Every time you post an “empowering” selfie you reinforce the message that your value lies in the way your body looks.
There is a celebrity who likes to post selfies. You might say she’s known for it. Many of them are semi-naked. More recently she posted an entirely naked one. I’m not going to include her name here because to be honest the very idea of talking about her on this blog makes me feel jaded. But mostly it’s because I don’t need to. You know who she is.
She’s not the only one, of course. There are plenty of others, celebrity and non-celebrity, all posting selfies and tweeting meaningless vanities in the name of empowerment and body confidence. But what is this power? The power to reveal our bodies? The power to rack up social media likes? The power to hold ourselves up for judgement, rather than be held up by others?
For me, the real power would come from not conforming to the pressure to think about your body at all, to simply be as men have been allowed to be. It would come from the freedom to exist without constantly evaluating, publically or privately, your body and your feelings towards it. I’m not suggesting I’ve mastered it… but I at least want to try.
I understand the argument in favour of body confidence, of course. Any step made by women to take decisions about the way their bodies “ought to” be presented and displayed and shared out of men’s hands and into their own feels like political progress. Any move towards self-assurance feels like a positive personal change. But while we can tinker with the rules, ultimately we’re still playing the same game.
From an early age women are conditioned – by media, culture, and society generally – to turn a critical eye onto our own bodies, and those of our female peers. In a world that seems hell bent on making us hate our bodies and judge each other’s, refusing to do that can feel like a radical leap. But “celebrating” our bodies is not the answer either. Whether we’re evangelising about body confidence or worrying about body-shaming, it doesn’t matter. We are still fixating on the way our bodies look and we are still giving credence to the notion that it matters. We are accepting the premise that our appearance is an inherent part of our worth.
“Poor body image causes real harm,” says the Government’s Equalities Office report and they’re right, as TV presenter Gok Wan knows. Having battled with anorexia nervosa himself, he has campaigned for schools to run “body confidence classes” to help prevent kids developing eating disorders. Worthy sentiments but when these stories appear in the same newspapers that describe how a celebrity “oozes body confidence in a gold swimsuit” or applaud another for showing “her body confidence when she paraded her curves in a form-fitting white mini dress” surely we can see the contradiction?
Body confidence is a con. The body image “problem” did not spring from thin air, it was created by the same beauty industry that now seeks to sell us products and ideas to negate it. Do you think Dove wants you to feel good about your body for your own benefit? Heck, no. They want you to buy their products. Beauty – the old white whale – has simply been repackaged. The “body confident woman” has become an aspirational – and therefore marketable – female identity (something Hadley Freeman touched on this week in her piece on the meaning of “empowerment”).
At the heart of it there is very little difference between the woman who stands in front of the mirror hating herself and the one who stands there feeling good about her reflection. Until we stop fixating on our bodies entirely, we will never be free.