Is female nudity as empowering as it is powerful?
Who doesn't love a good debate about female nudity and body image in pop culture and societal expectations of gender performance and appearance. Will the naked female body ever be free? Is stripping off the ultimate expression of a woman’s liberation? Or will her bare body always be subject to sexual objectification?
But can we blame her? Humans are all about sexual display. If we are more developed than the peacock it is only in the variety of different ways we exhibit ourselves. Pretending otherwise is delusional, it’s fundamental to our social nature.
An advocate of a nova movement, in which women should be empowered to celebrate their bodies, argues that nudity and revealing representations are a sign of liberation, both sexual and personal.
It’s not liberation, the opponent will argue. It is women doing what they have to do to survive in patriarchal hierarchies. It’s women giving in to structures that have long objectified them, and required from them unachievable standards of beauty while driving some to perpetual dissatisfaction and self-esteem.
In 1971, there seemed nothing contradictory in Germaine Greer’s idea of freedom where a woman might claim both the right to expose herself and the right to mock the dominant ways in which women’s bodies were exposed. That year Greer had posed naked for the self-styled ‘sex newspaper’ Suck.
As the various ways, means and ends of undressing in public proliferate, the relationship of the naked female form to ideas of freedom, power and politics has become more entangled and unclear.
The empowerment an individual feels in relation to nudity is largely tied to the degree of control the individual feels they have over it, say psychologists. For example: The 2014 winter cover of Paper magazine, where Kim Kardashian West’s bum ‘broke the internet’, displayed suspiciously voluptuous but apparently unaugmented curves revealing the glossy, oiled back and the rounded cleft of her buttocks. That marked the onset of reality TV stars such as her creating their own multimillion-dollar empires on the emboldened enterprise of exposure.
Women’s bodies have long been machines of capitalism; but now that machine is driven by the glossy, toned and tanned bodies of miscellaneous sex tapes, swimwear shoots and near-naked selfies. Perhaps this is only feminism happily squared with free market economics. But can the naked female form really claim to be free from the exploitative and unequal logic of capitalism?
Doesn't the image of a Kardashian popping a magnum of Champagne with reams of pearls wound tightly around her neck suggest unimaginable riches? Hint. Hint. Does it not remind us of the tight bond between sex and money, and how ineffectively feminism has fought it?
In our tired culture of dignified rights and intelligent outrage, there is an assertive and incontrovertible truth claimed by the naked female form. Perhaps that’s why we rally against censoring images of breastfeeding mums and counsel our daughters to feel body-confident. Yet, in a commercial culture in which women are relentlessly reduced to bodies, rather than voices, overwhelming sexualised and commodified, prized for their adherence to narrowed beauty ideals, the challenge of modern feminism is to find inventive ways of reframing the body to better express the complexity and diversity of women.
When will we trust in the powerful, provocative and intelligent ways we can describe our bodies without having to bare them? Isn't it obvious that in this bare-assed bravado there is uninhibited confidence?
The exercise of power through sexual proscription is nothing new but it’s gratifying to see “feminists” proving they can do that just as well as any patriarch.
In conclusion, there is no way for a person to prevent others (or even themselves) from viewing their bodies sexually. And why not? Sexuality can be a beautiful, and powerful expression of love.
The body, male or female, cannot be free of objectification because it is merely an object. Of course, we are not reducible to our bodies; the problems begin when we or others reduce ourselves to being only our bodies. That is the irony. Our bodies are merely our temporary possessions, not “ourselves”.