Kim Kardashian, apparently not satisfied with “breaking the internet” once, has managed to do it again. It all started with a picture of her posing naked in front of a mirror, iPhone in hand, with two small black boxes covering the more explicit parts.
“Kim Kardashian tweeted a nude selfie today,” tweeted Bette Midler in response. “If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen, she’s gonna have to swallow the camera.” Fair enough, you might think. There’s no denying we’ve seen a lot of Kim.
Predictably, things quickly escalated. Actor Chloe Grace Moretz waded in with her own perspective on the situation: “I truly hope you realise how important setting goals [is] for young women, teaching them we have so much more to offer than just our bodies.” In response, and just in time for International Women’s Day, Kim-K posted another naked selfie (this time in black and white) under the hashtag #liberated.
Can a naked selfie ever exist objectively? Or must it always be proof of liberation, or empowering, or bad for feminism, or a threat to the goals of young girls? Is it really, as Piers Morgan suggested in the Daily Mail, time for Kardashian to put down the iPhone now she’s rich, successful, 35 years old and the mother of two children? “Kim [should] consider the unthinkable and put her clothes back on,” he wrote, in a column that suggested Kardashian could be a “more powerful role model ... to her own daughter” if she stopped “flashing [her] naked flesh in tweets to the gawping, salivating world”.
It is interesting that such a busy and accomplished media mogul such as Morgan would want to wade in on a debate about a socialite’s picture taken on a smartphone in her bedroom. Are women’s selfies really that notable, that interesting, that dangerous?
I celebrated International Women’s Day in a slightly different way, with a dinner at the Swedish Embassy in London. I was invited by Sweden’s Minister for Culture and Democracy, as part of a group of women from the UK media, politics and activism, to join a conversation about feminist progress. And one of the more surprising topics of conversation was celebrity selfies.
Celebrity journalists who used to rely on paparazzi pictures and exclusives sold by publicists are now having their jobs usurped by the subjects themselves. Images of female celebs, once deployed as front-page cannon fodder for merciless verbal ravaging (“Sweaty Jen won’t be wearing that dress again!”; “Lean Lisa has clearly been working on shifting that baby weight – but her boobs show the sad toll taken by breastfeeding”) are now more abundant than ever before – but most of them appear on Instagram accounts with millions of followers, and managed by the celebrities themselves.
When magazines ignore this fact, the consequences can be severe: consider the fall-out between Lena Dunham and Spanish magazine Tentaciones last week when she called them out on her Instagram account for using a retouched image of her on their front page. Tentaciones pointed out that they had actually purchased the image through the media agency Corbis and had nothing to do with the airbrushed thighs and slimmed down stomach in the photograph. Dunham’s apology for getting it wrong was telling: “I’m not blaming anyone (y’know, except society at large.) I have a long and complicated history with retouching. I wanna live in this wild world and play the game and get my work seen, and I also want to be honest about who I am and what I stand for.”
Women’s bodies have never simply been tools for exploring the world, the way men’s are allowed to be. Instead, we’re always encouraged to look inward while interacting: check whether you’re in the same league as the guy you’re interested in; make yourself pretty (but not slutty) for the job interview; consider whether the reason your sister hates you is because you’re the good-looking one, or the uglier of the two. To state that women’s bodies are political objects is nothing new.
We used to hit back at this idea. A lot of time was spent attempting to de-politicise women’s bodies, to make them neutral spaces. But now it seems the pendulum has swung the other way. Women have accepted their bodies have to “mean something”, and if so, they at least want control over the definition. If you’re Dunham, Kardashian or any other public female face, “what you stand for” has become inextricably intertwined with what you look like.
For Dunham, this drive to control her image manifests itself in picture after picture of unedited muffin tops, double chins, unconcealed acne and bikini shots under deliberately unflattering lighting. One of her recent Instagram shots juxtaposes her face with a picture of the baby Grinch, commenting on the similarities.
For Kardashian, unabashed sexuality is the theme. This is a woman who has made her bum an instantly recognisable feature in its own right; I can confidently say that I could pick that woman’s glorious backside out of a line-up. Her nipples covered with tape pre-catwalk, her bum squeezed into latex with Kanye’s hand resting on top, her completely nude pregnant body under muted lighting – it’s all there for the viewing. She’s served it up exactly as she wants you to consume it.
And this is where the rage comes from, the journalistic foot-stamping of Morgan and the mocking cries about “duckface”, “sausage legs” and “the clichéd sexy bathroom selfie” (see: All Women’s Talk’s list of “7 Embarrassing Selfies to Avoid at All Costs” or Who What Wear’s article on “5 Fashion-Girl Instagram Clichés That Are Ready To Be Retired”.) Teenage girls with good filters, Kim-K in her bedroom and Dunham in her high-waisted bikini are deciding how you’re going to see them. They’re saying it all before anyone else gets the chance to.
It might be putting paps out of jobs and upsetting viewers who are used to using femininity in a certain, modest, self-effacing way (until there’s an “embarrassing slip-up” useful for blackmail or a particularly cruel feature). But really, isn’t that the point?
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