This May Be the Right Time to Turn Towards Body Neutrality
Once, we all dreamed of a world where women are appreciated for their minds rather than their bodies. We looked forward to a time when women’s bodies would cease to be objectified, hypersexualised and fetishised. We lamented the ills of capitalism and the exploitation of women. However, the recent proliferation of a variety of naked bodies all over the media in the ongoing body positivity campaign seems like a double-edged sword. For what it’s worth, It doesn’t elevate women to anything more than their bodies. But before I get hunted down by the body-shaming police, let me break this down.
By promoting beauty ideals that were practically impossible for many women to reach, patriarchy created and nurtured insecurities amongst many of us, while capitalism profited from it. More than many, I know how debilitating it can be to live with a low sense of self-worth. I understand how soul-crushing it is to look at your reflection in the mirror and hate the woman staring back at you. I acknowledge the struggle of trying to live up to false ideals of perfection. And most especially, I recognise how these feelings can impact our relationships, careers and mental health.
The body positivity movement, accompanied by the shift towards self-love and self-confidence came like a miracle waiting to happen, encouraging us to embrace ourselves as a whole. News media circulated articles across social media platforms with stories heralding women who, through the use of selfies, opened up about their experiences with eating disorders, shut body shamers down, challenged “bikini body” myths, and confronted expectations directed at women’s post-pregnancy bodies. This bold campaign enabled women to see themselves adequately represented in the media; an acknowledgement that all body types were indeed beautiful and glorious.
It, however, seems that in the euphoria of it all, we have forgotten how we got here in the first place. The contexts in which naked bodies used to be presented to us were in images of sexually titillating slender women catering to the male gaze. To counter this, the body positivity campaign responded by displaying a “non-sexual”, honest and empowering representation of women’s bodies that most women can relate to, seeking to end the “body-shame” message that tells women to cover up their bodies and sexuality in the face of men’s “uncontrollable” lust.
This trend has seen many young women, from teenagers to septuagenarians, posing nude for photographs and uploading them on the internet for the world to see, thus exposing themselves to a mixed array of empowering and hurtful comments and messages which could further make or mar their self-esteem. Many women feel pressured to prove to the world that they, indeed, love their bodies. They are told point blank that if they’re not comfortable getting naked in front of other people, then they don’t really love their bodies. Many men as a result feel more empowered to sexualise women. The questions that beg to be answered are “Is this nudity culture pushing for acceptance or does it just add more variety to the lineup of bodies men can objectify?” “Does capitalism and the hypersexualised society we live in want to see women dressed?” “In chasing after this perfect empowered image, are we not just doing the same thing that the patriarchy asked women to do thousands of years ago?” “What’s shameful about not wanting to go nude and exerting agency and power over who gets to see our bodies?” “When did nudity become the pinnacle of body positivity?”
Something about this trend doesn’t sit right. I’ve continued to think long and hard about it all. Maybe it’s the subtle power that trends have in influencing people to follow the herd and do what they would otherwise never have done. Maybe it’s the fact that the movement has become politicized and commoditized by corporations looking to profit off of the growing movement. Maybe it’s because body positivity advocates have lost sight of their purpose and have begun to replicate dominant capitalist ideologies, objectifying their own bodies, and accepting beauty modification practices. We’re still playing into the net of a capitalist society that cashes off women’s bodies, no matter what name we plaster on it.
Naomi Schaefer Riley in her New York Post essay, wrote that feminists are confusing nudity with liberation and empowerment. She explained that nudity in whatever form is all just part of the culture of exploitation. Taking off our clothes pleases men and those who enjoy gazing at the female body. It is scientifically established that the human brain interprets images of nude bodies as objects where it would interpret images of fully clothed bodies as people. I personally think that men and women should be held to the same standards of modesty. I‘m not implying that women should go topless. I mean that men shouldn’t.
The standard construction of the gaze in mainstream media in which men are the ‘ideal’ spectators and women are the viewed object, have for decades caused women to be accustomed to viewing themselves through men’s eyes and presenting themselves attractively. This is a system so deeply embedded that it has to be completely dismantled. Women who take part in this culture have internalised self-harming prejudice. Even when they appear to know what they are doing, they still participate in acts where they know that they are feeding the toxic patriarchal culture that stands against women’s progress. For women viewing these images, it further buttresses the consignment of women to the realm of looks and appearance.
Nudity is powerful and beautiful. It’s not the problem. The real problem lies in answering why people do what they do. While the intent is to desexualise the female body and celebrate the diversity of the female form, it still doesn’t achieve the purpose. While we want women to love their bodies, we also want women to be seen as more than their bodies.
In the exercise of individual ‘choice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘agency’, this new image of the neoliberal female subject has become an autonomous consuming subject, for even while loving our bodies, we need to ask ourselves whether patriarchy and capitalism have a right to profit from it? Decentring the physical body may be the way forward. An extremely refreshing campaign such as the body neutrality movement focuses on women’s achievements and completely lifts the focus off of a woman’s body. It promotes the idea that the body doesn’t define a person and reduces the pressure placed on women to love their bodies.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.