Why Do We Get Mad When Certain Women Get Naked?

Why are we OK with topless Keira Knightley but decry nude Kim Kardashian?

Despite its promises, Kim Kardashian’s naked rear end – and the subsequent reveal of her fully nude photos – in this month’s issue of Paper magazine did not #BreakTheInternet. (After all, you’re reading this, aren’t you?)

How could it? It’s not Kardashian’s first nude photo shoot – that was for Playboy, in 2007, and last year she appeared topless in a music video for her now-husband Kanye West ... and of course there’s the sex tape. The willingness of wilfully famous people like Kim Kardashian to be naked is not new, and neither are the inevitable reactions – have you seen anything but reactions to this on your Facebook feed today? – that her willingness to be so publicly nude is somehow “tacky”.

But not every woman who bares it all is necessarily looked down upon. The women whose bodies are in the spotlight navigate a constant negotiation between their ability to act as a means of empowerment and degradation – and only certain women are deemed empowered.

When women reveal their naked bodies to the public, we celebrate … but only under the right circumstances. They have to do it for art or politics, but never be so crass as to do it for commerce. They are supposed to be “real”, but only when that “realness” falls within a certain spectrum of normative acceptableness, as we wouldn’t want to bear witness to body hair, flaky skin or cellulite. And if certain women’s bodies don’t meet our standards for acceptability, heaven forbid they modify their butts or their boobs in anyway or we will declare them “fake”, as though these women are but figments of our imagination deserving of nothing but scorn.

What makes the exposure of some bodies brave, while others are deemed crass and exploitative?

Within hours of Kardashian’s Paper photos going online, comedian Chelsea Handler posted on Instagram a photo of her own exposed behind in a similar pose with the caption, “Guess which one is real.”

Nicki Minaj, whose nearly-naked rear featured prominently on the cover for her single Anaconda, has long faced questions about the origins of her famed posterior – and has faced accusations, like Kardashian, that “flaunting” it is crass.

But certain bodies, it seems, are allowed to appear bare whenever they like.

Take Kiera Knightley, who posed topless for Interview while promoting her new film The Imitation Game, and was called “brave” for her decision to disrobe without the safety net of Photoshop. (She told the Times, “And that [shoot] was one of the ones where I said: ‘OK, I’m fine doing the topless shot so long as you don’t make them any bigger or retouch.’”) When asked about his thoughts on co-star’s nude and un-retouched photos, Knightley’s co-star Matthew Goode, who had not seen the images, responded:

I bet she looks amazing. She’s got her bangers out and everything? Nipples, too? She couldn’t look bad if she tried.

Or there’s comedian Tig Notaro, who recently performed an entire set at New York’s Town Hall half-naked with the scars from her double mastectomy on full display. Of the performance, the New York Times comedy critic wrote, “The point here was not merely to shock, as quickly became clear. In fact, it was to convince us that there is nothing to be shocked about.” But even in praising Notaro, readers were reminded that a woman’s naked body – especially an imperfectly “real” body – is producing anxiety for the watcher.

A white, thin, cisgender female body is allowed to surpass commercialism and be hailed as both art and progress. A scarred female body that we are not supposed to desire can be a political act. But supposed surgery or blatant showing-off – allegedly bought and paid for, in a flaunty or tacky or trashy move meant to somehow increase the desirability of the female body? No, our culture would never accept that such an act could ever be art or politics. It’s sad that we can never let going the full Monty, on purpose, be attractive or brave.

However Photoshopped or oblivious she might be, there is something about the way Kardashian presents and subsequently “sells” her body that makes us uncomfortable, even if she’s making a choice in the same way as so many others before her – Jennifer Lawrence included. From Kim Kardashian’s $50m app to her infamous ass, we clearly all want what she’s selling – because she can look good if she tries.

But for all our opinions about celebrity and nudity – have you seen this one on Facebook yet? – we still seem to hate when bodies are sold to us, when the bare bottom is explicit but the choice to bare it is not. Because what’s so real about that?

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