On Vanity, Self-Awareness, And Kim Kardashian West’s Naked Selfie

CREDIT: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

On Sunday night, Kim Kardashian West tweeted a nude selfie to her 41.4 million followers.

Because this is the internet, mixed in among the millions of fans were a handful of haters. Those haters — most notable among them Bette Midler, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Piers Morgan — don’t seem pleased that an adult woman would think it appropriate to celebrate her body, on her own terms, in such a public way.

There seems to be this undercurrent, not just in response to Kim but to selfies and their accessories (e.g. sticks) more generally, that selfies are all about vanity. Because the worst thing a woman can be is vain. Even a woman as undeniably attractive as Kim is not supposed to acknowledge that she knows she is attractive; as those One Direction lads told us, it’s not knowing you’re beautiful that makes you beautiful. As soon as you know you’re pretty, you become… less pretty. It’s kind of like the Heisenberg principle, for your face.

Maybe Morgan is just irritated to discover that men do not have a monopoly on capturing and disseminating the female form. Women who take selfies have control over the images; women, who are objectified all the time and can’t even share intimate photos with a partner without fear that a pissed-off ex or determined hacker will make those private pictures public, get to have a say over how they are seen.

Are enough people appreciating that Kim’s tweet is funny? Because that is a solid joke. Very self-aware.

But of course Kim can’t be self-aware. Vanity and self-awareness can’t exist in the same person, at least not a female person. The idea of taking pride in your body by definition makes you superficial and vapid. You can’t say, “Oh hey, my body is bangin’ and I also happen to have whip-sharp sense of humor. Fall at my feet, consumptive masses.” It’s the Chloë Grace Moretz line of critique: C’mon Kim, there are so many young women looking up to you, you have to show them that women are worth more than their bodies. Which misses both the self-awareness of Kim’s tweet, taken in context with the caption, and the fact that in a society where men are still the primary mediators of art and culture, a women taking control of her own body is something to look up to.

It’s kind of amazing that we are still not past a general discomfort with a woman being in control of her own body and image, even when that woman is Kim Kardashian West and her body is arguably the pinnacle of what is considered sexy these days. Morgan asks why Kim, “if you’re really so successful, so secure and so rich why do you still feel the need to pose nude at 35?” Which, to paraphrase, is like saying, “You’re at such an amazing point in your life and you’ve never felt sexier; why document it?”

If this is the reaction to Kim Kardashian West being audacious enough to show public comfort with her body, what signal does that send to women whose bodies might not conform to society’s ideal standards?

Even if you subscribe to the notion that Kim is “famous for being famous,” you can allow that being famous, at all, requires a great deal of work. The performance never stops. If people are uncomfortable with Kim, it’s only because she so openly pulls the curtain back on the idea of celebrity. She’s part of a pack of women for whom the idea of effortless anything — beauty, fame, success — isn’t just pointless but is actively unappealing. Rihanna wants you to know that she work, work, work, work, works. Britney works, bitch. Every Beyoncé performance is an unapologetic feat of athleticism. She knows you know how hard she’s working. It’s not that Kim is famous for being famous but that she’s famous for being so transparent about the machinery of fame. Everything she does in public says: This is the work that goes into being famous. This is what it looks like. We worship “natural beauty” in theory but punish it in practice; so the celebration of beauty as work is in itself a subversive act.

Kim’s brand is the selfie. Mocking her for broadcasting her naked body is missing the point. It’s the equivalent of mocking Taylor Swift for refusing to show her belly button, which she hides not just because it’s where she plugs herself in at night but also because this semi-demure act is a performance that feeds into the larger image of Swift as someone that can straddle both edge (crop tops! tight little skirt!) and modesty (show skin, not too much, mostly abs). Kim’s performance is about showing everything, from a reality show that ostensibly grants you an all-access pass to the inner sanctum of her family to an Instagram on which Kim, selectively, reveals her whole physical self.

You know if this had been a photo shoot for some men’s magazine, shot by noted feminist Terry Richardson, the headline would be more like: KIM SIZZLES IN SEXY GQ SPREAD. She’d also get a free pass for posing for the Pirelli calendar. People don’t mind so much when photos like this are taken by someone other than the subject and are shared with the world on some highbrow, culturally-acceptable platform.

Kim Kardashian West is the name that gets invoked whenever someone wants to point out the downfall of society or the general trashiness of mainstream pop culture. But if you believe in her narrative, she is a victim of revenge porn who took a sex crime and, with no way to scrub a video that was released without her consent from the public consciousness or the internet, turned it into the foundation of a multi-million dollar empire. This is someone who was seen naked by the world in a way she says she did not want to be seen. Now she knows exactly how she wants to be seen. And everyone is looking at her.