There have been plenty of arguments about the selfie. Are selfies are good for girls?, or are they a cry for help? But more specifically, can sexy selfies be feminist? Or are they perpetuating ridiculous beauty standards and sexual objectification?
I’m a feminist, and I post ‘sexy’ selfies to my Instagram account fairly often. In fact just yesterday I posted a selfie in my new neon bikini, and I’m not sorry. Sexuality and feminism are not a mutually exclusive, and I’m tired of hearing the “bad feminist” debate about it. Sexy selfies are a way to control the image, and I’m a better feminist because of it.
Feminism can be convoluted, filled with discussions about what “is” and “isn’t” empowering to women, and what behavior is, and isn’t, feminist enough. Very recently feminist author and activist bell hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist” and “anti-feminist” in a panel discussion about liberating the black female body. Discussing Beyoncé’s Time Magazine cover, hooks argued that Beyoncé’s ‘child-like sexy’ outfit made her a “slave” and that it wasn’t ‘a liberatory image.’ As Roxane Gay notes over at The Guardian, “hooks assumes Beyoncé had little control over her Time cover – but we’re talking about Beyoncé.” Indeed, assuming that Beyoncé had no control over the image that she released seems too simplistic for a woman as powerful, deliberate, and specific as Beyoncé. And while one interpretation might be that her cover is child-like, another is that it’s a retro simplistic subtly sexy look. Beyoncé is clearly a woman who uses her sexuality as a tool for empowerment, so assuming that she didn’t want her Time Magazine cover to be at least subtly sexy, is missing what makes Beyoncé powerful almost entirely. But as Gay reminds us, “This rhetoric of women “enslaving themselves”, becoming ever more beholden to the patriarchy when they present themselves sexually, is common.” This common theme that reveals itself over and over again in the framework of feminism, that women who engage their sexuality have no power or control over that image, just perpetuates the social construction of woman-as-object. In order to escape patriarchy’s claim over our bodies and on our sexual images, we can reclaim these images for ourselves, under our own control.
Social media, and specifically selfies, give women a platform to control that image with agency; they become the controller, the author, of the gaze. In a world where a 17-year-old can’t even go to prom without sexual objectification and victim blaming, selfies are a realm where women maintain control over their own bodies, over their sexuality.
Much of the panel discussion with bell hooks focuses on the reclaiming of the black female body, of maintaining agency and power, of “redefining ourselves and getting outside the box.” Janet Mock, a trans* woman, talks about how being glamorous is site of power for her, because she does it for herself, not for the gaze of a man. When I post a selfie, I am in control of those images. I am claiming that space. I post them because I can, because I have the freedom to engage in those decisions about my own body, about my own sexuality, and not for the gaze of a man. I will not hide because a man, or anyone else, wants to make interpretations about me.
As bell hooks states, “All of my life I have wanted to be free, and in order to claim that freedom I had to resist my parents, I had to resist the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, every step of the way…claiming one’s freedom, being free, there is always a price to be paid and a sacrifice.”
Indeed, any time we push to subvert boundaries we are met with resistance, but the reclaiming of an industry that is controlled by patriarchy has to begin somewhere. If feminism can reclaim motherhood and sexual pleasure, why can’t we reclaim ourselves as sex symbols, as producers of images that are deliberately sexual but not products of sexual objectification? If we accept that sexual images are always a sex symbol that belongs to men and for men, we can never really reclaim it.