Is public female nudity empowering? If you’re beautiful, famous, and white, that’s arguably the case. But, as with just about everything concerning modern feminism, the situation is more complicated than that.
Emma Watson’s recent photoshoot for Vanity Fair has sparked another round of discussion on the topic. While the actress’s white crocheted bolero jacket covered the essentials, her outfit was revealing enough to earn her some online criticism. Watson’s response, however, was indicative of how many feel about the power women should have over their own bodies. “It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is,” Watson said of the incident. “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality.”
Fair enough. But it’s worth noting that Watson’s opinion about her own semi-nudity is in stark contrast to her earlier response to a suggestive Beyonce music video: “As I was watching,” she told Wonderland Magazine, “I felt very conflicted, I felt her message was very conflicted in the sense that, on the one hand, she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”
Which begs the question of why it’s empowering for a white woman to display herself suggestively, but it’s “voyeuristic” if a black woman does it…?
It’s nothing new for women to express their power via nudity. In the ’70s, Germaine Greer advocated in The Female Eunuch for a brand of feminism that would allow women to “run, shout, talk loudly, and sit with [their] knees apart.” Greer herself would later pose naked for the “sex newspaper” Suck. The suggestion was that women can control how they present their bodies—the same choice Watson talked about.
But it’s hard to get away from the context in which these photos are being taken. Is Kim Kardashian “breaking the internet” with her bum-baring photo in the Winter 2014 edition of Paper Magazine expressing a form of feminism? Or is it more a reflection of capitalism’s continuing use of the female body to make money?
(Kardashian would go on to make headlines again in 2016 with her nude—but censored—Instagram selfie. And there’s no denying this sort of exposure, pardon the pun, leads to more attention and money for the former reality star).
At least in a financial sense, celebrities benefit from these sorts of behaviors. But that doesn’t necessarily make nude photos a feminist move—particularly not an intersectional feminist one. Because culturally, nude photos are only “empowering” if they’re of certain kinds of people.
For example, Australian activist Danielle Galvin has made it a point of pride and activism to share revealing selfies online. With the mainstream media constantly shoving airbrushed, scantily-clad women in our faces to sell things, Galvin is attempting to reclaim the process and make it something empowering for anyone.
But Galvin, a 23-year-old plus-size woman, is apparently not on the list when it comes to people who are “allowed” to take “empowering” nude photos.
“I am consistently told by society to cover up because my body is not found attractive or sexually exciting to men,” Galvin said.
And posted with a picture of herself holding up an issue of Harper’s Bazaar from 2016: “So my risqué photos on Instagram lately have been labelled trashy, attention seeking, disgusting, classless, and here on Australia’s 2016 Harper’s Bazaar is Miranda Kerr butt-naked….Is nudity and confidence in your body only okay if you are a model who has a professional team behind her?”
Watson and others like her are right that feminism is about women having choices when it comes to their bodies. But that should mean all women, not just white celebrities. And given that we still live in a culture that judges women primarily on their attractiveness to men, those nude photos aren’t happening in a vacuum. Some women may have the choice of deciding how and when to display their bodies and in what context. But most average women don’t.
So if nude photos are “empowering” and “feminist,” it’s only for beautiful, thin, white women. And that doesn’t sound very feminist at all.