Last week, gossip sites went nuts over the news that Lady Gaga had dared to appear in public with a few curves. The pop star was no longer sporting the bone-thin frame that she had in her most popular videos. To hear the tabloids tell it, she had “packed on the pounds.” After calling her fat, the speculation began. She was pregnant. She was stoned. It was all a publicity stunt.
The real story, according to Gaga herself, is that she has suffered from bulimia and anorexia for years. She recently gained 25 pounds, but said, “I don’t really feel bad about it. Even for a second.” She took to her website, a sort of fan social network called LittleMonsters.com, where she posted a series of near-naked photos of herself. She poses with her eyes closed, her arms outstretched, her ass popped toward the camera. There was no fuck-you, no plea to the media to leave her body alone. Just a simple caption: “Bulimia and anorexia since I was 15.”
She invited her Little Monsters to “be brave and post a photo of you that celebrates your triumph over insecurities.” And her fans have obliged, posting their own nude or half-nude self-shots, all under the banner of a “body revolution.”
It seems a fitting response, given that we’re now in the era of the selfie. The latest smartphones have cameras that face not just outward to the world, but backward at us, so we can see ourselves reflected at the moment we hit the shutter button. No more guesswork or weird angles. The selfie is an Instagram staple, somehow more common and acceptable on a mobile-only platform than it is on Facebook. And in the deeper recesses of mobile networking —looking at you, Grindr — the self-shot has become the default profile pic. The selfie says, I’m here alone. It says, Here’s how I want to present myself.
This is why Gaga’s nudes are so powerful. They’re poorly lit; they’re self-staged. Not only is there no airbrushing, but there’s no flattering lighting, no strategic body positions. They underscore the message of her accompanying words. They say, Here’s me. Just me.
It’s tempting to write off nudity, especially female nudity, as just about the least-radical approach to raising awareness for, well, anything. The naked women in cages at PETA protests inspire eyerolls and erections, but they’re not doing much for their purported cause. I’d argue, though, that’s because they look like the sort of women we see naked all the time: perky-breasted twentysomethings who are size 0 to 4. Of course we know that most women don’t look like this, but we’re unaccustomed to seeing any other body types reflected in magazines and movies.
Pop culture offers a choice: Conform to this ideal and get naked (for a cause or just for your own career), or cover up in shame. Jessica Simpson, another celeb recently hammered for her weight gain, took the latter approach, “revealing” on Katie Couric’s show two weeks ago that she lost 40 pounds and has become a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. “I’m not a supermodel,” she says in the commercial. “I’m just Jessica, trying to eat real food in the real world.” Couric was quick to point out that the commercial doesn’t show Simpson’s body below the shoulders.
“I didn’t really want the big body reveal moment,” Simpson replied. “It’s not really who I am.” In other words, her “real” body still doesn’t conform to the celebrity standard — the one she epitomized in Daisy Dukes and string bikini car washes during her pop-star days — and therefore must remain off-camera.
Gaga declared this week that there’s another path for women, both famous and not. She wrote to her fans, “May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous.” As of late, there have been a few other women who opt to neither slim down nor cover up, including Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s Girls. It’s notable how unashamed Dunham is of her body; Girls, in both its nudity and its confessional tone, embraces the selfie aesthetic. “Engaging in a conversation about my body is not problematic because I’m asking for it, because I’m naked a lot [on the show],” Dunham told Time. “And I think like I’m clearly inviting commentary on seeing a nontraditional body in a sexual situation on TV.” A nontraditional body on TV, maybe. But, she continued, “I’m a size eight and that’s a size every woman in this country is.”
There’s something to that. While Lady Gaga and Lena Dunham might be pop-culture transgressors, they’re totally in the range of real-world normal. Anyone who’s ever been to a Korean spa or nude beach can attest that there’s a certain comfort in seeing the sheer range of bodies. The human form comes in a stunning variety. It isn’t weird that some women, even some international pop stars, have bodies that are bigger than size 0. It’s weird that we still, even in the era of the selfie, expect these women to cover them up.