Jamie Foxx’s song Digital Girl.

As the pandemic forces relationships to be conducted remotely, more people than ever are resorting to the virtual exchange of intimacies. Last autumn, a poll of 7,000 UK schoolchildren by the youth sexual health charity Brook put the figure at nearly one in five who said they would send a naked selfie to a partner during a lockdown.

But for all the worries about the vulnerability of underage senders, it would be wrong to condemn the practice out of hand, according to New York Times columnist Diana Spechler, who argued that, in lockdown, nude selfies had become a symbol of resilience, “a refusal to let social distancing render us sexless”. The selfies she and her friends were exchanging, she wrote, weren’t “garish below-the-belt shots” but pictures that were “carefully posed, cast in shadows, expertly filtered”. In short, they were works of art and deserved to be considered as such.

Book cover: Sending Nudes featuring a haiga by poet Karla Linn Merrifield.
Book cover: Sending Nudes featuring a haiga by poet Karla Linn Merrifield. Photograph: Guts Publishing

Now publishing is getting in on the act, with Sending Nudes, a new anthology of nonfiction, short stories and poems reflecting on the pleasures and perils of baring all for the camera. Editor Julianne Ingles, who is also an artist, assembled the collection after putting out an open call for entries. “Some were merely erotica and some were just about nudity. But we were looking for people who had something thoughtful and intelligent to say.”

Part of her reason for compiling the book, she says, is that she has sent nude selfies herself. “I’m older – pre internet – but I sent them and I have my own set of regrets. It made me wonder about this need to be so self-exposing, and the psychological reasons why people do it.”

Her anthology is hot off the press in more ways than one, put together in three months, with the latest contribution dated December 2020. All but five of the 16 contributors are women – and it’s a man, Michał Kamil Piotrowski, who has produced its most explicit text, an orgasmic concrete poem in the shape of a “dick pic”. It’s noticeable that the male contributors, fewer as they are in number, tend to shield themselves with genre – a piece of flash fiction, a science fiction fable – while the women are more confessional.

“When I sent nudes to men in my early adulthood,” says contributor Ellie Nova, “there was a mismatch between the sender and the receiver. For the men, I think, it was a brief thrill. But for me, it was an attempt to find connection and reassurance that, despite my darkest beliefs, I was lovable after all.” Her freeform memoir describes a student life in which the selfie becomes an act of ritualised self-sacrifice to the casualness of male desire, a ritual that is tangled up with self-harm.

“Before sending nudes, one must prepare,” writes Nova. “The body is edited. The body is made better / the hair on the head bleached; the hair on the underarms, legs and vulva removed; the face painted. The imaged cropped, smoothed, filtered, rendered black and white sometimes – when the pink shades seem too coarse. Even for a man with his hand round his cock. / I try to be artistic. I try to make it beautiful / the exchange.”

The unequalness of this exchange is picked up by teacher Rebekah LS in the anthology’s longest piece, Unthinkable, which chronicles a painful 14-year affair, conducted largely by selfie, with a man who had a pathological inability to commit. It opens with an innocent transatlantic conversation, which leads to “riskier pleasantries”.

Judged in terrestrial time, it becomes almost a steady relationship – three years have passed before the couple start exchanging nudes – but, when they finally find themselves in the same country, the doubts start to set in. Every time she’s about to end it, the illusion of intimacy is restored by a new set of selfies. It’s a painful unravelling, which ends: “I delete all of my nudes from our app so you can’t see them any more (I hope). I am left with no words”.

Poet and crime novelist Claire Askew is more positive: “Sending nudes is a new form of intimacy that can feel liberating, but it also makes a gift of our vulnerability,” she says. In her poem 8 Ways to Lie in a Hotel Bed Alone, she imagines herself in a cheap hotel, accidentally sending a picture to a lover before checking where the recipient is: perhaps in the pub or standing in a chip shop queue, while she tries to settle on a hard hotel mattress.

“It’s a Virgin Mary pose I strike,” writes Askew, raising a recurrent theme: the artifice that conceals the nakedness. The nude selfie now has its own industry – including specialist photographic boudoirs – to help with this. Shyama Laxman conjures up a call centre worker whose other, night-time job is as Nudes Editor “£20 for minor fixes … £50 for morphing – your face on a porn star’s body”. Molly McLellan imagines a gay photographer who sets up a boudoir shoot to rescue the residents of her granny’s care home from loneliness.

In a comic short story written in broad Scottish vernacular, Glasgow-based journalist Emma Grae pictures a woman with a turtleneck jumper fetish working her way through the paid-for selfie sites, from OnlyFans (“nudes, nudes, nudes and mair bloody nudes. I’m oan the wrang side o twenty-five) via AdultWork (“a bit o everythin”) to Pantydeal (“the biggest online marketplace for buying and selling used panties”), where she finally finds what she’s looking for.

“Naked bodies are so last century,” writes Grae in her introduction. “In a world obsessed with the classic nude, how dae folk develop quirky fetishes and how dae they get their kicks?” In its small way, Sending Nudes begins to collate an answer.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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