Pictures of naked ladies go back at least as far as cave paintings (and probably before then, too). And although the style and standard of beauty may have changed over the millennia, the basic portrayal of butts and boobs has remained a constant. People have been using women’s bodies as art, titillation, propaganda, pornography and, my personal favorite, ad campaigns for many, many years.
There’s this new idea that a woman should want to take sexy selfies or pose nude as a way to “empower” other women. Nude, sexy pictures in advertising are many things — and if you enjoy taking them, then more power to you — but they aren’t empowerment propaganda for everyone.
A few years ago, I was contacted by a friend of a friend through Facebook who was putting together a retro ’50s style photo shoot and asked if I would model. (For the record, I’m not a model, just a girl who collects vintage clothing and loves playing dress up.) I was flattered and immediately said yes.
On the day of the shoot, I showed up with many options of nipped-waist dresses, kitten heels, soft sweaters and red lipstick. The photographer quickly narrowed it down to… the heels and the lipstick. When I balked, the photog pulled out this standard line: “Don’t worry. It will feel so empowering! This will be so inspiring for women!”
“How?” I asked. And this is where I should tell you that the photographer was a woman. She stopped for a second, seemingly confused that I didn’t agree that flaunting my body was the highest order of feminism.
It seemed to me that taking off my clothing and posing provocatively is a) great for (straight) men and business and b) the opposite of powerful.
Miranda Kerr, supermodel and Victoria’s Secret Angel extraordinaire, made headlines not long ago when she posed in the buff for the cover of Australia’s Harper’s Bazaar and stores yanked all of the copies off the shelves after people complained about her provocative picture.
Defending the cover, Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Kellie Hush released a statement saying the image was “artistic” and “empowering” to all women:
“We’re now living in an era of Victoria Secret Angels, stolen nude photos and attempts to break the Internet with reality stars in provocative poses,” Hush said. “Harper’s Bazaar has long celebrated the daring woman — someone with vision, commitment, style — and a total lack of fear. Miranda may be naked, but she’s a trailblazer, and this cover celebrates this.”
I respect Kerr’s right to pose however she chooses, and I understand the magazine’s drive to make money, but my eyes rolled back into my head so hard when I read this that you could hear them clink. A young, pretty, thin, white lady posing sexy blazes trails for… whom exactly? Other pretty, thin, white ladies posing sexy. That trail is so blazed it’s practically a 16-lane superhighway. So naked! Much brave! (I would like to point out that it wasn’t Kerr saying these things, just the magazine trying to sell product off her bare back.)
I have seen beautiful nude images of women that are incredibly powerful. They just generally aren’t the ones selling things. They’re images such as those on The Shape of a Mother — the ones taken for us, by us. The ones that show the beauty and raw power of women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages doing the things that only women can do.
There’s a real danger in teaching girls and women that the best, or only, source of our feminine power is our sexuality. Because that depends on other people finding us sexy, which gives away our power. Telling someone to take off her clothes is not the ultimate compliment, and it’s this narrow definition of power that has people questioning whether Hillary Clinton is hot enough to be president of the United States.
We are so, so much more than our possession or lack of conventional beauty. We are sisters, mothers, daughters, lovers, friends and caretakers. We are engineers, presidents, homemakers, astronauts and chefs. We are tall and short; brown, black and white; fat and thin; old and young. We are amazing creatures, and it’s those images of women — naked or clothed — that are trailblazing and empowering.