With celebrities like Demi Lovato, Kim Kardashian, Zoe Saldana, and Miley Cyrus happily posing nude to promote their careers and express their “confidence,” it’s hard to imagine that revealing photos could once totally derail someone’s career. Take actress and singer Vanessa Williams. In 1984, the first African-American Miss America was forced to resign in scandal when nude photos surfaced in Penthouse. (The Miss America Organization finally apologized last month — 30 years later.)
Take a look online these days and it’s clear how different the cultural perspective is from Williams’s era. Celebrity nude photos are ubiquitous. Chelsea Handler’s Instagram is filled with topless and bottomless snaps of the comedian (on a camel — on water skis!), while Miley Cyrus is a fan of the topless selfie.
Beyond shock value, however, many stars are using nudity to make a bigger statement. Actress and mother of twins, Zoe Saldana accompanied a recent photo of herself reclining on the floor sans clothes with the quote, “I love skin. I don’t believe the body is something to hide.”
And while promoting her new album, Confidence, singer Demi Lovato “spontaneously” took it all off for Vanity Fair. Lovato, who has battled eating disorders and body-confidence issues, requested no makeup, no retouching, and no clothes. “I would have never thought that I would get to a place in my life where I would feel comfortable doing that,” Lovato said in an accompanying video. “It’s empowering, and it shows other woman that you can get to a place where you can overcome body-image issues and you can feel comfortable and confident in your skin.” Twitter lit up with support and the hashtag #WeAreProudOfYouDemi.
The question is this: Is posing naked really the route to empowerment? Why do you have to put your body on the Internet to find confidence? And is putting those images out there really a good idea? Some experts question the motivation and the consequences of the move. “It takes so much courage to publicly grapple with issues like eating disorders, and for that I applaud Demi Lovato. She’s trying to own her body in a big way,” says activist and documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. “Does it have to happen in the media though? I am not sure. Personally, I think these beautiful nude or seminude portraits feel more deserving of a gallery wall, as compared to easily downloadable on the Internet. The Internet almost cheapens them.”
But posing nude on the Internet isn’t happening only in the celebrity realm. Actress Caitlin Stasey founded Herself.com, a website devoted to producing, photographing, and publishing empowering nude photos. Any woman can reach out to the site and request a photo shoot. Photos of women leaping, doing yoga, or reclining on the forest floor are accompanied by Q&As covering everything from feminism to sexuality to monogamy. “I wanted to create a nude index of body types, where everyone can see how varied how female bodies are,” says Stasey. “We don’t have a wide catalog of nude female photographs that is desexualized. Growing up, I didn’t have a reference as to what my body should or shouldn’t look like.”
It’s a good point. When all the images of women are “perfect,” digitally manipulated, or pornography, a woman’s body image can get very skewed. “The natural body … is beautiful, but we don’t see natural much in the media and pop culture,” Newsom says. “Instead we see bodies that have been altered and all made to look the same (via plastic surgery, Photoshop, excessive dieting, extreme physical fitness, etc.) — which we know has damaging effects not only on the individual but also the viewer.”
Stasey has posed for Herself.com and found the experience powerful. “I just wanted it to be honest,” Stasey says. “I didn’t want to pose in any way that was particularly flattering or overtly sexual; I wanted it to look like my actual body.” The idea behind the site is for women to take ownership of their bodies. “You get to reclaim a part of yourself that is often taken from you and is critiqued,” says Stasey. “Empowerment comes from the individual — the people that chose to be involved find it through bravery.”
The problem is that when you put images on the Internet, even though the intention is to take charge, not everybody looking at the images may be quite as evolved. The same picture can be viewed by one person as inspiring, while to someone else it’s just a hot babe. “There is a very fine line between empowerment and objectification,” says Jennifer Berger, executive director of About-Face, a nonprofit that aims to improve self-esteem and body image of girls in relation to media. “If someone feels empowered while taking [photos] but the viewer is judging them by how sexy the woman looks, then that is really two different things. The culture of objectification is very real.”
For her part, Stasey believes that women should stay away from worrying what other people will think of their pictures. She also objects to holding them responsible for someone else misappropriating images. “Why is that anyone’s fault? Why should a woman be held accountable for how people see her? She should be as exposed as she wants,” says Stasey. While clearly it is ideal if women posting online are like Stasey, able to not care what the response — accolades, criticism, lusting, support, or outrage — is, not everyone can handle it. In a culture of looking for approval through social media, waiting to see how “liked” your image is or coming across mockery of your body could be hard to handle for all but the most secure person. While Berger sees the appeal of posing nude, “I believe in bodily freedom and use of your body the way you want to use it ,” she suggests women steer clear of posting their pics in a public forum. “My advice is, don’t put them on the Internet; if those photos are truly for you, then don’t look for approval from people on the Internet. Keep them for yourself — it’s a shocking concept in today’s culture.”
It turns out, however, there are many people taking revealing photos just for themselves or their partners. The New York Post recently featured the boudoir-photo trend happening with brides-to-be, couples who want to spice it up, and Orthodox Jewish women who enlist a female photographer to take sexually charged photos. “I don’t care what religion you are — if you don’t keep your husband excited, someone else will,” Malky, a 47-year-old grandmother told the Post.
Stripping down for the camera used to be something you did if you were an exhibitionist or wanted to really push the envelope. Now it’s something women are doing when they want to show how comfortable they are in their skin. But while we’ve changed the stigma around nudity from shock to encouragement, is the act of posing nude really changing anything for women? It makes you wonder if what may seem like progress may not be. “The jury’s still out on whether or not this sexuality-as-a-commodity can be empowering to the individual woman,” says Newsom. “However, we know the result is a media that fixates on women as sexual objects and doesn’t tell the story of all the other things that make women great — our leadership, our character, our talent, and our intelligence.”
When it comes to celebrity images like Lovato’s, it’s open for debate as to whether it really make women feel empowered or if it sends a confusing message. Explains Newsom: “As long as we celebrate the Kardashians of the world, we are sending the message that you have to modify and overly sexualize your body in order to be valued. Too many young girls grow up thinking their value lies in their looks, and that’s a very troubling message.”