There was nothing new about the nude pic Kim Kardashian posted to Instagram this past Monday. As commenters were quick to point out, there isn’t much of this Kardashian we haven’t already seen.
What was interesting, however, was the no-holds-barred support she received, with women from Sharon Osbourne to Emily Ratajkowski posting their own nude selfies in solidarity and fighting back against the chorus of naysayers, which included Chloë Grace Moretz and Bette Midler.
Kardashian also came to her own defense, noting: “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.”
Powerful, yes, especially with her crew of cheerleaders, which included not only nude celebrities but also bloggers who fell in line. But is Kardashian’s message truly healthy for girls, who look to her and the rest of her family for social cues? Not at all, according to Nancy Jo Sales, author of the newly published American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.
“It’s easy for someone like Kim Kardashian, who already has a lot of power, to talk of being empowered by posting nude photos,” Sales tells Yahoo Beauty. “But to fail to acknowledge the potential harm that can come to girls from sharing nude photos — in fact to dismiss this danger — is to fail to defend girls from harm and to fail to support them in their healthy and empowered desire not to be harmed.”
For American Girls, Sales interviewed over 200 girls in 10 states between the ages of 13 and 19. It was through that research that she witnessed, again and again, worrisome scenarios of teen girls wanting to please boys with nude selfies. As Sales explains, “My book opens with a scene in which a boy is demanding of a girl, ‘SEND NOODZ.’ They are both 13 years old. She barely knows this boy, and he is demanding naked images of her. When she asks him why he wants them, he says he wants to trade them with some older boys for alcohol, booze. She, and other girls around the country, told me that if they don’t agree to send nudes when they are demanded of them, boys might threaten them with reprisals — sending around rumors about them, taking a naked photo off the Internet and claiming it is them and sending it around.”
This, Sales notes, is known as “sextortion,” with some high-profile examples of it winding up in national news. “It is increasingly common in the world of American girls these days,” she says. “So you wonder what Kim Kardashian is thinking when she puts ‘Send Nudes’ on a piece of Valentine’s Day candy [which she tweeted], as if it were something funny and cute. Does she have any idea that, for some girls, this has been uttered as a kind of threat?”
This is the other side of the self-sexualization movement, and one that’s stoked by instances such as Kardashian’s nude pic. Because if Kardashian, Ratajkowski, and Osbourne are sharing their own nearly nude pics, what’s the big deal about leaking someone else’s?
“Girls told me — and studies underscore—that girls who send nudes are at risk for cyberbullying and revenge porn. Their nudes can be shared nonconsensually,” Sales says. “They can wind up on ‘slut pages’ — which existed in the schools of almost every girl I spoke to.” The same goes for teen boys, who are getting one hell of a confusing message: Kim Kardashian’s sharing nude pictures, and it makes her feel powerful! So what’s wrong with pressuring girls for the same?
Kardashian wanting to share a picture of herself isn’t just a matter of “empowerment,” or one of loving her body enough to expose it to the world. It’s also about creating a culture in which power comes from physical attractiveness, and in which keeping your body to yourself becomes weird and uncool.
And all that pressure to take pictures, and look good in them? It takes a serious and documented toll on girls’ psyches. “The sexualization of girls has been linked in multiple studies to serious issues, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, cutting — even ‘cognitive dysfunction.’ Apparently, if you are pressured into obsessing about how ‘hot’ you are, it’s harder to think about other things,” says Sales. “I would urge Kim and all parents to read the landmark American Psychological Association report that came out in 2007, which explains at length the harm that sexualization can do to girls and is doing to girls.”
For Kardashian, posting and sending risqué pictures won’t end in extortion or school bullying. But the same can’t be said for teen girls who are coerced — by boys, other girls, or simply their own fears about fitting in — into taking nude selfies. Because in that case, there’s nothing feminist about it.
Photos: Instagram.com/KimKardashian, Instagram.com/EmilyRatajkowski, Instagram.com/SharonOsbourne