Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that digs deep into the unpopular opinions editors and writers feel most passionately about. We've explored everything from why Grey's Anatomy needs to end now to why Ferris Bueller is a jerk.
Women have been shamed for their bodies for so long it's hard to remember a time when they weren't. Too big? Prepare to be compared to farm animals. Too small? Eat a cheeseburger. Showing too much skin? You're clearly promiscuous. Showing too little? What a prude. It's not a new conversation, and there's no winning it — unless you're one of these celebrity women who have turned the shame on its head and "showed skin" for their own benefit. These are the women who are mercilessly harangued for being "immodest," but in a much more important way, they're targets because they're self-starters. They have had the courage to go as far as they can with the resources they have yet are persecuted for achieving wealth and freedom in a culture that's uncomfortable with the means to their success.
In 2019, some celebrities have mastered this practice. For them, the pros — monetary gain, success, and the benefits of being considered a "sex symbol" — outweigh the cons. However, they're still mocked, harassed, and critiqued daily. Skim the Instagram comments of the women who posts bikini shots and you'll spot the trolls, losers, and abusers who crawl out of the woodwork to question their values, throw insults at them, and, in some cases, threaten their lives. As The Atlantic pointed out last year, Instagram has a harassment problem, and women are the main targets.
Some build their brands out of their homes, slowly growing their audiences until they're noticed. In other cases, their bodies dictate their fates before they get a say, as model Emily Ratajkowski has described in multiple interviews. Either way, it's time their work be respected in the same way any other businesswoman's would. The moment for us to highlight their achievements over their methods is past due.
More than 15 years after her sex tape with rapper Ray J was leaked, Kim Kardashian West may still be better known for that tape than her activism. Naturally endowed with a curvy body and an infamously big behind, the star became a person of interest when the video hit the web. Prior to the tape, Kardashian worked as a personal assistant to Paris Hilton. She clearly had dreams of working in Hollywood, but likely had no idea when and if her breakout moment would occur. Then, in 2003, the tape leaked and the actionable right to use her own body to gain notoriety was no longer hers.
So, she leaned in.
During a 2015 promotional event for her book, Selfish, she explained how she'd always felt objectified in some way and why she chose to embrace it.
"I posted a photo of myself at age 14 where I was a C or D bra size," she said. "I used to sit in the bathtub and pray that I would stop developing. At the time I was mortified." She also took the opportunity to say the media "absolutely" objectifies women "but if you have the power, you can take that power and put out there what you want people to look at." While the point of Selfish was to offer fans a collection of images of her most private moments, she said, "That’s not a bad thing. I took them, I like them, and there’s power in that."
Multiple sexy photoshoots, one long-running reality TV show, some game-changing Instagram posts, and several breakings of the internet later, she's one of the most famous self-made women in history. After she married Kanye West in 2014, she became an advocate for human rights, and successfully negotiated the release of Alice Marie Johnson, the 63-year-old grandmother who received a mandatory life sentence plus 25 years in prison for allowing drug traffickers to use her telephone — and that's just the beginning. According to Buzzfeed, the TV personality negotiated for the release of 17 people between February and May of 2019.
Kardashian is currently studying law so she can help in a more substantive way. She may have fallen (or catapulted herself, depending on your opinion of the video leak) into celebrity, but it's difficult to argue the world would be better off without her.
Amber Rose followed a similar path to fame as KKW. After her parents divorced, she started stripping at the age of 15 to provide for her family. Through her work, she met rappers like Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa, who she married in 2013. Following their breakup several years later, she led the Amber Rose SlutWalk in Los Angeles, which defends women's right to own their sexuality free from judgment, labels, and discrimination.
Emily Ratajkowski, the 28-year-old model who gained fame for appearing topless in Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines" music video, is another example. In an early 2016 essay she penned for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter, Ratajkowski said she couldn't remember a time when she wasn't objectified for her petite yet shapely frame. She was 12 years old when she developed D-size breasts and was given the endearing (read: disturbing) nickname "Baby Woman." She recalled being guilted into "covering up" so men wouldn't look at her the wrong way.
"I hear the voices reminding me not to send the wrong message," she wrote. "And what is that message exactly? The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires. To me, 'sexy' is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?"
She went on to point out that young girls need to see women who "find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual." "Even if being sexualized by society's gaze is demeaning," she wrote, "there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.”
Her writings, social media posts, and various interviews on feminism and sexuality now define her more than her body, and many consider her an activist for the feminist movement.
"For me, feminism is all about choice, socially, sexually, in the workplace, in any capacity," she told Grazia magazine. "It is about women having the freedom to choose. [Are there limits?] I don't think so. Once you start drawing lines you're missing the point because everyone has different things they want for themselves and there are no limitations for men in that way."
Then, there are stars like Margot Robbie.
Robbie quickly became a household name thanks to her 2013 performance in The Wolf of Wall Street opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. In one scene, her character, Naomi Lapaglia, sits on the floor in a hot pink sweater dress (sans underwear) and pushes DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort away with her foot as he lustfully crawls toward her. The sexually-charged scene was one of the most infamous of the year and catapulted Robbie to a new level of fame. Robbie, who was then best known as Donna Brown in the Australian soap opera
Neighbours, was suddenly afforded the opportunity to pick her own projects, a freedom most young actresses earn later on in their careers, if at all.
The following year, she was cast as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, a role that would earn her a Critics' Choice Award for Best Actress in an Action Movie. Then in 2017, she appeared as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. The role earned her critical acclaim, an Oscar nod, and a Critics' Choice Award for Best Actress in a Comedy. Portraying Tonya Harding was far from sexy, but Robbie wanted it. It's important to note that she produced the film with husband Tom Ackerley, and took the controversial role for herself.
"I don't think anyone would have given me this role unless I had gone after it," she said at the film's UK premiere. "I wasn't prepared to wait for ten years for someone to happen to offer me a role like this."
Just the year before, in 2016, Vanity Fair released a highly-criticized interview with Robbie in which the writer described her as "26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way, but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance." "She is blonde but dark at the roots," the writer went on, somewhat bafflingly. "She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character."
All this within the article's opening paragraphs.
"I remember thinking, 'That was a really odd interview, I don’t know how that’s going to come out,'" Robbie later told Australia's The Project. "Then when I read it and I was like, Yeah, the tone of this is really weird, I don't really know what he’s trying to get at or play at."
While the interview was a bizarre interaction, she said she "didn't expect there to be like an uproar about it at all" because she's seen worse. "I've read far more offensive, far more sexist, insulting, derogatory, disgusting things on a daily basis," she explained. "I don't know maybe I'm desensitized to it now.”
The world is changing, and with it comes new ways women define feminism. After all, the movement isn't meant to support society's restrictions on women, it's meant to do the opposite. The ideals of these women may not be the same as their mothers, grandmothers, or the other famous feminists before them, but they've taken it and made it work for them in a world that works against them. Kim K and Ratajkowski were sexualized and built businesses around it. Four years after her objectifying role in The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie used the financial freedom it earned her to pay herself with creative freedom — and who's to tell her that's wrong? Who's to tell any of these women that taking control of their own sexuality is wrong when the outcome has been so right?
Today, many women fight to be valued and respected in the workplace for everything but their bodies. For others, it's a one-way ticket to success, and that's okay, too. The notion that women who rely on their physical appeal are less respectable than those who don't is a problematic, outdated view we should work to eradicate, and women like Kardashian, Ratajkowski, and Robbie are doing that — whether you like it or not.