The Rise Of The Nude Selfie, Empowering Or Exploitative?

Is a peachy bottom and a lace wedgie really the most effective vessel to get across a feminist message?

At the risk of sounding like a prude, my Instagram feed has been commandeered by boobs and bums. I imagine this is partly due to the number of swimwear brands and ‘Insta models’ I follow, but let’s face it, the proliferation of the (almost) nude selfie is undeniable. ‘Booty shots’ and naked bodies (which almost always speak of porny ideals) are more commonplace on Instagram than practically anything else.

I have been pondering when this ‘trend’ really kicked off, when did regular girls blessed with amazing bodies start posing with their arses out on a daily basis? These shots aren’t part of a campaign or for a magazine feature. They’re not professionally taken so they *probably* can’t be considered ‘art.’ Models are often expected to shed their clothing for campaigns, but young women are now shedding their clothes outside of that context, and regularly.

My immediate thought landed on the infamous Emily Ratajowski – queen of the nude selfie. Emily plays something of a central role in this discussion, not just because she regularly poses nude or semi-nude for her Instagram audience, but because she is a passionate advocate for women owning, exploring and presenting their sexualities as a form of empowerment. She argues, quite rightly, that women can be serious and sexual.

I’m not completely sold though. By that I mean, is Emily using ‘feminism’ as a way to justify her choices? Is it really empowering for women to see Emily and women like her nude on a very regular basis? Or is it just a flimsy excuse to show off?

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There’s little, if any, doubt in my mind that these beautiful, young girls feel empowered when sharing naked/half-naked pictures of themselves. It’s their body, their choice. And also: their context, their social media account, their intention, their caption. The fact that models and Insta-stars have more control over how they are portrayed in the public eye, in a world where images of women have typically been dictated by powerful, white men, can only be a good thing – at least, a step in the right direction.

So when Emily says she is motivated by feminism, I believe her. Should she, and others, have to play down their assets because their bodies are what (heterosexual) male dreams are made of? Absolutely not. But let’s speak frankly here, for the sake of a meaningful and honest discourse: is a peachy bottom and a lace wedgie really the most effective vessel to get across a feminist message?

It’s all well and good to say that feminism in 2017 should allow women to take photos of themselves posing in the nude and also be taken seriously. That’s the easy part. But in practice, when we consume these images, we rarely, if ever, consider the context. Does a news feed full of booties and boobies (excuse the terms) inspire us to think ‘gosh, what a powerful feminist message, how empowering’, or are we really just seeing a fantastic bottom that buys into the same old stereotypes and power structures of gender politics?

If I’m honest, I see the latter. And I don’t, at all, feel empowered by Emily et al’s nudie posts. That said, I’m not suggesting they should stop posting them lest,  god forbid, some of us might not feel empowered and end up feeling a little ‘less than’. It is not Emily’s or any woman’s ‘job’ to consider everything they do in light of how it affects women worldwide. Nor is it their job to censor what the young see and take in either. That responsibility, dare I say, is down to the parents and carers. But women like Emily have huge platforms across social media, their decisions are rarely contained to just their own choices, rather, they have far-reaching impacts.

Finally back with baby @maxstatham_

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Choice is an apt word here, it’s the word so much of the feminist debate hinges on. After all, feminism is about being free of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts,’ about having the luxury of choice. Taking that argument then, if women choose to flaunt their bodies through their own lens, on their own platform, can we really criticise them for it?

I don’t think we can. Yet, on the other hand, I feel strongly that when women speak of ’empowerment,’ there should be an element of making womenkind feel good and empowered, not just oneself regardless of how that makes others feel. If we want to feel empowered as women, there needs to be more emphasis on lifting each other up, not merely being out for personal gain or fame.

Regardless of intent, in practice, these sexualised images only add to the system that continues to oppress women. The choice to predominantly (if not exclusively in some cases) present oneself via the lens of the male gaze – attractive, non-threatening, sexually open – is not making other women feel great, it’s boosting misogyny.

It’s almost like there’s some dirty mastermind sitting atop the patriarchy headquarters guffawing in glee whilst thinking ‘Bingo! These new wave feminists that say nudity is a feminist act have fallen for my scheming!’ Of course there isn’t, but the picture is clear: a nude selfie posted on Instagram buys into a society where women are encouraged to present themselves sexually, for the pleasure of what men find attractive. It’s worth noting here that this self is almost always a size 6 model with a peachy bottom and larger than average boobs – because god forbid we have size 16 girls projecting themselves all over the internet…

knew you were watching

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These images do nothing to challenge the stereotypes that dictate what a woman should and should not look like. They don’t offer any insight into the kinds of women that post them, they don’t depict the women as interested, involved, complex, talented or even powerful. Perhaps they’re not supposed to? If all they’re offering is confirmation of male ideas of women, I don’t think we can argue that they are empowering for women. By playing into the hands of a very exclusive set of ideals, they are potentially damaging for the rest of society.

Then there’s the bigger, thornier issue. Why do women feel the need to present themselves in this manner? Is it really a choice or just another type of induced pressure? There’s no doubt that the nude selfie has created a copy-cat culture of young girls posting this sort of image. This would suggest that yes, women and girls do feel a pressure to act in a certain way online. There would, I think, be less of an issue if all body types were revered as beautiful and available for consumption, in the way the Victoria’s Secret ideal is. Perhaps bodies that break the ‘mould’ of the Kate Upton-esque look would be more empowering – for both the owner and the consumer. The reality, however, is that every image we see conforms to the airbrushed, swimsuit ideal, which confirms that yes, there is absolutely pressure to look a specific way too. This pressure slightly negates the idea of choice, don’t you think?


A post shared by Alexis Ren (@alexisren) on

All of this is not to say you cannot serve up your nudity for the pleasure of the public and be a feminist. You can absolutely challenge the patriarchy, be nude and be openly sexual, but rarely do I see it. Nor is it to say that every time a woman participates in something that plays into the hands of male ideals she becomes ‘un-feminist,’ she does not. And I don’t think that every act we do has to be a feminist one either. Women can be serious and sexual – something which should be celebrated – so why can’t I see examples of these women on Instagram? Where’s the variety? Where’s the representation of sexuality and feminism going hand in hand? I want to see it on Emily’s account, but I don’t.

Perhaps that’s the issue here: the weight on nudity and sex has tipped the scales too far, there has been an oversaturation of vanity. We don’t need to see quite so many nude images. Surely nude selfies that are few and far between, properly considered, would speak more powerfully than the constant, daily re-imaginings of the male gaze. I don’t think nudity is horrifying or wrong– it’s something to celebrate and normalise. But there is a difference between nudity and the constant, over-sexualised images of young women published on my internet feeds.

There’s no doubt that it’s a thorny issue, and ultimately there is no right and wrong. Certainly, we are all complicit in the confusion. If I had an arse like Emily’s, would I share it? I’d damn well want to, whether I would or not – undecided. So I’m not casting blame – merely calling for more variety, a more even scale, if you will, that allows all looks a platform for celebration. Sexuality is not what defines us, so let’s show that. We live in this visual culture that’s so often the topic of conversation. Why not harness it for the better. Wouldn’t it be great to see powerful, nuanced, active, interested women not afraid to own and show off their sexuality in all its multiplicity? Something other than just the superficial is needed. It’s time to redress the balance of what we define as attractive and worth celebrating, on Instagram and off it.