By Hannah Meyer
April 11, 2016
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Are nude selfies a la Kim Kardashian as “empowering” as the reality star claims? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean anyone is paying attention.
Naked, in front of the harsh gaze of the bathroom mirror, she had never much liked her reflection. The image staring back from her iPhone, though – now that was a different story.
A friendly angle and Nashville filter made her look to all the world like a Gigi Hadid collection of golden limbs and perfect curves. It felt good, like her skin could be forged into inviolable armour.
Instagram > share > #empowered.
Images of naked women online used to be the sort of thing you didn’t want your mother to see. Today, she could very well be one of many women posting nudes on social media, in an effort to liberate her body and self-image from the firm grip of patriarchy.
Acts of public female nudity have been key features in women’s political statements throughout history. But this is where attempts to send a message via a nude selfie fall flat: no one has to pay attention.
Reality star Kim Kardashian recently snapped a nude selfie with model Emily Ratajkowski and the duo posted the image to their millions of followers, declaring it a symbol of feminist sexual empowerment. Inevitably, outrage ensued.
Feminist commentators like Jacqueline Lunn accused Kardashian of exploiting feminism to market her personal brand.
Others fired back that criticising Kardashian’s nudity was just another unwelcome attempt to control women’s bodies.
Kardashian might be the most high profile purveyor of the #empowered nude selfie, but she is certainly not the first.
What about #FreeTheNipple?
The recent #freethenipplecampaign saw thousands of women take to Instagram to post pictures of their breasts, adorned with a fantastic array of nipple covers, in a statement against the social media site’s censorship of women’s bodies.
The original free the nipple hashtag has now, tellingly, been all but erased by Instagram, but a search of ‘#liberated’ or ‘#empowered’ reveals quite extensive archives of female flesh and many women have since penned essays describing a sense of empowerment from sharing nudes on social media, or with a romantic partner.
In a personal essay for Bustle, Meg Zulch wrote;“Documenting my naked body has shifted the way I think of myself by transitioning said body from a place of trauma and devastation to empowerment and beauty.”
It is certainly a refreshing change from the internet’s distressing predilection for revenge porn and the constant bombardment of advertisements featuring naked women posed in unlikely contortions for a camera controlled by invisible men.
Women do need to reclaim their bodies from a ubiquitous culture that has treated them for too long like cheap slogans or dirty secrets via which we can be shamed.
Women turning to social media to share their nudes, or taking them for their private enjoyment, often feel they have achieved just that.
As Ratajkowski wrote in an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, “Even if being sexualised by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.”
In a global context, where too few women are allowed this choice, it is an admirable sentiment.
But Ratajkowski suffered a backlash from many commentators because her selfie with Kardashian does very little to offer an alternative image of where or how a woman might express her sexuality.
Is criticising Kardashian and Ratajkowski’s choices ‘anti-feminist’?
It’s hard not to notice Kardashian and Ratajkowski’s highly-manicured appearance in the image, which feels nothing like a fierce representation of women’s liberation and exactly like a reproduction of the patriarchal imagery both have skilfully spun into lucrative careers.
Calling out the promotion of patriarchal standards in an image shared under the banner of women’s empowerment certainly seems important.
But is criticising Kardashian and Ratajkowski’s choices for the presentation of their own bodies and sexuality anti-feminist?
“Absolutely,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer specialising in gender and sexuality at the University of Melbourne.
“Feminism is not about telling other women how to use their bodies or whether or not a woman can profit from her body.
“That said, feminism is equally not about pretending that one woman profiting from her body does anything to liberate women as a whole,” Dr Rosewarne told the ABC.
Again, Kardashian is not alone here. Much of the imagery posted in the #freethenipplecampaign depicts Western women filtered and flawless in utterly unrealistic constructions of themselves.
The result is an ostensibly feminist movement that threatens to be an unwitting source of yet more pressure for women to conform to the suffocating beauty standards invented to keep us all in line.
Perhaps images a little less obedient to the desires of heterosexual men might be more liberating?
“I’m not sure [that] any single image of a naked body – regardless of what that body looks like – can serve as empowering for all women,” Dr Rosewarne said.
“Putting an image, regardless of what it looks like, up for public judgment and then expecting to achieve some kind of gender equality is farcical.”
When is women’s nudity ’empowering’?
This is not to say that women’s naked bodies have no political power.
When singer Amanda Palmer took to the stage in 2013, dressed in nothing but the glory of a full bush and armpit hair to call out the Daily Mail’s misogyny, few accused her nudity of not being powerful.
The same can be said of Femen activists who roar their anti-misogyny protests, bare-chested, on hostile city streets.
Rather, they employ their nakedness in a way that makes their voices impossible to ignore and in doing so, thrust their bared nipples and uncensored belly rolls like swords through the heart of patriarchy.
In contrast, the Kardashian brand’s leading lady is decidedly mute, and with good reason.
Kardashian does not make her millions by selling talent or personality, but by selling her own beautiful skin as advertising space.
It is an empire hinged on seducing the masses to look – and keep looking – and so cannot afford to say anything that risks turning those eyes away.
Like Kardashian, nude selfies look good, but are capable of little more than quietly playing to a public that has always preferred its women silent.
If feminism is to have any chance of seeing women truly empowered, it will need us to use the kind of tactics that rock, picket and shake this world until it is forced to listen.