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R.I.P. "empowerment." As a word, you had a good run. But you've hit peak meaninglessness, and it's time to kill you off.
"Empowerment" has been an empty term for a while now, used to raise money for vague causes and issues ("empowering women and girls"), pad the pockets of the already-wealthy and well-connected (hosting ubiquitous "women's empowerment" conferences and speaking gigs), and justify basically anything a woman feels like doing ("I find doing acrobatics/getting spanked/wearing red lipstick/owning a three-legged cat empowering!"). But the final blow was dealt by the matron of meaninglessness herself: Kim Kardashian. Kim posted a naked selfie on Instagram. When she was criticized for it - because apparently people care that Kim, who published an entire book of selfies, posted one without her clothes on - she fired back that posting naked selfies makes her feel "empowered."
"I don't do drugs, I hardly drink, I've never committed a crime - and yet I'm a bad role model for being proud of my body?" Kim wrote in her response, which was also billed as a celebration of International Women's Day (and which she posted on her paid-subscription-only website, so you can only read the whole thing if you're willing to pay $2.99 a month to the Kardashian-West coffers). "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."
"Empowerment" is apparently not about equitable allocation of resources, or influence in politics and policy, or really power at all. It's shorthand for "I wanted to do this and it made me feel good" (and in Kim's case, the addendum, "plus it made me a bunch of money"). Which is laudable - feeling good is criminally underrated, and making a bunch of money sounds cool - but feeling "empowered" is not the same as real, actual power. "Empowerment" is an empty catchphrase, a term used primarily to salve over the near-total lack of power held by women and girls around the world, a kind of head-pat to keep us satisfied with subservience. Note that you never hear the word "empowered" used to describe a man. You don't need to be "empowered" when you are, plainly and simply, powerful.
It's wonderful that Kim Kardashian feels good about her physical self. There's nothing wrong with the naked human body, and there's no question that the criticisms of Kim's nude selfie were silly and prudish. We're all naked under our clothes, and there's no shame in being naked in the public eye. Nor is there shame in being happy with your body, or in believing you're beautiful and attractive - the world would be a better place if more women felt that way.
The problem, though, is that women and girls receive the persistent message that being beautiful, sexy, and happy with your body depends on other people - men, mostly - thinking you're hot. It means being an object of sexual appeal for the visual gratification of others, not a sexual creature in your own right. It means your body is a stand-in for sex (when we say "sex sells," what we actually mean is "women's mostly naked bodies sell things"). Sexualized images of women are everywhere, but the very things that would actually allow women to have sex for pleasure (easy access to contraception and abortion, sex education in which boys and men were taught that female pleasure and orgasm matter as much as their own) remain politically and socially contentious. That is the pervasive view of female sexuality in the United States: Women should be sexy and attractive to men, but it's bad, dirty, and shameful for women to actually have sex and enjoy it. Kim Kardashian's childhood friend Paris Hilton embodied, and summed up, the standard neatly when she told Rolling Stone, "My boyfriends always tell me I'm not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual."
That is the naked selfie: Sexy, but not sexual.
"Sexy but not sexual" has real, negative consequences for girls and women. A few years back, the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a task force to assess the wealth of research on sexualization of women in media and its impact on girls. In defining "sexualization," they listed several components, including where "a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics" and where "a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy." It's not hard to see how both of those criteria apply not just to Kim Kardashian's naked selfie, but to the entire reason she's a celebrity in the first place.
When girls grow up in a culture saturated with sexualized images of women, they suffer. The APA found that girls experience real emotional and cognitive declines from sexualization, performing worse on math tests when they feel sexualized, and experiencing anxiety, shame, and self-disgust. Girls who are exposed to narrow ideals of femininity and female attractiveness are more likely to have eating disorders; links have also been made to depression and low self-esteem. They are more likely to believe sexual stereotypes about women and think that a woman's greatest assets are her looks. And perversely, girls who self-objectify - that is, who believe that their own value or "empowerment" comes from their physical appearance and from being sexy - have poorer sexual health outcomes: They are less likely to be sexually assertive and report lower rates of condom usage, which means they often end up worse off health-wise even into adulthood (not to mention the attendant lack of sexual pleasure and enjoyment that comes with not being able to assert your needs, desires, and requirements for your own physical protection).
These outcomes aren't just confined to girls. Those same girls grow into women, many of whom carry these issues with them through their lives. And boys and men exist in our sexualized culture too, and it frames the way they see women and girls. Some men who have been exposed to a bevvy of sexualized images report finding it difficult to locate a suitably perfect partner in real life, or to fully enjoy sex with real, un-airbrushed, physically "flawed" women. Boys and men who consume a lot of sexualized images of women and girls are also more likely to believe in strict gender stereotypes, and show lower levels of empathy for the women in their lives; that in turn is a recipe for, at best, unhappy relationships and lack of intimacy, and at worst, rape and abuse.
None of which means it's bad to be naked. It does mean that having one class of people - the female ones - who are expected to be visually and sexually appealing to the more powerful class of people - male ones - is not a good system. And succeeding in sexiness isn't real power. That's why you don't see the richest and most powerful men in the world naked on Instagram.
Which doesn't mean Kim shouldn't get naked on Instagram. She has become wealthy and influential by playing within this system that rewards women for adhering to a narrow hyper-sexy female ideal, and why shouldn't she? It's not up to her, or any other woman, to curtail their own earning potential or cultural influence for some hazy idea of the greater feminist good. She didn't invent sexualization, nor the fact that women who are considered very attractive can often profit from it. The bigger money-makers and culture-drivers in this system are men; it's hard to blame women for getting a slice. And surely Kim does feel good and even "empowered" by her naked photo - being aesthetically pleasing to others is one way we've told girls and women they have value and, to some degree, power, even if that "power" is entirely dependent on men with more power and influence. Getting naked doesn't make Kim a bad role model; neither does the fact that she once made a sex tape with an ex-boyfriend. Everyone has been naked. Most people have sex.
But it doesn't make her a good role model either. It makes her one woman trying to make a buck where she can - and good for her on that. The bigger question is why the Kim Kardashian model of celebrity, fame primarily for being attractive and not for any particular talent or contribution to the world, is a route for women to become rich and famous in the first place. Yes, Kim has built a remarkable empire and clearly has entrepreneurial chops. But the foundation of that empire can only exist in a culture that prioritizes sexiness in women above all. That's nothing close to "empowering."
And so when Kim says it's her goal to "encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world," we shouldn't begrudge her for getting hers, but we also shouldn't cheer or fool ourselves into thinking she's issuing some sort of feminist manifesto. Girls and women need real power, which means resources on par with those currently in the control of men, an equal hand in political processes, total and unquestioned sovereignty over their bodies, and value placed on their intelligence and skills and good acts rather than their appearance.
That is not the kind of "empowerment" Kim is selling. About daughter North she writes, "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 a nice sentiment. But it would be a better one, and a better world, if the social obligation to look sexy for male approval weren't a standard and requisite part of being a woman. Women and girls will be empowered - powerful, even - when "everything it means to be a woman" has nothing to do with looking pretty in a picture.
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