A few weeks ago, after the whole Kim Kardashian nude photo internet explosion of 2016, my mother sent me a Facebook message linking to an article about it and asked me what I thought. The article, titled “Dear Kim. Please stop using the term ’empowerment’ when you really mean marketing” is a scathing and sarcastic attack on KK and her selfie by Jacqueline Lunn, who insists:
“Kim’s nude selfies are not about feminism. They are not about liberation or empowerment. They are not about female inclusion.”
I’ve seen any number of angry, hate-filled blog posts skewering Kim as an enemy of feminism, someone who plays into patriarchal ideas of beauty for her own sick enjoyment and monetary rewards, so I was familiar with the whole cycle already. Feminist sees skinny, surgically enhanced woman, is unable to acknowledge the latent internalized misogyny within themselves, begins to hate the skinny woman, and begins to loudly and publicly bash the woman. Rinse and repeat.
Knowing that my mother has an intense hatred for all things Kardashian, I approached the situation cautiously because I wanted to avoid another drawn out argument about what it means to be empowered. What followed, however, was actually a really constructive conversation where I felt we really go to the heart of what makes me so angry about all these people attacking a woman for something so insignificant and harmless as a nude photo.
First of all, I don’t believe any woman can call herself a feminist and then go about dictating who is and isn’t empowered. I have unfriended numerous friends on Facebook for this offense, and will continue to do so. You think Beyonce is a ‘puppet of the patriarchy’ and is ‘destroying feminism’ one booty shake at a time? I think she’s so upset about that that she may have to cancel her weekly private jet flight to dinner with the Obamas. You think Britney ‘destroyed the body image of a generation of girls’? I think she taught us just how to tell the patriarchy to suck it by owning our sexuality and knowing when to say ‘enough’ (see her 2007 head-shaving ‘breakdown’, which I very strongly identify with personally).
What is empowerment really? The thing about empowerment is: it’s a feeling. A feeling that people experience. And that experience may vary vastly from person to person. And the thing about feminism, true modern intersectional feminism, is that a lot of it is about acknowledging the experience of others and accepting it as their truth. For example, we may recognise that a trans*woman has a very different experience of being a woman than a cis woman, but we still see her woman experience as a valid part of the discussion. We recognise her truth. So when a woman tells me that she feels empowerment my role, as feminist, fellow woman, and fellow human being, is not to shout her down publicly and accuse her of not knowing what empowerment is. She has just told me what it is. For her. My role is to applaud her, to feel joy that one of my sisters has had a fulfilling and empowering experience.
For some women, a naked photo of themselves on the internet might be the worst case scenario, something they have nightmares about. It might be the absolute opposite of empowerment in every way. We’ve seen this with the celebrity nude photo leaks which put celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence in the spotlight. Why was this so bad? It was because those women had not chosen to release those photos. They had no agency in the situation because the choice was taken away by someone else, someone who wanted to commodify those images of their bodies and use them for some kind of personal or social gain. That is not empowerment, that is the oppression of women’s bodies by the patriarchy in action.
Kim K, however, has all the agency in her own nude selfie situation. It’s not like someone hacked her phone and posted those photos without her permission; she runs (or at least as access to) her own Instagram account. She picked that photo, chose a filter, wrote a description, and hit upload. The whole thing was very deliberate. Kim decided that this was empowering to her, that she felt good about her body (which she has both worked very hard for and paid a lot of money for), and that she was comfortable sharing this moment with the world. No one forced her. Unlike what Jacqueline Lunn seems to believe, Kim really doesn’t need to market herself that much anymore. I can’t scroll through my Facebook or Twitter feed for even a day without seeing one of her pictures, posts, family members, or app advertisements. And I don’t follow any of them on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. She is just there.
So let’s look at some of what Lunn has to say about the topless pic that Kim took with another celebrity and model:
“They have had $100,000s of dollars invested into the way they look (from cosmetic and surgical procedures to stylists, clothes, hair, eyebrows, everything and anything). And the way they look is largely dictated to by what men find attractive. So all that control over their bodies? Men are pulling the levers at the very start of the chain. They have personal trainers and dietitians, they starve their bodies and pump certain parts up, maybe because it makes them feel good, but most probably because their bodies need to look a certain way so they can market themselves and earn more money.”
Where are these mysterious men, ‘pulling the chains’ and dictating what Kim must look like? I’ve never seen them. I’ve watched Kim’s show and it seems to me there are very few men involved in the daily lives of these women. That probably has a lot to do with how much richer and more powerful they are than most men. Do men find this look, and only this look, to be attractive? I doubt it, because I don’t know many women who look like this and yet they all still manage to find dates. And these women have paid for their own personal trainers and dietitians. As the old addage goes, they have decided that the way their bodies look and feel is better than the way junk food and sitting around on the couch feels (no judgement by the way, I happen to have chosen junk food and sweatpants and I have never regretted this decision). That was their decision. I find the idea that they ‘need to look a certain way’ in order to keep making money to be an absurd reversal of what’s happening here; they don’t need to look that way to make money, they have made their money by looking that way. Rather than attacking a woman for making it by playing the game, why not attack the game itself?
Finally, let’s talk about Kim Kardashian’s body and her significance in pop culture. Let’s not forget that she originally achieved notoriety because someone released a sex tape featuring her without her permission. So not only is her fame based on her body from the beginning, but this isn’t even the first time (or worst time) we have seen her naked. you can still, through a quick Google search, watch her having sex (please don’t, though). Her body has been the main attraction here since day one. And, since day one, there have been people, like Lunn, attacking her for using this body (a body which belongs solely to her) to make money. Their internalised misogyny, coupled with an ingrained (and incorrect) disgust and blame for sex workers, has interpreted this as a kind of public prostitution, and this has resulted in some very high-minded pearl-clutching and slut-shaming. As my mother always says ‘Women are our own worse enemies’. So we talk and talk about her body, about how and why it’s hot, about how she’s a ‘slut’, about how her body is hurting women just by existing, and just maybe she gets a little fed up with this. So she goes in her bathroom and takes naked selfie and posts it on social media. ‘Here it is,’ she cries. ‘Here’s this thing you’ve all been talking about. You asked about it, you wanted it, here you go.’ Much like Britney’s 2007 head-shaving incident, I read this as her taking back the conversation. It’s like saying ‘You see this thing you like so much? This thing you’re always talking about? Well, this belongs to me. It’s mine, and I choose when and where and how it is shared.’
We talk about her body, wonder about it, write blog posts about it, consume it, criticise it, politicize it, censor it, hate it, strive for it. But the second she does something that indicates ownership of it, something that says ‘This is mine and you are merely a consumer’, we get angry. Why? Because at our very cores, many of us, male and female, are still deeply threatened by a woman claiming ownership of her body and her sexuality. And god forbid she then claim that it is empowerment. Oh no. #NotMyEmpowerment. This cannot be.
So let’s clear up a few things. Yes, she is using her body for marketing. This is true. But is this inherently bad? Only if you believe that between the prostitute and the john that the former is the only one committing a crime. Yes, she has surgically enhanced, photoshopped, and trained her body into that shape. Is this a horrible crime? Not really. We’re all aware that photoshop and plastic surgery exist. She is in no way saying ‘Everyone should like like me’, she is merely saying ‘This is me’. It’s her body, and I believe she has a right to do with it what she wants. Her body is not a judgement or an accusation. To read it as such is the fault of the reader, not the owner of the body. This is how she has chosen to look, she has spent her own money and time doing it, she has not stolen from or accused anyone. And back to what Lunn says about it not being ‘female inclusion’ – what ever that’s supposed to mean: Kim is under no obligation to make you feel included when she shares her own body. This is her, and you are not entitled to be part of her equation.
Think for a second about if this nude selfie came from an overweight woman, a woman with no plastic surgery or makeup, who claimed that it was empowering for her. Sure, she would receive a lot of hate from the misogynistic internet-comment-hivebrain, but I tend to think these bloggers who hate Kim K so much would jump to this woman’s defense. They would write articles celebrating the empowerment inherent in sharing a body deemed by society to be less attractive and less worthy. And I would be celebrating with them. But a small part of me would want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and yell ‘Is she not a woman too? Isn’t Kim Kardashian a woman too?’. You can’t claim to be a feminist who stands up for women if you get to pick and choose which women you stand up for. You can’t validate the experience of one woman at the expense of another. When we spend all of our time bashing other women and their choices, deciding whether they are suitably ’empowering’, we ignore the real problem. It is in the interest of an oppressive, sexist culture to have us spend all of our time fighting each other rather than trying to understand and attack the root problems. We need feminism to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
Maybe I’m just an unusually permissive and accepting feminist, but I believe that Kim’s selfie was an empowering act simply because she said she felt empowered. That’s enough for me. She isn’t being exploited, she has agency, she chose what she shared and when she shared it. I don’t care if you’re a stripper escort who spends all her money on plastic surgery, makeup, clothes, and billboards where you post nude photos of yourself, as long as it was your decision and you are being paid fairly for what ever work you do. And if you say ‘This is empowering. This makes me feel strong and empowered’ it is not my place, as a person or as a feminist, to tell you otherwise.