Two days ago Kim Kardashian West (business woman, reality TV star and #selfiequeen) posted this nude (but censored) selfie on Instagram and shared it on Twitter. (We all know that the female nipple is banned from social media sites.) The scene is familiar if you’ve ever watched an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The backdrop of the photo is a giant and luxurious bathroom with marbled floors, a huge bath, and a shelving unit stacked with white towels. I’m pretty sure I spy a flatscreen TV mounted above the shelves, but I could be wrong. The door is ajar. I wonder whether anyone was home when she took this. The photo is taken with a silver iPhone 6. Her hair is platinum blonde, so you can tell the photo isn’t recent. She later confirms that the photo was taken last year and that it is motivation for her to lose her baby weight, gushing that she is flattered people thought it was a recent shot. While some might say that this is evidence of a dangerous obsession with maintaining a certain weight, others will concede that it is a natural response to the tabloids’ obsession with her fluctuating weight during both pregnancies. On the other hand, she has frequently talked about wanting to lead a healthier lifestyle in order to avoid developing health conditions such as diabetes. We can speculate why she posted the picture, but really it isn’t any of our business. The caption reads ‘When you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL’. My immediate response is a sort of ‘Oh, Kim’, and I pass my phone around to the people in the vicinity. I have to say that my mouth hangs agape in awe of her tanned, toned and voluptuous body. I double tap. I think very little of the photo until social media explodes a few hours later. Within two days she has over 1.4 million likes. Comments below read ‘Pathetic.’ and ‘fraud’; I presume she disabled comments almost immediately after posting the photo because there are only three.
High-profile celebrities Bette Midler, Piers Morgan and Chlöe Grace Moretz are at the forefront of their backlash: their Tweets apparently constituting news pieces in their own right. It went from the vaguely lighthearted Midler saying that if we wanted to see a new part of Kim she’d have to “swallow the camera”, to a condescending (and totally unfunny) Morgan, who chimed in that “I know the old man’s $50 million in debt, but this is absurd. Want me to buy you some clothes?” Kim tweeted back with “Hey @PiersMorgan, never offer to buy a married woman clothes. That’s on some Ashley Madison type shit. #forresearch.” Morgan has since penned an article for the UK’s most respectable source of hard-hitting journalism, The Daily Mail, entitled “You’ve Still Got A Great Body Kim, But If You’re Really So successful, So Secure And So Rich Why Do You Still Feel The Need To Pose Nude At 35?” His poor grammar is as bad as his misogyny.
In the article he whines that he no longer likes or respects Kim after her retort to him and other celebrities, that he used to be a fan of her “antics” (like she’s Dennis the Menace or something), but that he’s now disappointed in her. It is her response that he is upset with, calling her comebacks “brutal” and “venom[ous].” “All of this was a little odd”, he continues, “since Kim’s usually very nice and polite on social media, in direct contrast to Kanye whose Twitter rants have grown steadily more insane and abusive in recent weeks.” The expectation is that the softly spoken Kim must be nice and polite all the time, even if others aren’t being nice to her. He suggests, like others have done, that it was Kanye who wrote the Tweets, but then concludes that if “it really was Kim […] she’s now morphed into a bragging, taunting female version of her other half.” After Kim posted a second nude photo, captioned with #liberated and presumably in retaliation to all of the hate, Piers Morgan had the audacity to write “Hmmmm. I’m not so sure any of this is very liberating.” As if he is the no.1 authority on what is and isn’t liberating for women.
His rhetoric throughout this fiasco has been condescending and paternalistic. The assumption that her posting a nude selfie comes from a place of insecurity demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the complex social dynamics at play here. I think that Kim is being subversive. She is expressing self-love. Piers Morgan’s take on the photo represents one of numerous examples of the policing of women’s sexuality according to their age. Only young women are allowed to be sexualized (as though mid-thirties is even old!!). Indeed, he even talks about the rise in fame of Kim’s younger sisters, Kendall and Kylie, as a sign that Kim should retire from her responsibility as sexy pinup and assume her new responsibility: mother, as if the two are diametrically opposed. This is woman-as-vehicle rhetoric: women as sexual being, woman as carrier of children, woman as caregiver. This is rhetoric about the limits placed on women of a certain age. “You can be sexual, but not yet”, we tell teens. “You can’t be sexual anymore, you’re too old”, we tell anyone over the age of twenty-five. “Your times of being sexual are over”, we tell mothers, as though the mere act of giving birth confines you to a life of wiping bottoms and mopping up vomit. I quote Piers Morgan: “Every supermodel, movie and pop sex symbol (with the increasingly grotesque and embarrassing Madonna) knows there comes a time when you have to hand the baton onto the next generation, however reluctantly” (my emphasis). He calls her actions “frenzied” and “desperate”, adjectives that tend to be reserved for women and the mentally ill only. I don’t recall David Beckham ever having been reproached for underwear modeling in his forties as a father of four. The last sentence of the article is the most infuriating; it is mansplaining of the highest order: “The time has come for Kim to consider the unthinkable and actually start putting her clothes on.”
I was perhaps most surprised at nineteen-year-old actress’ Chlöe Grace Moretz’s critique of the photo. “I truly hope you realize how important setting goals are for young women, teaching them we have so much more to offer than just our bodies.” More condescension. More telling off. More assumptions about Kim’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs. It is also important to recognise Moretz’s beauty privilege; as a Caucasian slim blonde she is the poster girl of standardized beauty. Of course, people cannot separate the famous business woman from the human who posts selfies when she’s feeling her look; the human who scrolls through her camera roll, finds a nude in which she looks great and so uploads it. I imagine that after seeing her body from unflattering angles splashed across the tabloids, which would make even the most confident woman feel bad about herself, it is nice to be reminded of the fact that girl, you still got it, even after giving birth. This isn’t as poisonous as everyone is making it out to be. Instead of viewing the act as encouraging young girls to be more sexual (which we already do through various other channels), let’s view it as the action of a confident woman who is happy with her body and wants to share her confidence with a world that profits from women and girls’ insecurities.
This whole feud made me think about the male gaze and about the depiction of nudity in art. Picasso and Modigliani can get away with painting female nudes; it’s tasteful, but Kim Kardashian can’t. Picasso and Modigliani are high art, on display in the most prestigious art galleries in the world. Kim Kardashian is low culture, pop, trash. She is considered trashy, in large part, because of her buxom figure. By contrast, a Modigliani is fair and dainty. It cannot possibly be trashy. My take on her selfie is that it is an act of reclamation and defiance. She has posted a nude photo, but she has also taken the photo. She is in control. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous American female artists, revealed that less than 5% of the artists in Modern Art Sections were women, but that 85% of the nudes were female. You need only wander around your closest art gallery to see the prevalence of the female nude in art. As Aimee Cliff puts it in her article for The Quietus, “the ‘her’ [the audience] know is one that’s strictly controlled and to an extent created by her.” In a social media and celebrity-obsessed world where the media and the public are constantly trying to tell celebrities’ stories, Kim takes control. She tells her own story through her social media accounts and reality TV show. But, as she often makes clear in interviews, people forget that she and her family are only ever showing a part of their lives, even though it seems as though they are constantly in the public eye. I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Actress Rowan Blanchard tweeted “Girls being nude publicly isn’t new; but isn’t it nice when they can be the subject of the image, & the portrayer too?” So rather than despairing at what might seem like mere narcissism and vanity, let us celebrate her subversion of the male gaze.
The sexualisation of the female form is nothing new; it is part of the reason why the photo in question has caused such a reaction. Kim’s body is seen as sexualized because of its form, because it is voluptuous. I wonder what the reaction would have been to the selfie of a differently shaped female celebrity. Kim is a human hourglass, emblematic of the figure that is currently deemed most sexy, unlike the coveted thinness of the 1990s and early 2000s, whose mascot, Kate Moss, made “heroin chic” fashionable. In spite of the current embrace of curves, she has been body shamed for her figure, called fat by tabloids and Internet trolls. This, of course, is because women’s bodies continue to be the site of criticism. No matter your size, you are seen as ripe for body shaming, especially if you are in the public eye. This is why I see the selfie as being political and defiant. In contrast to what many people like to say, Kim Kardashian is no idiot. Even Piers Morgan calls her “a smart cookie”, as if he’s her year 7 form tutor relating her scholastic progress at a parent’s evening. Furthermore, she knows this business like the back of her hand. She knew the photo would break the Internet; she knew that she would receive both criticism and praise, but she did it anyway, and she had her responses at the ready. Her responses may not have explained why she posted the selfie, but in countless interviews she explains why she loves selfies, and the reason isn’t as inane as you might think – see Aimee Cliff’s article for a brilliant explanation. The posting of the photo represents her unabashed attempt at self-love, which is so difficult to do in this world, and yet is something we should all strive for.
This piece is called ‘In Defence of Kim Kardashian’, but, paradoxically, Kim doesn’t need my defence. She is a grown woman who knows her own mind. She is perfectly capable of defending herself. Nor does she need anyone’s approval to do something that doesn’t harm anybody and that, more importantly, makes her feel empowered. In the words of Kim herself, “let me live.”
Aimee Cliff. 2015. “On Feminism & The Female Body in Kim Kardashian’s Selfish”, The Quietus. http://thequietus.com/articles/18158-kim-kardashian-west-selfish-selfie-book-review-image-production-ownership-media.
Piers Morgan. 2016. “You’ve still got a great body Kim, but if you’re really so successful, so secure and so rich why do you still feel the need to pose nude at 35?”, The Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3482086/PIERS-MORGAN-ve-got-great-body-Kim-really-successful-secure-rich-feel-need-pose-nude-35.html.
“Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met Museum?”, The Tate. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-do-women-have-to-be-naked-to-get-into-the-met-museum-p78793/text-summary.