Emma Watson’s Vanity Fair photo spread in which she partially bares her lovely breasts has reignited the age-old feminist debate about whether women should strip down in the name of empowerment or stay covered to avoid patriarchal objectification. Recently Beyoncé fans unearthed Watson’s 2014 criticisms against Beyoncé for displaying nudity: “I felt her message felt very conflicted in the sense that on the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her,” Watson said of Beyoncé.
One would think we’re used to seeing celebrities go nude, but Watson is striking a cord by merely showing some under-boob because, for starters, she’s Hermione Granger. That might not be entirely fair to Watson, but she will always be the world’s smartest, most lovable sweetheart. We watched her grow up in Harry Potter from a charming little girl to a beautiful young woman, and it’s hard to think of her in any other context, despite her recent adult roles in various films.
It might be precisely because of this perception that she is taking the reins of her sexuality and showing a little skin. Daniel Radcliffe went full monty in “Equus,” so why can’t she show her breasts in a fashion shot?
There’s also Watson’s HeForShe campaign for women’s advancement. She’s the fresh face of modern feminism, and feminists who love that old-time religion of “no nudity allowed” are angry that she’s “lowering” herself in this way. The whole point of feminism, they say, is for women to be measured by their inner qualities, not their female form. Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer went on a Twitter rampage against Watson’s so-called self-objectification, saying the actress, model, activist, and Ivy League graduate can no longer be taken seriously.
Women Are Not Either Body Or Mind, They’re Both
Elle magazine fired back at Hartley-Brewer in Watson’s defense: “It’s understandable why many women are still frustrated with what they perceive as overt sexualization of the female body. Many early feminists rightly wished for women to be recognized for their minds, not their bodies. But we have both minds and bodies, and denying one in favor of the other denies the wholeness of any person.”
To this last point, I have to say, “Amen!” In the past—when there was an actual patriarchy in the West—women were defined by their bodies. They were seen as overtly sexual, so they needed to be covered up, or were exploited for male gratification. The feminist movement released Western women from that patriarchal cage. I, like many other women, celebrate this.
But now women have another cage—a self-imposed one called feminism. On one side, we have feminists who refuse to recognize their sexuality and physical form because they want to be known for their minds, creating a kind of dualistic dynamic that pits the body against the spirit. On the other side, feminists champion showing every inch of skin or close to it, because they want to own their sexuality, control it before men do.
If this involves an endless parade of selfies, gratuitous nudity in film, sex tapes, or porn, they consider this female liberation. They, unlike their prudish sisters, are embracing a materialistic hedonism that is at odds with the spiritual and moral aspect of being human.
Both are failing to see women as whole persons. By either denying their physical form, or obsessing about it and slipping into self-objectification, feminists are preoccupied with their bodies. They, not men, have failed to move past women being defined by their sexuality.
Break Women Free from The Identity Box to Be Individuals
This is the problem we’re facing. Feminism has become the arbiter of truth for women, ignoring their individual motives, needs, and choices—even their wholeness as human beings. By failing to respect women as persons, with minds of their own, feminists lump them into a group and expect them to move as a herd against the now-mythical patriarchy. If you don’t, you’re hounded, criticized, and even shunned.
It is this loss of individuality that concerns me the most in this imaginary war against “male oppression.” Feminism in the West has become the Great Other by which women are to measure themselves and define their own persons—all for the sake of female solidarity. It’s a collectivist mindset that women should reject. We aren’t merely drones in the Feminist Borg. We are individual women, who are free to use our bodies and our minds however we wish, accountable to no greater being than God himself—the true source of what is moral and good.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “I am not part of a whole, I am not integrated, not included. To put me in this whole you imagine is to negate me. Who am I? I am an intensity of feeling in relation with beings, and particularly with the Divine Being, who excites my desire, my knowledge.” God alone is the “Absolute Other.”
If we are to be defined by anything in this life, it is our creator, the one who made us. Each of us will have a different understanding of what that means, of who God is. This doesn’t mean I embrace moral relativism, but I do recognize that human knowledge is fallible, especially at knowing God.
We have to let people be free to discover truth as they walk their own path. Growing in knowledge of self and of God, and the relationship between the two, is a lifelong journey. We shouldn’t reduce people to a single choice, or negate them by saying they can’t be taken seriously, simply because they deviate from the group or even from what we think is right and true.
We are not defined by others or even by our individual choices, although these certainly reveal our character. We are, ultimately, defined by our Creator, by the identity he alone has given us. It is in the interaction between the individual self and God that a person’s identity is formed. It is not formed by a group, others, or even by the self apart from God. Our value is rooted in a divine being that never changes. This is why no one, not even our own self-destructive choices, can ever negate us or rob us of our worth as complete human beings made in God’s image.
Making a Bad Decision Doesn’t Negate a Woman’s Worth
So what does this mean for Emma Watson or any other woman who wants to express her sexuality by going nude? First, it means we should respect a person as an individual made in the image of God, no matter what she decides to do with her body. We can disagree with a person’s choices while still respecting her as a free individual with dignity.
Does this mean everything a woman does is inherently right or good? No. As I said, I’m no moral relativist. Our choices can be wrong, and they have consequences—some of them detrimental. A woman must own those as much as she owns her free choices.
But a person can choose to make a wrong decision (or not-so wrong decision) without losing her dignity as a human being. A porn star still has value. The woman who strips down for the centerfold is still a complete person with many facets to her. A woman who shows her breasts in a fashion shoot can still be taken seriously. In that moment she is making the choice to display one part of her, but it is not the only part of her—and we need to realize that.
Second, we should recognize there are a variety of reasons a woman decides to go nude. It could be purely economic. She wants the money. Or it could be more personal, doing it simply for the experience. It could be that she likes the attention, the reaction from both men and women. She does it for the response. Or maybe she wants to overcome some insecurity within herself, and thinks showing her body will help build that confidence. Or she has no self-esteem and relies on her physical beauty to make her feel worthy and significant.
Some women might do it for artistic reasons, even in a commercialized fashion shoot. They think it fits the context and looks beautiful. They are expressing themselves artistically and celebrating their female form. Others might think they’re engaged in some political or social movement by displaying their bodies on their own terms. Still others like the shock value by pushing social boundaries. These women think they’re challenging societal norms and tearing down walls that separate people from one another.
Motivation Is Between an Individual Soul and Its Maker
As you can see, there are many motivations a woman can have—and probably more that I haven’t listed. Every woman is different. I don’t agree with all of these choices, some of them I believe to be wrong, particularly if they’re pornographic, and some of them disturb me greatly, especially women who need to use their own bodies to build their self-esteem.
This kind of behavior is addictive and can be self-destructive, as they lose sight of their own inner qualities, allowing their external selves to become the measure of their own self-worth. This is never good for a woman because that beautiful, soft, sexy body will age. If you have nothing but sagging breasts and wrinkled skin in your twilight years, you will be unhappy as you’re left looking in a mirror and seeing nothing except what you’ve lost to time.
My point, however, is that there are many reasons a woman chooses to display her body—personal, economic, social, artistic, and psychological. She is an individual, and her choices should be seen that way and evaluated accordingly. That might mean we disagree with her based on moral principles and our understanding that human beings are not merely physical and rational beings, but moral too. Everything we do has moral implications, and those should not be ignored. But that morality is not determined by feminism or any other sociopolitical movement. It is determined by God, known and understood by the individual in her relationship with him and through his revelation.
That is as true within a religious institution as it is without. Groups, movements, organizations—political, social, religious—do not determine a person’s identity, worth, or value. They can’t because they do not know the individual in her fullness as a human being. Only she and God have that knowledge.
God Will Judge Our Choices, Not Others
When we truly understand this point, we grasp what real freedom looks like. There is no freedom when we are defined by others, a group, or an institution that claims to be the fountain of truth. We are free only when we are truly ourselves as God made us—not as others expect or demand for us to be, and not even as we imagine ourselves to be, but as we are in reality, in truth, and in relation to our Creator.
It is within this context that a woman should decide what to do with her own body. She should ask herself, not what others want, but what does she want in relation to herself, her own life and the consequences her choices will bring to herself and those she cares about, and in relation to God and his divine standards. He alone is the absolute authority over her life.
Some might think that means all women should act the same because we live by the same objective reality in God. In a very few aspects, that is true. But when it comes to what we do with our own bodies, when we move beyond the absolutes and get into the many areas of individual freedom, we have to respect every individual as unique, accountable only to God for their choices.
Ultimately, all people need to live according to their own conscience as it is shaped and formed by God’s revelation of himself. How that manifests in the choices they make will be different. This doesn’t mean their choices will always be right or even good. Our knowledge of ourselves, of God, and of his purposes for us is imperfect. But we must be free to walk that path, experience the freedom of living our own lives before the face of God, and let him be our judge in these areas of individual liberty, not those who know nothing of our inner selves.
We each, as individuals, know our own pain and our own joy within our own hearts. Only the One who made us can see behind that veil, and it’s within this sacred space that we find freedom.