I was very fortunate in my youth to be exposed to all manner of art. My formative years are littered with memories of visiting art galleries, flipping through coffee table books, and having and extensive collection of prints of famous paintings in my home. More often than not, many of these works included the image of a naked or partially nude woman.
This exposure, I would argue, created a foundational understanding that nakedness was just not a big deal. Women are beautiful right? What’s wrong at showing them in their all their glorious forms?
But then I took a second look. What I began to see around me were images of women, as naked, sexualized, timid, blaze, daring, as objects… and all from the perspective of men. When I entered university I learned the term “male gaze” and suddenly a door was opened in my mind about the way I looked and what I was seeing. How is it that it’s Hokusai who gets to show us a woman’s desire? Why is it just Courbet who has the authority to determine the origin of the world with a faceless vagina? Is it just Titian who is privy to the casual erotic moments of a woman’s life?
I’m certainly not the first one to point out that a disproportional amount of infamous art is by men, and more often than not they used the naked woman as subject.
In no way am I saying that this makes these works any less culturally and artistically valid; similar to the Bechdal test, it doesn’t negate quality, but rather helps to articulate something often missing in popular culture, the depth of women’s stories and how women are represented (don’t even get me started about women of colour on this one).
When the emotionally raw and ever-dramatic phase of puberty sucker punched me right in the uterus, I used to study myself the mirror and wonder who would ever want me. Stretch marks decorated the space surrounding my nipples on breasts, that at sixteen, I already thought of as “droopy”, I had a tummy, and my hips made me feel like one of those signs for the “Ladies Room.”
I would weep thinking that they made me ugly and undesirable. It wasn’t that I hated my body per se, it was that I hated the things that other people (specifically men) would hate about my body. Where did I get these thoughts? I had never been naked in front of any boy. I had barely kissed one. But yet the idea was there, and I had internalized the way of thinking about myself that is all-too familiar and way-too pervasive in Western culture.
It took a long time to stop looking at myself this way. It’s undeniable that as a sexual being I want to be wanted; however, I have found an overwhelming strength, power, and confidence in looking at my own body as me for me. I still have my bad days, but good days are when I can calmly meditate on the fact that I am the only person in this world that lives in my body and loving it is the best thing I can ever do for it.
This leads me to Kim Kardashian.
If Beyonce is the Queen of pop culture, than surely Kim Kardashian is a Duchess of some kind. One literally cannot be on the Internet without a mention of her name, or a photo of her.
I’m not a “fan”, but like I mentioned, she is everywhere. So when she released a naked selfie this past week, with a couple strategically placed black bars over her “naughtier” bits, she had my attention.
Mrs. Kardashian West made an undeniable splash in the waters that separate the second and third wave feminists. Finding myself on the tip of this tidal, I was slightly amused, yet somewhat disappointed when Bette Middler went after Kim.
It’s a low-blow joke, but it’s also a sign of the times. When are women allowed to be happy about their own bodies? Isn’t it feminist to let women express themselves how they please? What’s so wrong about Kim flaunting her post-baby curves? She is giving us permission, isn’t she? Again, we saw two women “going at it” in the media.
Some more internet-talkies went after her stating she should be ashamed of this photo because she is a mother. And you know, mom’s can’t be happy with their bodies, right? Get your elastic-waisted jeans and polo shirt out Kim!
What is it that irks us so? If we are fine with works of art where a woman’s naked form is exposed, or even in the act of experiencing pleasure—what is so different about a photograph of a woman arguably famous solely because of her beauty and sexuality?
I am not—for this argument’s sake—trying to suggest that Kim Kardashian is an “artist” in the sense that we have of it now. However, I cannot deny that she is an influential individual.
I know we can all see the double standards. I can sit here and make the comparisons between the reaction Justin Beiber’s naked guitar pic, or the “candid” photos of Tom Hardy’s ass released on the internet. Neither of these images stirred or spurred a sense of repulsion or shame. It’s so obvious it almost physically hurts, and it’s a symptom of the patriarchy. But let me take this one step further: I wonder if the same photo of Kim, black bars and all, was posted not as a selfie but as a photo taken of her by Kanye. What if instead of her husband posted a photo that celebrated how beautiful his wife is?
We are accustomed to seeing women’s bodies through the eyes of men, and whether you think it’s senseless vanity from a narcissistic figure of vapid consumer culture: Kim Kardashian’s photos are of her by her.
Like Manet’s bravely staring and ever-controversial Olympia, this image gathers crowds that argue, “How dare she?” Kim’s selfies are a harbinger for a time where the feminist ethos of equality and body freedom can be digested, perpetrated, and enacted by all kinds of women in any way they want. To reveal or to cover; to parade or show modesty; to wear hair long or short; to tattoo or pierce; as femme or butch as you want; as inside or outside of prescriptive gender; showing one’s nipples!; all of these actions will at the hands of the bodies they are attached to, without the threat of shame, judgement, or even violence.
In my opinion, Kim Kardashian is a ridiculous person. A ridiculous person who has a ridiculous amount of power over popular opinion, and instead of working against her or trying to tear her down because she wants us all to know how great she looks, I’d rather take that message for what it’s worth and internalize the feeling that it’s okay to have pride in your body.
I can take or leave the culture she stands for, but if she’s going to keep on breaking into my Internet, I may as well take something positive from this whole experience.
If not complicated, then complex, my reaction to Kim’s selfies are a way to have a conversation about who and when women are allowed to feel good about their bodies. I can’t defend anything else about the Kardashians, but what I will say, as a feminist and lover of freedom is: You Go Girl.