Not everyone is going to agree with me. Not everyone always agrees with me, as I found out (for the several-thousandth time) this week when my Facebook page was descended upon by…people who definitely didn’t agree with me. But this topic seems particularly divisive. All I ask is that you hear me out. And you’re probably tired of hearing about Kim Kardashian too, but still, hear me out, okay?
You see, some memes have been popping up on my newsfeed recently comparing two representations of the female body. In one, a famous entrepreneur and mother and celebrity-type-beautiful-person takes a photo of herself naked, censoring some parts that don’t fly well with Instagram (where the image appears first); in another image, set against the first, a woman breastfeeds her baby. The caption (usually) reads something like “if THIS is okay (in reference to the first image) then why isn’t THIS?”.
And I totally get the idea. As a society, we readily accept the sexual/decorative function of female breasts – visually stimulating, an area of arousal, dressed up and down for art, etc – and what is (presumably) the primary function is rarely depicted, rarely seen in everyday life and mainstream media, and therefor very often not accepted at all, or considered novel or strange when it does pop up. THAT is crazy – no doubt. I don’t argue that there is something seriously up with that, like what the actual hell is going on, people?! Etc. I mean, you know that already – that might even be why you follow this blog or engage with it on social media – and I’m still with that, a thousand percent!
BUT, and it is a but, positioning these two images juxtaposed to one another isn’t helpful for women, for feminism, for fighting sexism, for breastfeeding, for lactivism, for supporting breastfeeding mothers, for supporting women in general, for girls as they enter womanhood, for any of that stuff that we want to keep up the good work on. And here’s why:
- Juxtaposing these two photos (albeit in a very noble attempt to highlight hypocrisy) reinforces the myth that there are two ‘types’ of woman. Patriarchal-dominated media uses this lazy binary to continually resell us an idea of what kind of woman we are or should want to be. To compel us to aspire to an image we’re told we should have of ourselves. So what’s it to be, ladies: The virtuous mother? The pale, nublile virgin? The crimson-lipped whore? It’s clear from the semiotics of the media directed at us that we have some choices to make. We can’t just be full, holistic beings who like breastfeeding and fucking and doing other stuff that doesn’t revolve around our bodies. No! Jeez, no! We must choose from a narrow range of types, compositions, depictions… and run with one of them and define ourselves by the decision we’ve been told to make about our own identity.
- (I know you’re probably tired of hearing this all week but…) it is body-shaming. It really is. It’s saying – whether intentionally or not – that one type of image is good, virtuous and wholesome compared to another that is a pejorative representation of woman. That we are morally obliged to celebrate one image while rejecting another. No wonder, then, that some mothers are turned off from breastfeeding simply because it is depicted to them as the polar opposite of another ‘type’, one with which they might identify and (understandably) not want to relinquish anytime soon just because a baby came along. I get that – I absolutely get that.
- It’s neglecting to acknowledge the right of a woman to represent herself how she wants. Kim Kardashian is a woman who has been represented a thousand million zillion times by a dominant patriarchal media. She also chooses to self-represent on a daily basis through her social media. The representations may not be a million miles away from each other in terms of style and mis-en-scene, but the fact is that in this nude image she was representing herself. I don’t think I’m getting bold by suggesting that she gets equally slated for her own Instagram images as she does for the print-media representations of her. Terry Richardson photographs her for Rolling Stone, and (despite TR’s horrendous reputation for sexual exploitation and assault and even rape) she – SHE – gets taken down, branded a this and a that and we’re all supposed to agree that obviously, duh, it’s just Kim Kardashian.
- It forgets that pro-breastfeeding isn’t anti-sexual. A little like pro-breastfeeding isn’t anti-formula-feeding-parents, but even more so in a way, since we’re talking about an even more universally-used binary. You can be both a sexual creature and a breastfeeding one too!
It’d be fair to say I’ve changed my mind a little over the years. I’ve gone from critiquing Femen’s protest tactics (find them ‘too much about the body’ – there, I paraphrased myself!) to absolutely supporting the FreetheNipple effort for topless equality, for example. And I won’t stand by while I have a voice, however tiny, and not speak out on what I perceive to be both an unfortunate example of woman-shaming (unfortunate because I don’t think it was intended as such) and a really awkwardly hypocritical and unhelpful message.
There. I did it. I wrote about Kim Kardashian. I actually quite liked that photo, too.