In May 2015, I wrote a blog for About-Face about Taylor Swift’s recently-released video for “Bad Blood.” In the post, I argued that the scantily clad women in the video were “devalued from being strong warriors to being traditionally sexy females with bodies that exist to be objectified.” I posted it to my personal social media pages, and a friend left a comment asking why being scantily clad couldn’t lead to “empowerment”. Honestly, I never answered her, but I was reminded of the question when I started recognizing a new trend: the naked dress.
Alden Wicker of Refinery29 describes the naked dress as “a long, sheer gown encrusted with just enough jewels, feathers, and embroidery to keep the X-rated bits out of view.” Its most famous recent wearers are Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, both of whom donned iterations of the dress at the Met Gala in 2015.
While I was reading about the trend, my first thought was, “Oh, great – another envelope to push, another dictation of style that keeps pushing women towards becoming just bodies.” No longer must women just be naked on a beach – now it’s acceptable, and on the verge of expected, to show off everything on a red carpet.
Furthermore, I felt continually disappointed that talented women like the aforementioned singers keep resorting to corporeal attention to make headlines. In many ways, it’s great that women are no longer restricted to nineteenth-century ankle-length skirts, but do we just keep pushing toward a world with no boundary of what’s acceptable to show? Will women always be encouraged to become more and more naked for others’ regular judgment?
Given my relatively conservative train of thought, I was surprised to learn that empowerment was repeatedly in the vocabulary of the bloggers covering the naked dress trend. Wicker argued that the trend is not oppressive because “the Naked Dress is only for A++ list celebrities … That’s why it is the ultimate power play. The woman in the Naked Dress is above reproach, outside the fashion rules that govern the rest of us … They love the benefits of being a woman and have dismissed the drawbacks of femininity — the social strictures, glass ceilings, and male gaze — as a non-concern.”
Hannah Weil McKinley wrote a piece for PopSugar about wearing a naked dress “IRL,” and called the experience “empowering,” explaining, “It held me in the right places, helping to define my waist and lift my chest. No, it wasn’t Jennifer Lopez’s body, but it was mine. It made me stand up straighter and walk a little more purposefully to see my body like that.” But then, in direct opposition to embracing her body (albeit a version that is more conformed to traditional standards of beauty), McKinley explained, “I was wearing something glamorous and dramatic — something so far out of my comfort zone it made me feel like someone else. Maybe I was Beyoncé — I didn’t care, I felt fierce.”
So what does this mean for my friend’s question of whether or not nudity can be empowering? It’s interesting that both Weil and McKinley describe the dress as empowering only for women who are already celebrated for their beauty, or for wearers who feel like someone who is already celebrated for her beauty. Tellingly, Wicker’s final point was, “You will never be expected, or have the opportunity, to wear a Naked Dress. And that is the most beautiful part about it.”
This does not lead to an answer of whether nudity in and of itself is empowering or not, but does indicate that we still live in a world where nudity is only viewed as empowered when the relevant body meets a certain standard. The fact that men are routinely seen as more empowered when fully clothed, particularly in a nice suit or uniform, also sheds a light of concern over what we expect of women. We should ask ourselves what we would do if the body in the naked dress were overweight, or disabled, or even aged (I suspect the blogosphere would categorize those women as “brave” for baring it all).
Viewing nearly-nude women on the red carpet or in music videos can’t give us a clean moral or philosophical answer over whether or not nudity is empowering, or just paves the way for objectification. It does, however, tell us that we still expect women to fit a certain physical bill, and perhaps that the perception of nudity as empowering means that we were placing too much emphasis on physical appearance in the first place.
Caitlin Lansing graduated from Princeton University in 2014, where she studied American women’s history with a focus on entertainment and beauty culture. A former college cheerleader and dancer, she is no stranger to body image issues, but hopes to use this to encourage women in their pursuits of self-confidence.