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Photo was all a bit too revealing

24 October 2014

KAREN DANCZUK, a Rochdale councillor, was recently taken to task by the journalist Janet Street-Porter and the pop star Jamelia for posting revealing selfies on social media.

The selfies did not amount to much: a high-angled camera, taking in sparkly eyes and prominent cleavage. But it was enough to provoke the former head of BBC "Yoof" programmes to accuse Mrs Danczuk of letting down the teenage girls of Rochdale by an inappropriate display of what the red-tops would call her "assets". This, she said, was particularly damaging, given the grooming and recent abuse scandals in the town.

There is a serious issue behind this bit of media froth. It is an extraordinary paradox that, at a time when girls have more opportunities than ever to develop their gifts, they are simultaneously pressured to conform to gender stereotypes that earlier generations would have considered cheap and degrading.

I think it begins with the imposition of pink as a girlie preference and requirement; progresses to the marketing of vaguely suggestive lingerie to the pre-pubescent; and culminates in the horrific exposure to porn which has teenagers of both sexes acquiring wildly unrealistic sexual expectations of themselves and one another.

When accused on TV of letting down the younger generation, Mrs Danczuk's response was to insist, reasonably enough, that it was not fair to blame her for recent abuse scandals. All she wanted was to encourage girls to take pride in their appearance. She then went on to claim that her best assets were not, in fact, her frontage, but her eyes.

Looking at her eyes in the selfies, you can see what she means. They are friendly, warm, a bit cheeky. But this can make her defence seem disingenuous. Many would see an invitation here, an appeal to the beholder that plays into the expectations of our over-eroticised culture.

Contrast this with the nude painting of Victoria Bateman, a Cambridge economics fellow, commissioned by her. It was displayed earlier this year at the Mall Gallery in London. She stands against a wall, looking coolly at the viewer. She is neither passive nor provocative. The eyes do not plead or invite.

This is not "a nude" so much as a naked female person, who is simply her own person, not someone else's. There is no invitation, no challenge, no teasing ambiguity. The subject's erotic life is strictly her own business. The result is a startling portrait, honest, but curiously chaste, more so in its nakedness than the provocative body either exposed by a selfie or hidden beneath a chador.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

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