Opinion: Nudity isn’t the same as objectification

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 01: FKA twigs attends The 2023 Met Gala Celebrating "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line Of Beauty" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 01, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

FKA twigs attends The 2023 Met Gala Celebrating “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line Of Beauty” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 01, 2023 in New York City.

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the bookOK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.CNN — 

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned a Calvin Klein ad featuring musical artist FKA twigs, deeming it inappropriate because the “image’s composition placed viewers’ focus on the model’s body rather than on the clothing being advertised” and it portrayed her as a “stereotypical sexual object.” A similar set of ads featuring “The Bear” actor Jeremy Allen White stripping down to his skivvies and giving the camera a sensual stare. According to the New York Times, the authority is reviewing complaints about the ads featuring White, but those ads have so far seen no actual censure.

Jill Filipovic.

Jill Filipovic.

The singer noted this double standard, writing on Instagram:

“i do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. i see a beautiful strong woman of colour whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine.

in light of reviewing other campaigns past and current of this nature, i can’t help but feel there are some double standards here.”

She continued by saying she’s proud of her physical form, and considers her work to be in the tradition of other powerful Black women: Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones, who, she writes, “broke down barriers of what it looks like to be empowered and harness a unique embodied sensuality.”

It’s an apt description. In the ad, FKA twigs looks directly at the camera. The side of her body is exposed, including a muscled thigh and a toned arm. She looks sexy, to be sure, but also powerful and confident.

The White ads are, at least to my eye, far more overtly sexual. In one, he’s lying on a couch and looks like he’s sliding his jeans off, underwear (and bulge) exposed. In another, he sits on the corner of a table, knees spread and biting into an apple, in only boxer-briefs. In yet another, he lies face down on a table, jeans pulled below his bum. And in another, he is shot in black and white facing the camera, his right thumb pulling down the elastic of his small, tight underwear to expose one of his “V-lines.”

The relative sexuality on display in the photos is up for interpretation, as is how “objectified” the people in them are. What’s clear, though, is that the Jeremy Allen White ads expose much more of his body than the FKA twigs ad exposes of hers.

And the FKA twigs ad isn’t the only one in which a woman appears partly nude to advertise her Calvins. Recent ads featuring Kendall Jenner were highly suggestive but not banned. In one, she’s topless, covering her breasts with her hands. In other, she’s lying prone in a bra and pulling her jeans down to expose her underwear. And in another, she’s wearing just socks and underwear with no top — again covering her breasts with her arms, but, like FKA twigs, also exposing the side of her leg, torso, arm and breast; unlike FKA twigs, she’s sitting rounded over, in a less stereotypically powerful, and more passive-appearing, position.

The female body has long been treated as more representative of sex than the male one, which is why the term “sex object” is so overwhelmingly applied to women and so seldomly to men. And it is true that in advertising, women are often sexually objectified, with the female body used as a stand-in for sex itself. When we say that “sex sells,” what we actually mean is that sexualized female bodies sell things. And often, those bodies are posed in ways that appear passive or receptive, or that even seem child-like.

As feminist Jean Kilbourne, who has spent her career critiquing the way advertising portrays women, put it, “ads create a climate that normalizes stereotypes and harmful attitudes. For example, the body language of women in advertisements is often passive, vulnerable, submissive and very different from the body language of boys and men, who appear strong and dominant. Often grown women are infantilized in advertising, posing in silly or childlike ways, looking like little girls.”

Feminists, including Kilbourne, have challenged this sexual objectification of women for decades, and we should continue to do so. But nudity isn’t the same as objectification. It can be difficult to draw a bright line between “sexy” and “sexualized.” And even if ads do sexualize women — and so many do — we should be wary of the presumption that women’s bodies are inherently objectified and sexualized, while men posed in sexual ways are simply sexy.

The Advertising Standards Authority is charged with maintaining basic standards for ads, and apparently with responding to citizen complaints — and these standards are why you aren’t going to see full-frontal nudity or extreme violence in an advertisement in the UK. Some violations are obvious. Others, though, are clearly much more subjective. And the agency should ask itself why a partially-nude woman is more worthy of a ban than a mostly-nude man is.

Not that Calvin Klein is particularly sympathetic or even lucid here. The Calvin Klein company said its ad was from a partnership with FKA twigs, a confident and empowered woman. This is a largely meaningless statement. Would the ad be rightly banned if the woman in it wasn’t “confident” in her appearance, or if she wasn’t “empowered”? What does it even mean for a woman to be “empowered”? Who empowered her? Do we often describe men as “empowered”?

This is one of those pseudo-feminist buzzwords that seems to only get trotted out to deflect criticism, or perhaps raise money for NGOs. The Advertising Standards Authority wasn’t objecting to FKA twigs’s confidence or her empowerment, whatever that means. They were, it seems, objecting to her side boob.

Calvin Klein is also no stranger to controversial and highly sexual ads. In 1980, a highly sexualized ad featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields included crotch shots of Shields in tight jeans, and her saying, “You know what comes in between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The uproar was enormous and frankly righteous; the ad did encourage viewers to see a teenage girl — a child — as an underwear-less sex object. Sex sells indeed. But 15-year-olds shouldn’t be selling it.

FKA twigs, though, is an adult woman. On display in the ad featuring her is a female body that looks powerful, not passive or prone — and, yes, sexy. The agency has a point that few viewers are likely to notice the shirt she’s partially wearing, which is dark and fades in to the background; her skin pops out against the black-gray color scheme of the photo, and it’s what a viewer notices first. Human eyes are drawn to the brightest parts of photographs, and FKA twigs’ skin is the lightest part of this photo, other than the whites of her eyes. It would be disingenuous for the company to pretend that the focus of the ad isn’t her body.

The same, though, is true of the ads featuring White and Jenner, whose skin and sexualized body parts attract the eye. If fashion designers weren’t trading on the bodies in the clothes as much as the clothes themselves, they’d photograph their wares on fully clothed models.

If the Advertising Standards Agency is going to ban ads that don’t actually expose the whole of any naughty bits but do expose some parts, then they at least need consistent standards. Because as it stands, FKA twigs is right: There is a double standard at play here, and it does send the message that the problem isn’t sexual objectification, but a woman owning her body, sexuality and all.https://nutriapel.com/

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