Why ‘You Do You’ Will Never Be Good Enough
Earlier this year, on International Women’s Day, Kim Kardashian penned and released a powerful essay on body image, sexuality and empowerment. Galvanized to speak to these issues by a constant stream of criticism from many quarters, including feminist ones, Kardashian wrote:
‘I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me.’
She also wrote:
‘You be you and let me be me. I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy.’
Kardashian is correct. She is absolutely allowed to be sexy. The rampant slut-shaming she is subjected to — both coded and overt — is not acceptable in 2016. And our society-wide Madonna/Whore complex — which is what she’s pointing to when she claims she can be a sexy mother and entrepreneur — is also in desperate need of disruption, for as Walt Whitman wrote way back in 1855, we are all capable of containing multitudes.
This concept isn’t new; regardless of whether the filter being applied is internal or external, regardless of whether we’re looking at men or women, identities should not be assembled by the numbers, as if they’re IKEA kitchens rather than lush rainforests with complex ecosystems that defy easy construction and deconstruction. And yet part of me is troubled by Kardashian’s essay. Her wording and the sentiments she is expressing remind me of the popular millenial catch-cry ‘you do you’ since both foreground agency as a metric of power and personal fulfillment as a key indicator of success. And both ignore the structural prism that informs our image of success and limits and directs the exercise of our agency.
It’s understandable that we’ve wound up here, ideologically convinced that the act of making choices and the pursuit of happiness trumps everything else. After all, we’re reacting to what has come before, trying to rewrite an old cultural tale that no longer fits our needs. Women’s hyper-intense focus on choice and happiness is subversive; it has come about as a reaction to our previous obsession with duty — to our families, to our husbands, to society at large — and the confined strictures within which ‘doing your duty’ forced many women to lead their lives, particularly in terms of sexual expression.
But much as we try to deny it, the personal is political and will never cease to be. Each decision we make is informed by an invisible matrix of power and — perhaps more importantly — all of our decisions feed back into that matrix. Each of our decisions has the power to either reinforce patriarchal norms or become part of a narrative of resistance, a narrative that attempts to redefine those norms.
A few years ago, when E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey achieved dizzying heights of success, feminists started having conversations about BDSM. The question on everybody’s mind was whether or not women could credibly claim to find empowerment via submission, given our history and context. While I must admit that I found most of the analysis on this issue lacking in complexity, I do think that discussions like these, that situate micro-narratives (BDSM roleplay) in relation to grand narratives (patriarchal norms and structures) need to be part of the conversation about our sexual, educational and corporate practices.
This doesn’t mean that these conversations need to dominate our discussions or that we ought to give up our focus on exercising agency and achieving happiness on our own terms in favor of being disruptive, subversive feminists. As a woman who is attracted to traditionally masculine men, who (mostly) shaves her legs when she wears sundresses and who (occasionally) laughs at off-color jokes, I couldn’t make a sweeping normative claim like that without getting my picture placed in the dictionary beneath the word ‘hypocrite’. Instead, my suggestion is that we do something far more achievable and useful: find a middle-ground and occupy it.
Self-deprivation and the elision of desire isn’t going to help us to deconstruct structures of power, it’s just going to sweep our problematic behaviors beneath the rug. And if we’re leveling with ourselves, most of us don’t have the self-control of monks — with or without social sanction, whether it’s feminist or not, we will seek to do what we want.
In the case of Kim Kardashian, a woman who has built an empire on selfies and having one of the world’s most amazing derrières, what she wants to do is post nudes on the internet. For Kim, the act of posting nudes empowers by giving her confidence and entrepreneurial power. In the case of women who like taking on a submissive role in BDSM-roleplay,what they want to is to do is get dominated. For them, getting spanked is empowering because it leads to a happy and fulfilling sex life.
When we target Kardashian for her selfies and women who enjoy BDSM for their submission, our ire is misdirected. We can have conversations about why women might choose to capitalize on their beauty, about why women might derive more confidence from being considered ‘beautiful’ than from anything else. We can have conversations about why women might like getting spanked, what factors in our socialization inform our desires.
Importantly, we can have these conversations — about how the shape of the cage we’re in subsequently shapes our behavior — without attacking individuals for their actions or insisting that they change their tune and fall into step with feminist thinking. We can acknowledge that the personal is political without letting it stop us from doing what we want. We can be self-aware and acknowledge that our desires have not arisen in a vacuum without excessive self-flagellation or denial of our selves.
So yes, ‘you do you’ and let Kim Kardashian do her — but with some caveats. Be willing to self-examine, to engage with others in regards to that examination and to talk about why what you do makes you feel empowered. Because if our goal is ultimately for society to be structured in a way that makes ‘doing you’ as easy as possible for everyone, then we have to understand that we cannot free ourselves by simply doing whatever weplease in the cage. We can only free ourselves by tearing its bars down.