Dear Kim Kardashian-West,
Like millions of other humans—63 million, in fact—we follow you on Instagram, which means that on Monday morning, we awoke to your latest nude selfie. True, there were two strategically-placed black bars, so as to avoid the social media censorship police, but other than that it was you looking five fire emojis’ worth of hot in your birthday suit. To be honest, we didn’t think much of it at first. Not for nothing Kim, but your public displays of flesh are a bit like Trump’s public pronouncements of penis size: initially shocking, objectively tacky, but now just part of the modern landscape.
For some reason, though, not everyone shared our initial indifference. Maybe it was a slow news day, or perhaps the fact that you chose to post this particular #nelfie on the eve of International Women’s Day was just too rich to resist. Whatever the case, your critics engaged in their own form of self-expression.
Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted you about the importance of teaching young women to set goals that don’t revolve around T&A. The singer Pink gave a “shout out to all the women who use their brains, their strength, their work ethic, their talent,” rather than resorting to their bods (cough, cough). Even Bette Midler chimed in, tweeting that “If Kim Kardashian wants to show the world a different side of herself, she’s going to have to swallow the camera.”
Come on Kim, that last comment was funny. To your credit, you have built an empire around exposing yourself—last year you released a book that was nothing but selfies. And people bought it!!! Still you freaked out in the face of a little measured criticism, Tweeting mean-girl zingers back at Bette and Chloë and posting an open letter on your (login-required) website. ELLE has posted the whole thing here, but for our purposes, these are the most important bits:
“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.
I want [my daughter] to be proud of who she is. I want her to be comfortable in her body. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where she is made to feel less-than for embracing everything it means to be a woman.
It’s 2016. The body-shaming, the slut-shaming—it’s like, enough is enough. I will not live my life dictated by the issues you have with my sexuality. You be you and let me be me.
I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy.
#happyinternationalwomensday, you ended the letter. A letter which is being held up as some sort of feminist manifesto for reasons that (we confess) are completely confounding.
Let’s skip right past the part where an individual who refuses to leave the house without contouring—and could teach a master class in flattering lighting—talks about “showing the world her flaws.” Not because it isn’t hypocrisy at its highest level (it is), but because frankly Kim, there are more important fish to fry.
For starters, this idea of your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of sexiness is somehow under siege, simply because some people don’t agree with you. Of course you are “allowed to be sexy.” You are allowed to take nude photos, post nude photos and employ your body in any other way you deem desirable, and (let’s face it) profitable. We stand firm for your right to use your body in the way that you want to, just as we support Donald Trump’s right to freedom of expression. Does that mean that what’s coming out of his mouth isn’t a destructive and deceptive load of crap? No Kim, it most certainly does not.
Of course it’s great that you love your body. It would be great if more women derived that kind of pride and confidence from their physical selves. Instead we hear that 99 percent of women have an “I hate my body” moment every single day (thanks, Special K). And you know why that is Kim? Because our society teaches women that their bodies are objects to be appraised and improved upon. When you position yourself as a living sex doll on the Internet, you do the same thing.
In her Ted Talk and forthcoming book The Sexy Lie, Dr. Caroline Heldman takes aim at the current cultural hoax wherein women have been convinced that being sex objects, and existing to serve another person’s sexual pleasure, can somehow be an empowering experience. It’s a phenomenon she tracks back the ’90s, when third-wave feminism (“choice feminism”) encouraged a broader, more intersectional understanding of girl power (hurray!), but also saw a perversion its messaging, so that pretty much anything a woman chose to do—including offer herself up like a Christmas turkey—was feminist, simply because she made a choice to do so.
Heldman makes a compelling intellectual argument for why objectification cannot possibly be empowering (“Objects can’t hold power—objects are validated by other people. Objects don’t act—they are acted upon.”) She also makes a very practical one: “We have done the research. The more girls and women believe in this idea that sexiness is empowering, the more likely they are to experience depression, low self esteem, eating disorders, depressed cognitive function and sexual dysfunction.”
You say you want your daughter to grow up in a world where she can embrace everything it means to be a woman. Personally, we would love to see little North in a future where the embracing of womanhood and the snapping of naked selfies have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
So how do we get there? By calling out the patriarchy rather than fulfilling its fantasies.
And of course, we too want a future where slut-shaming is no more. It’s just that nobody’s calling you a slut, Kim. The irony being that, when a woman objectifies herself in the name of “sexiness,” her actual sexuality has nothing to do with it. Sure, real women also have desires and appetites and everything else more frequently associated with the penile masses. But while sexual appetites on a man are seen as healthy and manly. On a woman they are often viewed as unseemly and, yes, unladylike.
Speaking of which, you may have noticed that you weren’t the only woman to “break the internet,” over the last few days. Irmelin Indenbirken (known in most circles as Leonardo DiCaprio’s mom) was on the receiving end of some serious online outrage after a family photo went viral—one that featured a toddler Leo with his father, his mother and—gasp!—his mother’s armpit hair.
“Disgusting!” “Gross!” “Unhygienic!” read the thousands of reactions to a sweet family photo featuring a future Oscar winner. Leo has said in the past that his parents were totally boho, so it’s likely that Indenbirken’s uninhibited growth situation was a personal choice. Then again, maybe she simply hadn’t gotten around to shaving. It shouldn’t matter, of course, and yet, while so many of us barely blink at photos featuring objectified women, we recoil in the face of a little armpit fuzz. As if that is the unnatural image. We’re not saying that’s all on you, KKW. Only that when you reinforce a preposterously narrow definition of what a woman ought to look like, it’s not just you who stands to suffer.
You can go ahead and “be you,” but if you really care about empowering women around the world you can also be better.