Getting Naked to Protest

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A few weeks ago in Cleveland, Ohio at the Republican National Convention, 100 women gathered in front of the convention center wearing nothing more than their god-given birthday suits. The demonstration was meant to call into question the atavistic policies regarding women and women’s health that have been floating around the Republican party as of late. By showcasing bare nakedness, in all its glory, the participants aimed to combat the hateful rhetoric which seeks to assert dominance over women’s bodies, and in doing so, diminishes their agency and worth.

The project, organized by photographer Spencer Tunick, was entitled “Everything She Says Means Everything,” and it featured 100 naked women holding mirrored discs, which, according to Tunick’s website, were meant to “communicate that we are a reflection of ourselves, each other, and of, the world that surrounds us.” The women held the mirrors up and flashed their exposed selves in the direction of the political event.

Evidently, the nude participants did not adhere to the controversial RNC dress code, for which female reporters were forewarned that revealing themselves or wearing unkempt clothing would be unacceptable, and that they could be turned away from the convention if they did not recognize Trump’s preferred attire choices. In other words, orders demanded that they should cover up and dress modestly if they expected to be taken seriously as journalists.

It’s worth mentioning, briefly, that there is something potentially problematic that the person behind the lens of “Everything She Says Means Everything” was a man. It seems fitting to contemplate how this fact interacts with ongoing discussions of the male gaze, though perhaps that should be left for the reader to ruminate upon of their own accord.

Although this particular demonstration received quite a bit of press, naked protests–or at the very least topless ones–have been around for quite some time. Using the nude body as a site of resistance is a familiar, and arguably very effective, tactic for activists.

At the 1968 Miss America Contest, early members of the Women’s Liberation Movement notoriously burned bras to protest the restrictive stereotypes and blatant judgements on appearance that were perpetuated by the contest (a battle that is still being fought to this day). As it turns out, this story is more folklore than fact; not one bra was actually set aflame, but the message reigns true nonetheless: Our bodies, and the things we put on them and take off of them are intrinsically tethered to society’s expectations of femininity.

The body is deeply personal, yet also extremely political. This is especially true for women, whose bodies are under constant scrutiny by government and culture alike.

It’s not just the restrictive laws about abortion (made and enforced mostly by white men), or the struggle for many women to afford crucial feminine hygiene products, or the very assumption that at-times invasive forms of birth control are the responsibility of women alone. It’s the question of “What was she wearing?” when a woman is raped, or the expectation that a woman should “lose the baby-weight” after she has a child. It’s everything.

Without consent, women’s bodies become battlegrounds upon which patriarchal wars are fought.

Politics, power, and control—though wielded at a grand scale—ultimately come down to the governing of bodies: where they go, what we put in them, and who owns them. With the intention of highlighting this small yet important truth, bodies themselves can be used to challenge this notion. Nakedness, especially of women, can in fact be strategically utilized to push back in the face of misogyny. As Brett Lunceford writes, “nudity is strategically employed as a mode of social and political action.” By bucking conventional societal norms (i.e. clothes), the corporeal form can in it of itself become a symbol of objection.

Birdie Brandes nicely sums up for Vice the myriad ways in which disrobing has been used to prove a political point. “From PETA’s anti-meat protest where (mostly) naked women (more than men) packaged themselves up like steaks, to Chelsea Handler giving it to Instagram by posing nude astride a horse, to topless anti-abortion demos in Cologne,” she continued, “the female body has become a useful tool of dissent.”

Through nude protests, women demand that their bodies be seen not as sexualized objects or as forms of advertisement, but rather as pillars of opposition and strength. Unfortunately, we may not have come quite as far as we’d like to think since the mystical bra-burning days, but there are those out there who are still willing to take it off in order to make a difference.