One of the characteristics that define our current post-internet age is the confident use of technology, which allows people to begin to express themselves in identity narratives that have been marginalized until now. Selfies give new significance to the female body, and what was once a source of shame has become a source of pride.
But what’s the difference between nudity and nudes? What makes an image political or sexual? And above all, how can we celebrate difference without falling into an updated version of objectification? A new feminism, led by women who grew up learning to be critical of their own bodies and the bodies of other women, uses sisterhood, humor, and sexuality as battlegrounds.
The revelation of digital feminism
In 1964, the sociologist Marshall McLuhan stated that “the medium is the message.” According to this idea, the change in a medium is more significant than the change in the content and influences who we are and how we think. Through the rapid advancement of communication technologies, new paradigms are coined about the representation that each medium provides. The digital age, for example, permitted the exploration of new perspectives on topics such as sex, desire, and objectification, with greatly expanded visibility.
“Visibility is key in this era because we live in a world of images. If you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t feel like you are part of a landscape. It’s as if you never existed.” — Petra Collins, artist and photographer
Smartphones and social media have allowed the emergence of many opinion formers (for better and for worse), and have given women new ways to connect to each other and talk about issues related to their gender. The possibility that turns anyone into a producer of content leads to the online disinhibition effect, because it allows communication and self-expression among people who would normally resist revealing their more intimate side.
Historically, women have always been represented from the male perspective. But today we see a phenomenon driven by technology in which women (re)take ownership of their image and present it based on their own understanding.
If we understand that every technology is essentially a source of ideology, from the moment that cameras are in the hands of women the transformative power of female representation is revealed.
What is the difference between nudity and nudes?
Over the centuries, the female body has been under significant pressures to fit in, in terms of both behavior and aesthetics. Art was one major avenue of this pressure. The exposure of female nudity works as a way to control and determine women’s sexuality and behavior.
The Birth of Venus, for example, is a work which is overtly displayed in our visual culture, an icon of the meanings of the female universe. But take note: it was painted by a man. The male perspective, now considered patriarchal and controlling, was the only artistic view of the female body for a very long time. European paintings thoroughly explored portraits of women as mere objects of sexual interest and contemplation: they were naked on the canvas and deprived of sexual freedom in real life; they were relegated to the private world and lacked personal agency.
By trying to develop the identity of genders solely through the eyes of men, modern society suppressed female autonomy. This issue generates the need to counter-attack the representations embedded in historical tradition, legitimizing the leading role of women in constructing their own stories.
With the emergence of a digital culture, in which images are produced on a mass scale, self-representation of the female body through selfies and nudes breaks with the old artistic and cultural protocols. More than tools for visibility, selfies and nudes are political mechanisms that defy the historically — and still oppressive — poor representation of woman.
“If the history of female nude is defined as the representation of women in patriarchy, then feminist art has tried to wrest back this power, claiming the right to self-representation.” — Lynda Nead, art historian
Social networks have become a space to simultaneously manage contemporary identities and validate representations of the social world. New dilemmas arise, generating the paradox of intimacy limits. Women consciously expose their bodies but struggle with the fear of exposure, which limits the sharing of nude pictures to spaces exclusive to their female friends.
Etymologically, “nudity” implies vulnerability and lack of protection. Nudes, in contrast, are powerful. Far beyond sexuality, nudes are part of a broad process of celebration of the self-image, and reveal the importance of the individual journey in the process of collective empowerment.
Capitalization of empowerment
If throughout the history of art, women have been consecrated as objects and ignored as subjects, the contemporary media is no different. The representation of women strictly follows the role imposed by the male perspective, which is usually hypersexualized and bears a well-defined pattern of sexuality that is pleasing to men. But all women have the right to feel sexy without being insulted.
Supporting the feminist discourse through stories of empowerment that reinforce conservative standards is not transformative, but opening the way toward new leading roles is.
If we take this into account, how empowering can be the nude taken by Kim Kardashian, the queen of selfies? Ironically, her empire was built with profits coming directly from the maintenance of unrealistic beauty standards. Yes, she fits the standard of beauty perfectly. But above all, she is a woman. And that is especially meaningful considering that the passive sexualization of women is encouraged in the media while their active sexualization is still judged.
This tweet went viral, causing Kardashian to speak up:
“I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world […]”
In addition to the consensual overexposure that guides her life, Kardashian has been also a victim of revenge porn and her pictures have been shared online without her consent. But when she chooses to post a nude picture on her social networks, she challenges the norm and takes control over her own image and sexuality.
This discussion, however, should focus less on individuals and more on society as a whole. Women as individuals will never be free to be sexy, prudish, or however they please in a society that claims ownership of their bodies. Women’s bodies have the right to exist across the entire range of diversity, sexual or not, without the need to be validated by others.
Self-representation through nudes can be transformative for women who do not feel comfortable with themselves, or are not convinced of the power of their sexuality. Selfies created and shared online are valuable. Now more than ever there is the opportunity to build the visual culture of tomorrow from a new perspective — the female perspective.