Nude women on the internet is not some groundbreaking act of empowerment

I saw a link to a new woman-friendly website called herself.com and my first thought was “sigh”. My second thought was “shit, am I the only woman under 40 who still has a hairy muff?” (No need to answer that, by the way. It’s rhetorical).

The subject of much internet chatter, here is the website’s mission statement from its founder Caitlin Stasey:

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TL DR; version. Nude chicks talk about stuff. Mostly sex.

It made me uneasy and I feel ambivalent about it.

Why?

Because nude women on the internet is not the groundbreaking act of empowerment we are meant to believe it is.

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First things first: I’m not a prude. I appreciate a good set of boobs just as much as the next man. Or woman. But this relentless scrutiny of women’s bodies is just so tiring – even the well-meaning stuff – because we are bombarded with images of naked or near-naked women on a daily basis. Sometimes it feels like everywhere I look I have some random chick’s boobs in my face. Breasts are great, but I don’t need them all up in my grill when I’m noshing on my breakfast burrito at 6am.

Caitilin Stasey is one of the good gals; an out-loud and proud feminist, she is outspoken, thought-provoking, articulate and passionate. We need more like her and less like those who thumb their noses at the hard-won victories of women who came before them with attitudes like: “I’ve totes never experienced gender discrimination so y’all UGLY FEMINISTS can go FUCK YOURSELVES and the MAN-HATING HARPIES you rode in on”.

As I browsed though the website I desperately wanted to get on-board with the rah-rah empowerment feminism of nuding up and reclaiming our bodies from the male gaze or whatever, but all I could think with my weary and somewhat jaded mind was that despite all the honourable intentions, we were just looking at more of the same.

Women’s bodies as public property; up for display, up for scrutiny, up for comparison and up for comment.

Up for the public gaze. 

The so-called “empowering” act of a woman taking her clothes off in public is not subverting anything. It doesn’t challenge anything and it does nothing to change the patriarchal status quo, because in our culture women are all-too-frequently rewarded for taking their clothes off – they are rewarded with money, fame, attention, business opportunities, news stories, social media followers, clicks, faps and Hugzilla blog posts (the latter two being arguably the same thing).

It’s a familiar trope: entire careers have been built on sex tapes and nude photo leaks. Entire magazines are built on dissecting bikini bodies and spreading rumours about eating disorders and gleefully fat-shaming any woman who looks vaguely well-nourished. And entire news websites seem to be built on which celebrities returned to their pre-baby weight the fastest and pseudo-intellectual articles about which emerging pop star J-Lo is rubbing booty with in her new film clip.

In a voyeuristic society obsessed with youth and sexual appeal, there is nothing subversive about able-bodied young women taking their clothes off, even if those women don’t strictly meet the faux-ideal of the skinny size 10 stereotypes we are sold by the media.

This is not a criticism of the women who are featured on the website. Good for them. They are clearly intelligent and accomplished young women who are proud of themselves and their bodies, and aren’t at all concerned about the human resources professionals who might want to google them one day. As someone who pathologically shies away from the spotlight, I envy that kind of chutzpah.

But let’s not pretend this is a subversive act of empowerment. All it does is reinforce the prevailing status quo that women’s bodies are up for public consumption and scrutiny. The truly subversive act would be keeping your clothes on and insisting on your right to be heard anyway. Because what you say has worth, even when it is not accompanied by artfully-posed photographs of your shaven labia.

We will know that the true revolution has happened when the conversation shifts away from women’s bodies entirely; that heartfelt discussions about our achievements, our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams can take place without us having to get our boobs out first before anyone takes notice.

Have you seen it? What do you think about the website?

Do I need a big cup of STFU?

Genuinely curious to hear people’s thoughts because I think I’m in the minority here.

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59 thoughts on “Nude women on the internet is not some groundbreaking act of empowerment

  1. I’m in two minds. I can see all of your points but what strikes me- is this supposed to be subversive, per se? I think it’s more about showcasing diversity. I read Caitlin’s interview and loved the fact that there’s a tiny bit of cellulite on her bum. Reminds you that we’re all imperfect, really, and the line pushed by the media and heavily airbrushed celeb mags isn’t real at all.
    I think it’s ok to go nude. I think it’s ok for that empower a person. It’s not going yo empower everyone; it would horrify me, for example, unless I am allowed back my 18 year old body for the day! But I digress- some people will find photos hoots like this empowering because they are presenting their bodies, as they are, on their own terms. There’s no airbrushing cellulite, no digital slimming- just bodies as they are. I do find that refreshing and honest. The interviews that go with them seem to be quite in depth- I’d be interested to see a greater variety in questions but overall- I like it. It’s no hugzilla blog- but it’s a pretty good website, I thought. Caitlin’s brand of feminism is so young, feisty and earnest- love it 🙂

    • And these are the all things I am grappling with too. I see all of those points and I understand them, but for me they don’t do enough to address the root cause, which is the ongoing and (some would argue) intensifying objectification of women. To me, this is just a more palatable version of an ugly truth, where women are objects who are judged heavily (and with wearying frequency) on their appearance. It still creates a context where women are scrutinised, admired, compared, criticised. I guess I’m talking about an ideal situation where women’s bodies don’t always dominate the conversation. It’s admirable that the website seeks to expand on what we see as “acceptable” or “normal” or “beautiful” in body shape or whatever, but it just seems like the same old dynamic to me.

      • I think I focused more on the interviews than the photos. I have been thinking about it though- for those that want to get their gear off and take pics- is there any forum for that where someone won’t call it objectification? I think this is probably as close as it gets, really.

      • Yes, it’s reminiscent of those “I only read Playboy for the interviews” cliche. In which case, why the need for the nudity? How does that enhance the written content? The cynic in me has her theories about that.

  2. This is like all of the ‘body beautiful’ campaigns. We are still placing a judgement on the body. Saying all bodies are beautiful and show me by posting your ‘real’ body really kind of misses the point. For so long women have been seen for their looks before anything else, so I don’t think a campaign that focuses on looks is for the best. Why not a site that celebrates the intellectual achievements and have a no photos policy? I think it would be interesting to see if less people clicked through on an article if it only posted stock, landscape images vs one that had photos of the woman.

    • Thank you Tegan, this perfectly sums up what I’ve been thinking today. Your last point particularly is very thought-provoking, because I agree that the titillation factor is a large part of what troubles me.

  3. As a blogger (and a damn fine one at that), you’re entitled – nay, required – to speak your mind. If nothing else, an article beginning with “nude women on the internet” will give you lots of SEO traffic.

    For what it’s worth, I forecast that the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you again in 2015. But as Taylor Swift urges us all: Shake it off, shake it off.

  4. Meh. Wouldn’t look at it. No interest on any level. Where’s the website with women holding up their PhD diplomas, displaying the car engine they just rebuilt or describing the multi million dollar project they just led a team of 50 people through to successful completion? Those website I would check out. Nothing special about stripping off as far as I can see. (And you think you’re in the minority? Tee hee.)
    Great post though! Love to read a bit of thoughtful debate.

  5. Now that we are all liberated by Caitlin Stacey’s naked bum can you point me in the direction of the nearest male empowerment blog with pictures of shirtless beefcake. Quite frankly young hunks could use the burden of my middle aged female gaze 😉
    All jokes aside I’m glad I am not the only one who was underwhelmed by this. Here was a very attractive young woman posing naked and talking about girl on girl action. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) But heck some of it read like Playboy. Much of the scrutiny of female bodies in the media comes from women. I can’t log on without tripping over half a dozen body image pieces a day. We need to direct the conversation away from it. Today I was reading an article in the New Scientist about NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan (a chick!) and her vision of capturing an asteroid and putting it in orbit around the moon. That there was some serious empowerment and not the sort of thing you can achieve by baring your booty.

    • Yeah, I mean that’s all well and good to capture an asteroid or whatever, but who was she wearing? But yes, thanks for understanding my point that it would be refreshing if the entire conversation could shift away from the body. I blather on about it for however many words and then Tegan sums it up so concisely.

  6. I’m in two minds about this. I’ve read a couple of articles about the site and the concept behind it and I have to say that Caitlin sounds like a very intelligent, confident and together woman (I was going to say ‘young lady’ but I’m not old enough to be saying that yet!!).
    I think it’s great to be putting images out there that are different from the photoshopped, size 6, genetically blessed women that are the mainstream image. I think it’s good for woman of all types to be able to see something of themselves in a world of airbrushed barbie dolls.
    On the other hand, I haven’t actually looked at the website, because I don’t really want to, to be completely honest. I totally applaud the concept and I’m totally behind them on it (and behind Caitlin showing the cellulite on her behind) but I just can’t bring myself to look a website full of naked chicks.
    I have better things to do, you know? Like read this… and comment on something I haven’t seen. Clearly.

    • Bahhahaahhahahha! Love your work. And yes, I totally agree that we need to combat unrealistic depictions of women with realistic ones. I think this piece is just a lament that we have to do that at all.

  7. Empowering? Yawn, yawn.
    Still no universal free childcare, women still earning less and poorer upon retirement. A government with a tokenistic attitude to appointing women in cabinet and a prime-minister who is the minister for women.
    Do I care about seeing naked chicks on the internet? It’s not empowering, it’s irrelevant and I’m too tired to care.

  8. I am with you all the way. Nudity has never really been my thing though but more from the “what’s the big deal” angle than anything else. I think putting nakedness out there kind of misses the point of the objective but that’s just me. If I wanted to see real naked bodies I could just go back to reading Cosmo and Cleo who have been doing those real body features since I was a spring chicken (yes yes rubbish I know but they have been doing this or at least were 15 years ago when I read them. Are they even still around??). And just because they are telling stories doesnt mean dudes arent going to open the website and ogle and objectify them. There are still nude pics there for the viewing.

    On another note have you read 70s novel The Women’s Room? Im reading it now. I think you would like it. Hit google up for a review if you havent read it.

    • Oh yes, The Women’s Room!! Gosh that takes me back. I feel like such a relic, because I was nodding along to your recollections of Cleo and Cosmo from 15 years ago. Time for us to get Seniors Cards soon I guess.

  9. Amen.

    I completely agree with you (again. This is getting freaky now.)
    I’ve stopped clicking on the ‘I am woman, hear me roar’, ‘I am beautiful, because I am’ links, Facebook shares etc because they all say the same thing. With or without clothes &/or body hair. Ditto to all the trashy, false headlining mags telling us how we can look just like Jennifer Aston with Kim kardashians butt, while declaring another celebrity is pregnant because a stalker with a camera got a photo spewing them looking human with tummy bloating.
    I’d rather read another passive aggressive or attention seeking, drama filled, secretive post on Facebook.

    Don’t mind me, just in sh*tty mood.

  10. I actually don’t get it at all. Taking my clothes of doesn’t make me feel empowered, it makes me feel naked and right now, here in the UK, I suspect I’d just feel cold. I think I’m missing the point somewhere … Is there a point …

  11. Firstly, your opening paragraph made me spit wine onto my laptop – thank you. I’m tired of seeing boobs everywhere I look. As much as I applaud the amazing women involved, it scares me that my daughter is growing up in a world where she sees that getting your gear off is a way to garner attention, no matter how good the intention is. You’ve opened a great debate here Zilla.

    • Yes, yes and thank you. I think I’d have less of a problem with this if we weren’t living in a media landscape that is saturated with this kind of stuff. I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, where it took quite a bit of effort to ever lay eyes on a naked human being. Now it is everywhere, and you don’t even really have to look for it. You can type “madagascan turtles” in a google image search and come up with a topless woman in a g-string, spreadeagled over the bonnet of a vintage Mustang. I really do wonder how all of this impacts on the development of young girls and boys. I’ve overheard a group of 10 year old boys talking about the DIY porn website RedTube. It disturbs me.

  12. What would make me feel empowered is having equal pay and opportunities, seeing more women in politics and senior management positions. If you feel empowered by getting your gear off and plastering it on the internet, then go forth. But this just adds to the idea that women have to show their bits in social media to be seen and heard. If herself had women fully dressed would this get the clicks? I doubt it. Where are the men doing this type of thing? I have cellulite. I eat cheese. I can run marathons. I am not perfect but I feel smart, beautiful and loved without my naked booty being plastered on the web.

    • Beautifully said. Yes to all of this. If we actually had a level-playing field I would not have a single problem with any of this. The lingering lack of equality in lots of key areas is why I have reservations.

    • I came of age as during the first wave of “empowerment” or post-modern feminism. It was a reaction against some fairly puritan ideas about women’s sexuality and there was a lot of talk about reclaiming the body and claiming female agency through sexuality. Yada yada it goes on a bit more than that. I subscribed to a lot of those ideas at the time but as I have gotten older I have started to question it. The cautiousness is ambivalence, because I know it’s not black and white.

  13. Completely agree. I mention in my latest blog post that I was talking ‘goals’ with a new PT I’m seeing. I said I’d like to (at some point – in my life!!!) have a relationship and perhaps have a man interested in me (yadda yadda yadda). He’s only a young thing but he asked exactly what did I want to attract a man’s attention – like my legs, boobs, butt etc. I wanted to do an eyeroll cos even if I wasn’t 47 I like to think I wouldn’t be wanting a man because my boobs were perky or butt firm. #FFS

    I politely told him I’d prefer someone who was attracted to my mind and personality etc. (Not sure he bought it though!)

    • Oh dear, clearly still at the age where his “little brain” does most of his cognitive processing… “What did you want to attract a man’s attention?” I want to laugh and cry at the same time.

  14. I’m trying REALLY hard to understand how this is liberating or making a feminist point. I honestly can’t see it. Maybe I’m too tired….
    With questions about feminism, I always default to “put a man in place of the woman” – so in this case, would a man ever need to pose naked to get his point across or to make people pay attention? The answer is no. So I can’t see how this helps the cause.
    For me, real equality will happen when male/female isn’t even part of the discussion.
    And to be honest, all I can see is a pretty obvious grab for clicks disguised as “empowerment”. I’d love to see the demographic breakdown from Google analytics. I’m guessing a fair whack of the audience is male.

  15. I think all the women photographed are brave and beautiful. Personally though, I don’t see how being photographed naked and putting your pictures on the internet is empowering. I clearly have many opinions on this though, because I also think it’s good for women to see what real bodies look like.

  16. You made one comment about the actual content of the words –
    “talk about stuff. Mostly sex”
    Then you talk about the naked bodies.
    Why does having naked bodies on the site mean no-one can take in any of the written content?? Haven’t you just dismissed a huge chunk of the content of that site?
    Oh, some women have said some things. Lets not pay any attention to what they said though, let’s talk about their appearance instead…

    I thought the interviews were very thought-provoking, I scrolled past most of the photos to keep reading the words.

  17. Your post has been whirling around in my head for a few days now. For some reason (that I cannot quite articulate) it reminded me of a study I heard about. People (both genders, variety of ages) were asked whether a woman should be a doctor or nurse if given the opportunity. The study didn’t measure the responses – it measured the pause before the question was answered. That was the point – that THERE was a pause when the question was asked about a woman. I think sometimes we kind of miss the point when talking about feminism – Does this site encourage more women on boards? Does this site do anything to increase the education of girls in third world countries? Does it do anything to address pay imbalances? Does it do anything to improve the position of women? Not really. If these women feel good about it all, well so be it, but let’s not call it something it isn’t.

    • Wonderfully said, Robyna! I think it creates the illusion of empowerment when the material reality for women in general is a very different story, for many of the reasons you cite. Women taking their clothes off doesn’t challenge the status quo because the patriarchy rewards it.

  18. You are so clever. This is every thought I’ve had for the past few days but condensed into some sort of order (unlike the raging whirlpool in my head) and making some sort of sense (see previous). I was very interested though when my husband got home from work that day and asked if I’d seen the website. I inwardly sighed and waited for him to comment on the pics but then he brought up some really interesting observations about what had been said in the interviews. So some people are actually reading the words. And not necessarily the people you’d think.

  19. I am with you on this – I have no issue with nakedness but being naked won’t let Saudi women drive cars, won’t get you equal pay & won’t stop a myriad of everyday comments.
    Empowerment is giving courage and a voice to people. I don’t really see the fact you can be photographed naked as doing that.
    But that’s me.
    On your other comment, apparently you’re back in fashion – it started with Cameron Diaz’s comments a year ago and then has been seeping thru social media. On the Mindy Project, Dan says ‘Grow it out. Nobody wants a 9 year old. And if they do you need to get rid of him’ heh heh

  20. When Stephen Hawkings has something to say, we don’t demand to see him naked. Same with Obama. Why do women need to be naked to be worthwhile?

  21. Agree with you completely. Why do we need to be so public with the naked form in general and why is it always women? Really, if I fail to see the difference between a woman being naked and a woman being empoweringly naked, then what hope does a 16 year old zit farm have? x

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