In a world where a women’s ownership over her own beauty, sexuality and body is constantly scrutinized and controlled, Is posting my bikini selfies truly a choice of self presentation or just aligning with the cultural norms of the patriarchy? If we still live in a deeply misogynistic world, Can the bikini selfie really ever be empowering?
You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur — Margaret Atwood
I recently started using social media again after a long break, Twitter being my app of choice for it’s jokes, memes and stories as well as finding opportunities, writing advice and support. During my hours of endless scrolling I couldn’t help but notice the constant appearances of nude and bikini selfies that showed up on my feed. I’m not conservative, prudish or sex negative but I was surprised by the amount of exhibitionism. Even thinking about critiquing these posts made me feel hypocritical and guilty like I was a bad feminist. The constant stream of photos I saw did invoke feelings of insecurity, each post sending me the message of “YOU should look like this and YOU should be this sexy”. Even though I’m thin, an adult and a proud feminist; I found myself judging my body, feeling a sense of peer pressure and having icky feelings of judgment towards other women. I felt stuck between two views: a conservative idea of portraying one’s nudity as self-objectification and liberal idea of portraying nudity as empowering and liberating. My confusion on my beliefs led me to reflect on my beliefs on female nudity and the power of gaze.
Celebrity Figures : Sexy but Empowered Or Sexy and Empowered?
Last month, the celebrity news cycle was full of stories about female celebrities and different abuses they’ve suffered. Rapper Megan the Stallion was shot by rapper Tory Lanez. Rapper Cardi B was reported to be divorcing her cheating husband Offset. Paris Hilton released a documentary where she discussed feeling “electronically raped” when her sex tape was leaked by her sleazy older boyfriend when she was 18. Model Emily Ratajkowski wrote a personal essay (The Cut) on her lack of ownership of her sexy images and various men that had taken advantage of her. Maybe these are all separate complex instances that have nothing to do with each other or maybe they demonstrate that even rich, famous, sexy and talented women are impacted by our misogynist society.
The celebrity stories were in addition to the stories about the impact of misogyny that I kept hearing over and over again. Besides hearing the rape statistics (1 in 6 women in America has experienced a rape attempt or rape) and femicide statistics (An average of 3 women are murdered every day in the US by intimate partners) the stories of female pain felt overwhelming and all consuming. I realized I held a delusional belief that the right or perfect woman could escape threats of violence or sexual assault. It wasn’t a belief based on victim blaming but caused by fear because the alternative was, that no matter how talented, beautiful, intelligent, sexy or rich you were, there was no escape from being affected by abuse, violence or misogyny. And that is a scary realization about the reality we live in.
The women I have mentioned have made careers capitalizing off of promoting sexuality, ideal body types and consumerism. Are they willing participants in upholding the system that won’t protect them?
Megan The Stallion, Cardi B, Paris Hilton and Emily Rata have all talked about capitalizing on their sexualized personas to survive a messy economic landscape, to escape abusive situations and to be financially independent. The commodification of their sexuality could be justifiable because it provides them with a lot of money and money is freedom, security and comfort in a capitalist society. There is the assumption of them being in control of their image, and a lot of times, there are men behind the scenes controlling and deciding the image, without the person’s input. There are so many stories about female artists being controlled by an established group of producers and record execs (Kesha, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey).
Although the women I’ve mentioned have claimed it was their choice, Megan The Stallion stated in a New York Times article that she presents herself in a way that gives her the most pride. Emily Ratajkowski claimed the she was promoting body positivity and self love. Cardi B posts herself looking glam and regular and is honest about the modifications she’s made to her body.
I do see where positioning oneself sexually can be empowering, especially for those that haven’t seen their bodies or beauty represented. Musician Lizzo that has come under scrutiny for her constant nude selfies and public sexual behavior. She is a woman of a larger size and existing in a society that teaches us to be fat phobic from birth. People were quick to label her as attention seeking or annoying in showcasing her beauty and sexuality, especially as someone with so much talent. In a world that either ignores plus-size women or makes them the butt of the joke, a plus size woman showing herself off unapologetically is almost like a middle finger to society. There was something rebellious in her exhibitionism.
There’s also Australian comedian named Celeste Barber that has gained a lot of attention recreating the sexy selfies of celebrities and influencers on Instagram. The intent was to mock the sometimes pretentious or obnoxious ways the photos and captions can be perceived. But it also does come close to recreating a common defense people use against fat phobia which is to attack thinner people, an example would be the statement “the real women have curves”. Her photos and captions can be seen as just a joke, but I also wonder if she actually just wants to show her body but is only comfortable in doing so by playing it off as a joke.
The male gaze and the female nude
In a lot of these discussions about whether a woman or artist is catering to the male gaze, the critiqued women always bring up the fact that it is their choice to sexualize themselves and present in a certain way. But what informs that choice ? And where do these ideas of sexiness come from?
We (women, femme folk) have been shaped to see ourselves the way we think men want to see us. The male gaze (term coined by theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975) is objectifying and so prevalent in our society we adopt it and we began to objectify ourselves. The gaze influences our idea of ourselves. Women learn that their beauty is all important and a means of social currency and can be exploited for actual currency. A beautiful person is rewarded and lack of beauty is punished or ignored. We are taught that beauty is the most valuable thing to self worth. In western society the white heterosexual male lies at the center, the holder of the gaze, the creator of images. Historically, the images that are created are what would appeal to him.
Media in general can trigger shame and self objectification but the creation of social media causes women to not only compare themselves just to faraway celebrities and icons but also normal people, friends, family. Consuming large amounts of objectifying media can cause women and girls to be insecure and men to become more misogynist (psychology today). Both groups can be come desensitized to mistreatment and violence against women.
Within the history of art, the classic female nude is a woman portrayed in a passive position, reclining her body, displaying an invitation to be glared at, the paintings existed for the owner’s (man) pleasure. The viewer goes without critique while the women takes all the examination.
In most images the figure’s gaze is averted, to give the viewer more freedom to look without confrontation. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own. The only acceptable paintings of female nudity were those that captured the idealized figure (hairless, smooth with pale skin) within an unrealistic fantasy. The only aspects of women that are valued within art are those which appeal to male viewers, if not they are excluded.By limiting women to their sexuality they lose their right to humanity. There are more famous female nudes than artists, there are more women as objects than as creators (Halpern & Burns, 2019).
In paintings painted by women, the female subject tends to subvert the gaze. These women have expressions of confidence, knowledge and superiority. The women is actively confronting the viewer, the women do not allow their bodies to be viewed without acknowledgement. To subvert the gaze, the subject is shown as assertive, aware and self possessed rather than passive. The images capture the subject’s whole humanity rather than reducing them to their sexuality.
So, Should I Post That Selfie?
Growing up I heard one story, that claimed sex was bad, leading to pregnancy, STDs, shame, abandonment, trauma and for a lot of women I knew those ideas were based off of lived experience. In my early 20’s, I was exposed to another story, one that claimed women should sexualize themselves publicly, experiment sexually and be promiscuous to be truly liberated.
Both stories are too simplified to be truly helpful. Abstinence and fear doesn’t prepare anyone for a healthy way to explore their sexuality without feeling repressed and shamed. It makes women and girls more vulnerable because they are ignorant about their own needs when they decide they want to have sexual experiences. But blind acceptance of all sex and promiscuous behavior is naive, it ignores that fact that bad things can and do happen. It pretends we live in an equal world that has evolved past women needing to take more precautions (emotionally, psychically and mentally) regarding their image and sex life.
While writing this, I am definitely in a bitter space about society. RBG died last month, Amy Coney Barrett will be sworn in soon. The reproductive rights of women around the world are at stake. The preventative reproductive process was already complicated and expensive and now it will probably get worse. It made me think, Why are women still having sex with men, and catering towards their desires?
Feminist Andrea Dworkin once quoted “Women are the only…. group that shares the bed with their oppressor”. And yes, I know that not all men are misogynistic abusers and that there are some horrible women out there. But every women (and some men!) I know has a story about being violated, harassed, coerced, abused or assaulted by a man. We have to stop ignoring the real threat that misogyny has on the world.
Your strength comes from knowing your own agenda and following it with your intentionality — Bell Hooks
I think that taking nudes or bikini selfies comes down to individual choice. In terms of selfies and self objectification, one solution would be to monitor the images you consume and how they make you feel about yourself and view other people. Sometimes I see a beautiful woman on Insta or Twitter and I’m in awe or amazed. Other times it makes me hate myself, wanting to have a bigger ass, smaller waist, longer limbs. I have to remind myself not to compare myself to the images on the screen and that another women’s beauty is not the absence of my own. I have also had to self reflect and recognize the way I’ve objectified myself and others ,which is not acceptable.
It’s important to be aware that any image on the internet is out there forever and decide if you are ok with anyone being able to view it ( your boss, friends, family, enemies, random pervs) and that anyone can use it for anything (art, advertisements, porn) without your permission. We learned from Emily Ratajkowski that just because the image is of you doesn’t mean it belongs to you. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be seen or wanting validation (who doesn’t want to be seen and desired?) but not to conflate attention with love, respect, support or protection. One’s self esteem should also be supported by more than their looks and being envied or desired by others.
It’s a tricky space to be in when women have a history being objectified, glared at, sexualized, one cannot deny that taking ownership of ones sexuality is powerful and necessary. For a women to take ownership of her image, her beauty and sexuality can be rebellious in a world that wants her to not have any power. For some people, sexualizing themself can allow them to feel more comfortable in their skin and more appreciative of their body.
The problem really isn’t being sexy or being naked, but society’s reaction to it. I want a world in which people aren’t objectified or seen as a simple tools of sexual gratification but as whole individuals where sexuality represents one aspect of their being. A world where sexuality is respected, protected and in appropriate situations instead of demonized, demeaned and controlled.