When Does Using the Female Body as a Canvas for a Message Become Not a Freedom, But an Obligation?

When Does Using the Female Body as a Canvas for a Message Become Not a Freedom, But an Obligation?


Chelsea Handler and Tig Notaro both recently went topless to promote self love and to stretch the confines of what society is prepared to expect when it comes to the female body. Handler’s message was that women should be allowed to show their nips on social media just like men (specifically, Vladmir Putin), and Notaro’s was a message of pride post surgery after being diagnosed with breast cancer.




Both of these instances of female celebrities ripping off their shirts and saying, “Look at me,” to prove a point seem very positive and thought-provoking. They also are in the minority when it comes to giving me that reaction. At the risk of sounding like a prude, I have to admit that how often the female body is used as a canvas for political, controversial, or totally random messages more often than not makes me feel uncomfortable.




The Dixie Chicks painting criticism of themselves for this Entertainment Weekly cover was probably their idea. I hope. But something about it still feels kind of sad to me, like it’s saying, “If you’re a woman, your most powerful tool isn’t your mouth, but your body. And it will be even more powerful if it is still trim and white and generally sexy by normative American standards.”

I know the counter argument is that women are reclaiming their bodies and being sex positive. And I’m all for that and would never want to restrict that. It’s just that the cynic in me wonders how often male editors and photographers take advantage of this “liberty” and pressure women to express themselves this way, mostly to please men. I worry about this even more when it comes to younger women who aren’t quite as self-assured and outspoken as the Dixie Chicks,  who will be expected to do this even if it makes them feel crappy inside.  In other words, I worry that famous women stripping down to prove they like themselves is no longer a liberating choice, but an obligation. And we would never, ever expect that of men.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 6.45.36 PM

To be clear, I have no problem with women posing nude. It’s when their bodies are canvases for a message (or a Stephen King story) that I feel a bit strange. Why is the female body a canvas? If we’re reclaiming it as our space, sure. But how often is that truly the case? In a way, the idea that a naked female body is the best canvas for a message seems insulting to men. Men are not 14-year-old boys who will only read what you have to say if you write it on your breasts.

Then there’s the recent Keira Knightley shoot, which the Daily Beast captured my thoughts on pretty well. There’s a part where she says the following:

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.’ Because it does feel important to say it really doesn’t matter what shape you are.”

So, she’s basically already being pressured to pose topless. It wasn’t her saying, “Hey world, look at my small breasts and deal with them!” It was her giving in, and requesting one small concession.

I’m all for women showing their bodies in a raw, empowering way, like Handler and Notaro’s recent exploits. It’s just when images pop up where we’re either supposed to look for a woman’s flaws and say, “Oh wow, she’s so brave for exposing that she’s only 90% perfect,” or when messages are written on traditionally hot, perfect women’s bodies, that I have a hard time thinking the world truly cares about women beyond their looks.

I just hope when I see headlines like “Pregnant Hayden Panettiere Reveals Her Weight,” that women still feel like it’s equally empowering to tell people to fuck off when they want to know how anything and everything about your body.

Becky Lang