While the album did contain a song with a racial slur in the title, what was most immediately confronting was that the pose Smith adopted on the cover unselfconsciously displayed a thatch of underarm hair. Madonna used the hashtags artforfreedom, rebelheart and revolutionoflove, which indicate that she was presenting the photo, in which she wears a significant amount of make-up and a bra, as subversive. And is the response solely about beauty expectations relating to body hair?
Or is it also grounded in ubiquitous ageism towards women over 40 who dare to highlight their sexuality? Yet the responses to the image reveal much about cultural attitudes towards women and the continued force of expectations about their appearance and behaviour. In the s, second-wave feminism flourished. It challenged female beauty norms, such as shaved legs and underarms and the wearing of make-up.
In the decades since, ideas about beauty culture have shifted dramatically. Postfeminism embraces the notions of individual choice, agency, and empowerment. Madonna had already posed in a series of nude modelling shots with long, untrimmed underarm and pubic hair in Whether she intended for the hair to look sexy, was aiming to be controversial, or had no particular motivation for leaving the hair as nature produced it, is not clear.
What is evident, however, is that these youthful shots do not inspire the same degree of animosity and disgust as her new Instagram photo.
The profusion of comments at Instagram and in response to articles usually connect the disgust with the fact that Madonna is years old. Because she posed in a bra, with her ample cleavage displayed, Madonna has become a target for cultural revulsion surrounding women who are no longer young, but still wish to be viewed as sexually attractive. The implication in much of this discussion, and in the heteronormative obsession with the sex appeal of girls and young women, is that men do not generally wish to see the bodies of women over the age of 40, and especially not over Comedian Chris Rock crudely joked at the time: She was accused, like Madonna, of a kind of sad desperation in attempting to flaunt her body when she was past her prime.
Madonna is a skillful manipulator of her image. She has miraculously maintained a pop music career across four decades in a way that has proven impossible for any other female artist.
But even a force as formidable as Madonna is no match for the renewed pressure on women to conform to narrow beauty ideals and cultural demands for women to become increasingly invisible as they age.