Female empowerment is a concept that is fraught with misunderstanding, confusion, and disagreement. Women generally agree that we want to be empowered, but we deviate on what exactly this means, and how we can achieve it. The media portrays “empowered” women in conflicting ways; we are often simultaneously praised and chastised for various acts, to such an extent that women, particularly young women, haven’t the faintest idea of how to become empowered.
It’s difficult to find one concrete definition of female empowerment, but what the idea amounts to is agency, that is, the belief that a woman can make her own choices and be the primary actor and influencer in her own life, allowing her to seek her dreams in whatever way she finds meaningful. Going by this interpretation, there are infinite ways in which a women could become empowered, whether by pursuing an ambitious career, defining herself by motherhood, or reaching the pinnacle of athletic achievement.
Unfortunately (but predictably), the idea of female empowerment in the media and popular culture has become inextricably linked with female sexuality. The topic is rarely addressed in any context outside of that of sexual expression. This is inherently problematic, as a large segment of our society remains ignorant, fearful and dismissive of women’s sexual desires and power, and therefore incapable of providing any productive insight or discourse surrounding female empowerment as it relates to our sexuality.
Enter the nude selfie. On one hand, it’s such a simple thing- just a nude photo of herself that a woman chooses to share. When looked at this way, it's absurd that everyone loses their minds over a photo of the exposed female form. On the other hand, it’s an item that bears such complex implications that it has kept everyone from reporters to social scientists analyzing it indefinitely. Needless to say, the question of whether or not women are empowered by nude selfies is an extremely polarizing one. Both sides have compelling arguments. The pro-selfie camp believes, and rightfully so, that women have the right to feel comfortable with their bodies and display them as they please. The anti-selfie crowd believes that women are inadvertently demeaning themselves by sharing nude photos, and they too are correct.
Kim Kardashian could justly be called the queen of nude selfies. She regularly keeps her promise to “break the internet” by sharing risqué photos to her millions of social media followers, invariably re-hashing the debate regarding empowerment and naked pictures. After a backlash over her most recent unclothed selfie, Kim released an essay in which she states that she shares these images because she is empowered:
“I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”
While Kim admittedly makes many good points in her essay, her words ultimately ring hollow. She herself has gone back and forth about her feelings on the subject, at times expressing regret and vowing to never pose nude again, while other times (as in this essay) defiantly proclaiming that she doesn’t care what people think and is proud of her pictures. Her ambivalence makes it impossible to say that she has really become empowered by sharing nude photos; even she lacks conviction on the matter.
Her claim that she is at ease in her own skin also falls apart under scrutiny. Kim Kardashian is a privileged woman who has built a media empire based solely on her physical appearance. The “flaws” that she is not afraid of showing are nonexistent; the skin that she is so comfortable in has been pampered, surgically altered, and enhanced by makeup, filters, and lighting. She can afford the best trainers and dietitians, and doesn’t need to struggle to find time to exercise and prepare healthy meals while juggling a full-time job, daily commute, and family, as the majority of the rest of us do. Her body is designed to attract the male gaze, and her entire persona is carefully cultivated to generate the greatest amount of media buzz, and therefore, revenue. It is incredibly disingenuous on her part to insist that she is simply expressing her comfort with her body, when every nude picture that she shares is a calculated marketing effort.
Kim Kardashian, and other female models and celebrities certainly have the right to post whatever sorts of pictures they like in order to promote themselves, especially considering that this is how they have constructed their careers. They should be able to do so without facing scorn or shaming; posing nude is not a moral failure. As I said above, empowerment means that a woman is free to make the choices that are meaningful to her. This becomes a problem when both the media and the woman sharing nude photos fail to differentiate between empowerment and good marketing. Young women and girls are told that women who post nude selfies are icons of female liberation, when in fact they are using the age-old marketing tactic of “sex sells” to promote a product-namely, themselves.
In our society, women’s bodies are commonly treated as inanimate objects and used to sell goods and services. When a woman chooses to offer her own body up as a commodity, this is her choice, and is a valid method of promoting a modeling career, but it is not empowerment. The idea that a woman rejects objectification through self-objectification is nonsensical. Women who use this sales strategy should do so responsibly, by differentiating between marketing and empowerment, in order to give young women and girls the correct impression that they can find liberation in other ways than through their looks and sexuality.
Rachel Eckhardt is an avid political enthusiast, litigation manager, military veteran, and creator of The Illusion of Choice, a blog covering American politics and current events.
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