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Amy Schumer and Serena Williams’ Nude Photo Shoot Is Different, But It Isn’t Empowering

One step forward for feminism, another step back

The 2016 Pirelli calendar has been revealed, and it’s, well, different than it used to be. In case you are unfamiliar with the publication, the calendar, printed annually over the past fifty years, is traditionally smattered with pictures of nude, or nearly nude, women in provocative poses. The calendar was conceived as an advertisement for the Italian auto manufacturer, adorned with risqué photos of scantily clad women—apparently the pioneers of the now-tired trope of using hot women to sell cars. Kate Moss, Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, and many more of the world’s most successful models have made appearances in the calendar. Clothing and anyone larger than a size 2 have rarely made appearances.

Until now.

In 2016, the calendar, shot by the famed Annie Leibovitz, will feature women chosen for their résumés rather than their sexual appeal. The calendar is chock-full of striking images. Yoko Ono, Ava DuVernay, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, Patti Smith, author Fran Lebowitz, actress Yao Chen, and Tavi Gevinson are among the women featured, all of whom are fully clothed. Serena Williams and Amy Schumer are the only exceptions, both of whom posed nearly nude.

The change is being praised—and rightfully so—as a positive cultural milestone, one that commands a decline in the objectification and sexualization of women in the media. The topless depictions of Schumer and Williams, both of whom represent body types markedly different than those flaunted in your typical magazine, are being lauded as victories over body shamers. This is where I somewhat disagree.

Let me first insist that there is no one happier than me to see Pirelli’s calendar—what was once a monument to female objectification—transformed. Regardless of its motive (many have pointed out that the company is merely exploiting a cultural trend to stay relevant), it is positive to see women held up for their contributions to society rather than the shape of their breasts and ability to arouse men. And the thought of saying anything that appears to be critical of badass ladies such as Schumer and Williams makes me cringe. That said, I think their photos ought to give us pause.

When Schumer posted her photo to Instagram, this caption accompanied it: “Beautiful, gross, strong, thin, fat, pretty, ugly, sexy, disgusting, flawless, woman. Thank you @annieleibovitz.” In a promo video for the calendar, Schumer said, “I felt I looked more beautiful than I’ve ever felt in my life, and I felt like it looked like me.” Commenting on Schumer’s photo, Christina Cauterucci of Slate wrote, “But, by posing in their underwear despite relentless taunts, Schumer and Williams give us another, subversive model for handling superficial criticism: Love your body in the most public way possible.”

Schumer is not the only one to take this approach to combating impossible beauty standards and body shaming. From Demi Lovato’s nude photo shoot to Khloé Kardashian’s nude cover photo on her new book Strong Looks Better Naked, there is a persistent trend of asserting one’s confidence by stripping down.

I am elated to see that these ladies are comfortable in their own skin, but I think it is odd and somewhat troubling to associate confidence with one’s willingness to appear nude in public, as the latter is neither a requirement nor a guarantee of the former. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: One’s willingness to walk around naked is a poor measure of confidence. These photos, stunning as they are, seem to say, “I am confident in who I am, and I’ll prove it by leaving nothing to the imagination,” as though the height of confidence is to do publicly what is traditionally done privately.

But that notion is, at best, silly. It is possible to be utterly confident in one’s body yet experience a certain bashfulness at the idea that everyone in the world, even everyone in the room, would see it naked. And this is true of many aspects of our lives. Whether it is going to the bathroom or dressing, there are countless daily activities in which I partake that I am not ashamed of in and of themselves but would be wholly embarrassed to do in public. That does not make me less confident or self-loving.

Many an insecure girl has stripped down in pursuit of a false notion of empowerment. Nude photo shoots have too often been done by women in bad circumstances who seek validation in the wrong places. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that reaching a place in which you feel no embarrassment while publicly nude does not necessarily mean you’ve achieved any modicum of confidence. To equate such a state of mind with confidence confuses two very different things.

Verily was the first magazine to not use Photoshop to modify women’s bodies. Its origins are rooted in the belief that women of all sizes and appearances ought to love themselves. “Less of who you should be, more of who you are” is our motto. So yes, love yourself. Love yourself every day no matter where you are. Be confident in who you are no matter who you are with. But also know that you don’t have to eschew privacy, decorum, or clothing to do so.