“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. “Not with a bang, but with a nudie pic.” Or something like that: On Monday, Kim Kardashian posted a naked selfie on Instagram, with black bars covering up just enough of the right parts to keep it from getting banned. The Internet had its usual meltdown: There was speculation about when the photo was taken. (Pre- or post-baby No. 2?) There were disappointed tweets that accused Kardashian of abusing her platform for evil—or, at least, shallow self-objectification. Then there were tweets scolding the celebs that scolded Kim. Then, for a dose of cosmic irony, Miley Cyrus scolded them all for being “tacky.” Now, following a series of snide, Kanye-like Twitter rants, Kardashian has penned a more thoughtful response that inquires as to why everyone thinks she’s a “bad role model”:
I don’t do drugs, I hardly drink, I’ve never committed a crime—and yet I’m a bad role model for being proud of my body? … I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.
OK. Whatever you think of her, Kim Kardashian is, in a way, empowered. She and her family have built an empire around their own images: They’ve absorbed our tendencies toward voyeurism and shallowness and now make a living turning them into shamefully bingeable TV shows, mobile apps, and lip products. Kim might apply an Elizabethan amount of makeup just to go outside, and refuse to go out in a bikini in bright sunlight, but she’s behaving as any savvy entrepreneur would—she’s protecting her assets. (Literally—her sunlight aversion stems not from being a distant relative of Nosferatu, but rather to keep us from finding out that, after having a baby, she might—gasp—have cellulite.) By buying her products and arguing over her nude selfies, as I am admittedly doing right now, we are directly empowering Kim Kardashian, businesswoman.
Yet Kim’s immaculately protected image is exactly what makes the crux of her message—that of her being a “role model,” “encourag[ing] the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world”—total bunk. “I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me,” are words that we know Kim Kardashian did not type, because if she had, she would have burst into flames. Perhaps she meant personality flaws, as seen on her TV show, something we all undoubtedly share in common with the most famous of the Kardashians. But, in the context of this naked selfie-centric discussion, I’m guessing that’s not what she meant. No part of Kardashian’s face or body hits our eyes unmediated, and for her to imply otherwise is laughable at best.
“Empowerment” is a tricky buzzword, and one that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. When plus-size model Ashley Graham graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, she was challenging stigmas and stereotypes about what a healthy and beautiful body shape can look like. When Lena Dunham repeatedly exposed herself to the world on Girls, she forced us to confront the very rigid standards by which we judge the female body. Kardashian’s entire empire, by contrast, is built on and directly profits from those very unrealistic beauty standards. Yes, it’s retrograde and sexist to shame her for her selfies, and we should applaud her for her entrepreneurial accomplishments. But let’s not pretend that merely posing nude in front of a mirror with a body meticulously crafted in the image of today’s beauty ideal is liberating or beneficial for any woman other than Kim Kardashian herself.