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Aphrodite's Nudity: Empowering or Humiliating? - by Jess Huang

When one tries to imagine a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, more than likely the image conjured up is that of a beautiful woman in a state of undress. In ancient Greek society, women were typically covered from head to toe, and the statues depicting women were generally fully covered. If we compare the nude sculptures of Aphrodite to the example of the Berlin Goddess, we find the latter is fully clothed and it is hard to see the body under her heavy drapery. Aphrodite’s divine status as the goddess of beauty gave artists license to portray women nude. Was this a progressive development and her nudity a sign of her power as the goddess of love and sensuality, or was it simply appealing to the male gaze and a humiliating representation?

Prior to the 4th century, there were no full-size female nude sculptures. Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos sculpture made waves as the first naked representation of the female form and it became a hit with tourists, amassing hundreds of visitors to Knidos where she stood in all her glory and became quite a tourist attraction. Looking at the sculpture, she has clearly been caught by surprise; the water jug suggests that she has been caught bathing. The goddess does not seem embarrassed and does not avert her eyes - in fact, she almost dares viewers to look at her naked body with direct eye contact. We could see this as her taking ownership over her naked body despite the fact that she is being viewed against her will. Historically, men who have looked upon naked goddesses without consent have come to rather tragic ends. Famously, Actaeon spied upon the goddess Artemis whilst she and other young virgins bathe, and as punishment, he was torn apart by his own hunting wolves. Therefore, Aphrodite’s nudity can be seen as a testament to her power as a goddess who seemingly dares viewers to look at her body at their own peril, thus implying a certain level of empowerment over how we view her naked body.

On the other hand, it could be argued that her naked portrayal is humiliating and serves only to cater to the male gaze. The only other women who were depicted fully nude were prostitutes on vase paintings which - going off the societal standards at the time - put the goddess on a demeaning level, and not only equated her with mortal women but also with sex workers who were not viewed favourably in ancient society. Furthermore, in a society where women were covered from head to toe, the bare body of a woman would provoke feelings of shame and humiliation, and when looking at the Aphrodite of Knidos statue, we must wonder why - if her nudity was a testament to her divinity and female empowerment - she attempts to cover her body with her hands. Additionally, the goddess’ feelings of humiliation are compounded by the sexualisation of her body against her will. The lack of nude female representations almost tempts audiences to sexualise the goddess. Infamously, a male visitor left an uncouth mark on the goddess - following which he felt such severe shame that he is claimed to have thrown himself off a cliff. This then shows the danger of the male gaze which the goddess’ naked body was subjected to, and we must question whether the goddess’ status as a goddess of sensuality was the reason for depicting her naked, or if it was an excuse for male artists and viewers to project their inappropriate fantasies onto.

There is no right or wrong answer about whether the nudity of the goddess was something empowering or humiliating. However, what we can be sure of is the impression her naked sculpture has on viewers. Audiences remain as transfixed as ever on these nude representations of the goddess as can be seen by the hundreds of visitors who flock to see the Venus de Milo in the Louvre. But it is worth thinking about the reasons why her image is so popular: is her naked body merely a spectacle for the masses or is it a testament to her power?

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