Feminism & Female Nudity: The Conversation About Choice That Needs To Be Had, Sans Judgement

It was the image that set the interwebs ablaze with comments about feminism, nudity, choice, sexualization, and hypocrisy. How on EARTH could avowed feminist Emma Watson pose nearly nude for Vanity Fair magazine, yet still maintain her steadfast feminism which she has displayed so much of over the past few years?

In a press interview about her latest film ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Emma was asked about the photo and her exasperated answer was a much-needed addition to the growing conversation about the correlation between women’s sexuality and the feminist movement today.

“It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is of what feminism is. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing,” she told Reuters.

Long-time feminist activist and author Gloria Steinem was confronted by TMZ camera crews recently and asked about the image, in a sort-of “gotcha” style question. Her answer was particularly blunt, if not straightforward.

“Can feminists wear sexy outfits?” the TMZ reporter asked her.

“Feminists can wear anything they f***ing want,” she said, before adding that many people “have an incomplete idea of who [feminists] are.”

We are experiencing a new era of feminism which is focused on intersectionality, racism, immigration, the advocacy of LGBTQ people, and yes, women’s bodies. The sexual awakening happening today is very different to that of the 70’s, as it goes beyond just the knowledge of women being able to decide when they want to have sex. Today’s version comes with the attachment of media representation, the politics of how certain policies pertaining to reproductive rights have been centered around controlling women’s sexuality, and how societal objectification can be linked to certain types of violence.

But there is a lot to be said for healthy discussions about women owning their own sexuality, the spaces they choose to occupy with their bodies, and calling out harmful messages that the Free The Nipple movement is exposing. The fine line appears, for many, when a woman appears in a media publication that is typically made for the male gaze, and slaps on a convenient message about feminism to make it seem all the more palatable to women.

Refinery29’s Elena Nicolaou wrote a great response to ‘Harry Potter’ actress Scarlett Byrne’s feminist piece in Playboy magazine. Scarlett is engaged to Hugh Hefner’s son Cooper, and was featured in a recent issue of the magazine alongside her op-ed, titled ‘The Feminist Mystique’ which is a direct reference to pioneer American second wave feminist author Betty Friedan’s book ‘The Feminine Mystique’.

While discussions around women’s sexuality and nudity are an important part of how we reframe women’s autonomy in our culture, what Elena Nicolaou took issue with was the platform and execution of the message.

“But here’s where the situation’s natural paradox arises: Byrne is posing in Playboy Magazine. Adjacent to her photoshoot in the print magazine are multiple other nude photoshoots featuring women who have written no manifesto. These women aren’t being feminists so much as they’re being sexualized,” she wrote.

“Scarlett Byrne wanted to free her nipple, but nipples were never locked up in Playboy. Had a topless model appeared in a magazine with primarily female readership — take Elle or Vogue or Vanity Fair — that may have opened up a dialogue regarding women’s expressions of their body. But sandwiched between many equally nude photoshoots in a magazine read by men, I don’t see how her message of body positivity and sexual liberation will be heard by the people who need to hear it: other women,” she concluded.

Similarly, a website we are very fond of, Beauty Redefined, had a rather indepth and comprehensive analysis of another male-driven magazine publishing a similar op-ed. Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Edition published a feminist essay from plus size model Myla Dalbesio, who was featured in the issue along with Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. Beauty Redefined writers Lindsay Kite, PhD, and Lexie Kite, PhD, explained that although we see it as a huge sign of progress for women outside the typically-defined beauty standards to be featured in such a bastion of male gaze media, we have to look a little deeper than simply what we see on the surface.

The piece titled ‘Stop Cheering for the Objectification of More Women’, says featuring a few athletes and plus size models is not “progress”, because women have ALWAYS been valued for their bodies.

“If you want women to be valued as equals to men, you do not cheer for their objectification — no matter what those women look like. The sexual objectification of people reduces humans to body parts, silences them, turns them into objects to be viewed and consumed, vessels for sexual pleasure, and less than fully human. If you care about women as more than bodies to be ogled, stop pretending like mainstream media allowing more body types to be objectified is progressive. Or empowering. Or healthy. Or body positive. It’s not. Individually and collectively, women’s progress is damaged by being valued as bodies alone,” write the authors.

At the core of women’s oppression is the objectification of our bodies, and it is one end of the spectrum which includes domestic violence, trafficking, mutilation, murder, and not being taken seriously as autonomous human beings on the other, they argue.

“As long as women are sexual objects first, and all of the rest of their humanity is secondary, they will never be on equal footing with men…As if seeing more and different undressed bodies will reduce this world’s obsession with valuing women as bodies above all else. As if seeing more bodies could ever convince women they are more than bodies,” adding that the representations we see in Sports Illustrated should not be our barometer for women’s advancement.

But before you start thinking they are objecting to body positivity or self-empowering, they are not. What they want to do is challenge and encourage readers to think deeper about what constitutes female empowerment. How does a sexualized plus size body, versus a straight size model, on the page of a magazine make a point of differentiation in how women should be treated?

This is not just about women choosing to be featured in a photo shoot. That is not the problem, as we have clearly seen in Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair shoot. Guardian writer Emine Saner talks about the same issue as Beauty Redefined, by using a quote from feminist author and Bitch Magazine founder Andy Zeisler, who once said, “Not everything a feminist does is a feminist act.”

There is nothing wrong with Myla Dalbesio choosing to pose in Sports Illustrated as her chosen career is modeling. Perhaps the greater discussion here is where the line should be drawn in what we describe as “feminist”. In her feminist essay, Myla does address the accusations of allowing herself to play a part in the continual sexualization.

“It’s hard to hear someone say that I am being objectified by participating in things like the Swimsuit issue. It feels insulting, implying that I am somehow being taken advantage of, that I am not empowered in my own decisions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I embrace my body and celebrate it, and for me that is what this issue represents. When I strip down and roll around in the sand, I’m not doing it for men, I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it because I worked for a decade to get here, went through countless trials and tribulations over my body image, and now I am proud to represent women my size,” she said, and she is absolutely right about being a representative of the change we are seeing in fashion and beauty, which is slowly starting to include more body types (but still has a long way to go.)

Her essay includes some personal information on meeting the woman who is now in charge of the Swimsuit Edition, MJ Day, who has vowed to ensure they are part of the change and including more diverse women in their pages.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this ongoing issue, however we are incredibly thankful that these conversations are being had on a more regular basis. That critical thinking and engaging analysis about women’s representation in mainstream media, and how their sexuality comes into play, is becoming less and less taboo.

Feminism today is absolutely about embracing women’s choices, yet there is still an important distinction to be made, especially for women in the public eye. It also MUST be intersectional. Acknowledgment of the blatant double standards often placed on women of color, which are not always present for white women, are very real. Nicki Minaj has famously talked about this in relation to her ‘Anaconda’ album cover which featured her squatting in a thong which was criticized and slammed by many, and a Sports Illustrated cover with three white models in g-string bikinis with their backsides facing camera which was deemed “acceptable” by the media.

The long history of white women’s bodies more readily being seen as acceptable tools of sexuality compared to women of color is another vital thread of conversation in this topic. Is the choice to display or use their sexuality for the benefit and advancement of women’s rights and justice issues, or is it simply playing into the status quo? How do we examine our perspectives based on the biases we are taught about bodies of different color, abilities, sexual orientation, age, etc? We know this will not be the last time we write about this, as there are many opinions and perspectives. Above all, let’s keep this discussion going and continue fighting for more equality for all women.

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