Mayim Bialik Forgets This One Crucial Thing in Her Rant About Naked Plus-Size Models & Empowerment

mayim bialik
Mayim Bialik/Facebook
Mayim Bialik is a feminist force to be reckoned with. The Big Bang Theory actress is also a neuroscientist and has even authored several books, including Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular, a guide to helping young feminists on the path to successfully discovering themselves. Bialik is a hyperconscious woman who tackles feminist issues ranging from social injustices to the problems with vernacular surrounding women -- and everything in between. Which is why I found her rant about too many plus-size women (and, I am assuming, women in general) getting naked in the name of empowerment to be disappointing in the least and highly problematic at best. 

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To be fair, Bialik begins her four-minute Facebook video addressing the benefits of plus-size visbility -- she notes that women seeing women "who actually exist" has immeasurably helped them accept their bodies in ways they never imagined. She also mentions that when plus-size women portray themselves as desirable and beautiful, it challenges society's definition of beauty to be more inclusive. All of which are inarguably good things.

Her problem, however, lies in women disrobing to send these messages.

"We start to equate empowerment not with strength, or intelligence, or confidence, but with sexiness," she laments. 

She feels that plus models as well as athletes and celebrities who publicly go nude are contributing to the narrative that no matter what they accomplish, the only value that carries any weight is the physical one. Overall she thinks that this type of self-presentation is ultimately objectifying, and can confuse young women into thinking sexiness is the end-all be-all.

Her feeling is that in a society in which rape culture is ever-present and the male gaze is marketed to, equating nudity to empowerment only confuses young women further.

Bialik ends her rant by saying that while we should be encouraging girls to not fear their bodies or their sexuality, we should be teaching them that "empowerment" really comes from being treated as equals, through education -- separate from our naked bodies. It all sounds pretty fair when you put it that way -- that we are more than our bodies and should be celebrated for more than the way we look. 

What feels wrong to me is this siloed definition of a word no individual has a right to to define. First of all, "empowerment" is accessed by a variety of people in a variety of ways. And secondly, plus-size women reclaiming their bodies through nudity is about having control over their sexiness, about unapologetically displaying their bodies for their own agency -- not the male gaze. Thusly, this dismantles rape culture from the inside, because the context matters deeply. 

Take, for instance, Amber Rose. For perspective, Bialik actually interviewed a fellow activist about Rose's Instagram post that put her full pubic bush on display -- which Rose labeled as a "badass feminist" post. Bialik's interviewee disagreed with Bialik and presented her with several points that Rose's agency over her own body made the photo a feminist one.

Pit Rose's photo against a photo in Playboy -- in which the woman is a willing participant but not the curator of the image, and done with the intent to appease the male gaze without her own agency over her presentation -- and you can see where Rose's photo is absolutely empowering. 

But the fact is, it's not an either-or debate.

"This, like many other debates that pepper the Internet and beyond, is being made into a black-and-white issue when it's actually a nuanced one," Melissa Fabello, managing editor of Everyday Feminism, told Elle in its coverage of nude selfies and feminism. "People are arguing that either Kim Kardashian is sex-positive and body accepting or that she's perpetuating harmful narratives about women's bodies. In reality, it can be a little of both, and I think we need to make room for the possibility of a 'Yes, and' conversation. Yes, women are unfairly pressured to display their bodies, and women are allowed to make choices about those bodies." 

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No matter how you break it down, context is key. Bialik's argument that nudity negates "real" empowerment is detrimentally one-sided. Nudity, sexiness, and self-acceptance tackle the front-facing issues society puts on women about confidence. Women seeing other naked women doesn't necessarily translate into "I need to do that too." Oftentimes, it can be empowering for women to see a woman flaunt her body, to see that the world did not engulf itself in flames because she has cellulite -- and it gives an individual the ability to in fact break down those barriers put up by the patriarchy. 

If a woman can own all of that, and understand that she is physically valuable in whatever state her body is in, she can use that to propel her self-worth forward through her intelligence and strength. 

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