Ironic Critiques of Sexualization May Hinder Body Neutrality Movement

Often, when scrolling through my Instagram feed or even posting myself, I think back to the media protection lectures I was given in middle school. A teacher would come in with horror stories about revenge porn and college rejection letters due to an applicant’s digital footprint. As I became a young woman existing online, the fear these stories instilled in me was replaced by a desire to reject the societal control of female bodies that follows us onto digital platforms. One way that I, and many other women, work to reclaim bodily autonomy online is through ironic critique of the sexualization of bodies. 

The art of the tastefully humorous nude is a digital trend that acts as one channel for such critique. Modern female pop stars can frequently be seen on social media posing with certain body parts precariously covered by obscure objects. The indie pop band HAIM, a group of three sisters, exemplifies this ironically self-objectifying aesthetic. Their pages frequently showcase a tasteful nude, with any reportable content artfully covered by albums, electric guitars, and even awards. This online imagery of the female body has, for me, redefined online feminist culture as performance art. Nudity has always held a place at the intersection of performance art and feminism. These artistic images of celebrities like the HAIM sisters remind me of artist and cellist Charlotte Moorman, who helped define performance art in the ’60s. Moorman was known as the “topless cellist” for her many works involving partial or full nudity as a social commentary on feminine agency and experimentation. In a time when female public nudity was unheard of, Moorman repeatedly performed in the near-nude, perhaps most famously in collaboration with video artist Nam June Paik, wearing his work “TV Bra for Living Sculpture.” This fight for agency over bodies is ongoing, now taking place in digital spaces as our lives continue to intertwine with technology. 

These movements, trends, and styles are certainly positioned as feminist, boundary-pushing expressions of the self that challenge patriarchal views of sex and femininity that have been forced onto women for hundreds of years. As evidenced by the widespread support of celebrities who use social media to push such boundaries, many people identify with the imagery of female rebellion. This could be attributed to a generational interest in desexualizing the human body, moving away from it being seen as a subject of shame, something that must be hidden. 

Today, young people seem to hold a more liberated view of the human body, both on and offline. However, it is important to consider whether this is a sign of empowerment and reclaiming of sexuality or a counterintuitive promotion of body censorship and puritan culture. A tenet of fourth-wave feminism is to reclaim female sexuality, allowing people to express their femininity in any way they choose — in other words, accepting and supporting those who choose to be sexy or modest, traditionally feminine or traditionally masculine, lewd or proper, and so on. Despite the good intentions behind allowing people to interact with feminism and self-expression in any way they choose, many feminist theorists see a contradiction in the way feminists view sharing imagery of their bodies — they criticize pornography as antifeminist and argue that censorship of explicit content is anti-democratic. As many anti-censorship feminists theorize, acts of rebellion against patriarchal values, such as oversexualization of the body, enforces conservative ideals simply by acknowledging them. When celebrities take to Instagram with their comical positionings of censorship and sexuality, they lend credence to the idea that their bodies must be covered, even when they use artistic methods of doing so.

The underlying issue lies in the representational discrepancies in this visual digital trend. While young, white, thin people are able to joke about the sexualization of their bodies, even while commodifying their self-awareness, people who do not fit into these groups are unable to express themselves in the same way. Nudity, positioned as feminist or contrarian, can be accepted by a digital audience unless the people taking part in the trend have non-white, plus-sized, or disabled bodies. Lizzo’s 2019 Cuz I Love You album made evident the lack of support for nudity when highlighting underrepresented body types. The cover sparked major controversy and online harassment due to Lizzo’s partial nudity. These responses make us wonder why some people can be represented in conversations about normalizing and desexualizing nudity while many others are excluded.

One of the pillars of this trend seems to be a movement toward body neutrality, which some internet users hope to realize by taking advantage of nudity and humor to challenge the way bodies are sexualized in our society. If the real goal of body neutrality is just that — neutrality — then in order for these movements to be effective, they must be intersectional. The truth that historically marginalized bodies are denied this space to reclaim their sexuality and express themselves shows that the trend may be perpetuating Eurocentric, exclusionary beauty standards, even as it appears to challenge them. Until we are fighting for all bodies to be seen as neutral and acceptable, this trend of comical self-objectification may actually be damaging to the cause.