Keira Knightley participated in a topless photoshoot recently on the condition that the photos would not be subject to any editing, particularly in response to the past where her bust has been edited to appear bigger than in reality, most famously in the posters for King Arthur. In an interview with The Times, she said that she had made it a condition that her body would not be retouched, because ‘it does feel important to say it really doesn’t matter what shape you are’. Reactions to the photoshoot in Interview magazine ranged from Knightley being lauded as brave, to her being criticised because her protest still only shows typical values of beaut, as opposed to the many bodies and races which are still underrepresented honestly and openly in the mainstream media. Indeed, to call Knightley brave is an exaggeration, yet her statement is one of incremental progress.
She won’t receive the backlash that Nicki Minaj did for her photo on the cover for the “Anaconda” single, which sees her wearing little more than a sports bra and a thong, and showing off her behind in a squatting position. Nor will Knightley receive the criticism Rihanna did when she posed topless for LUI magazine. For her desire to show her body in the media on her own terms, she will be praised, while women of colour in the public eye are much more likely to be attacked for daring to do the same. Knightley is protected by a double standard in society which sees an exposed white body as more acceptable. You could say, then, that her photoshoot was not so much a cultural statement, as it was an affirmation that it is okay to have small, asymmetrical breasts, and a slim, boyish figure. The photoshoot seems to do little for women with bodies who are far further from the average Hollywood beauty standard than hers.
Equally, however, it is an exaggeration that the shoot was unhelpful. Ultimately, Knightley is drawing our attention to all sorts of double standards with these photos. She’s protesting that even bodies judged close to an ideal are subject to large amounts of editing to reach unrealistic standards. She is protesting the fact that the bodies we tend to see are rarely ones we can relate to, no matter what body shape we have. Indeed, she is also indirectly drawing attention to the racial double standard which seems to apply to Minaj and Rihanna, but not to her. That’s not to say that Knightley’s photoshoot will solve all these issues in a heartbeat – there is a long way to go before such a goal can be attained. This has, however, got people talking and thinking, which is a very important step.
Celebrities themselves don’t necessarily have the power to have a positive effect on the notion of the ‘ideal’ body. They themselves cannot overthrow a culture which has been cultivated over decades, and which is too entrenched to be eradicated easily. What they can do, however, is cause us to question what we should expect from our media consumption, and if there is enough demand for a change in attitudes, then hopefully, one day, those attitudes will eventually change. Knightley’s photoshoot is a drop in the ocean in the media world, but, for all its problems and shortcomings, it is most definitely a start.