It’s a plain truth — uncovering oneself in an action can garner a lot of media coverage. There’s a long and fabulous history of baring one’s beliefs while dropping one’s briefs, of taking it off to get on the news. Plus, it’s really easy to think of puns on the subject.
Last week marked the 24th anniversary of World AIDS Day, and for the occasion a group of activists bared it all in Congressman John Boehner’s Capitol Hill office to expose the negative impact that proposed federal budget cuts would have on people living with HIV and AIDS. It was a fitting choice. One could easily argue that the HIV-AIDS activist community, grown from a core of gays and lesbians who were out and proud, was one of the main contributing forces that moved activism from the staid to the flamboyant, embracing shock-and-awe tactics like public nudity.
The seven activists in the senator’s office were well aware that Washington, D.C., is home to demonstrations on every issue you can imagine almost every day of the week. So stripping off the kid gloves, or anything else they might have been wearing, was a good way to ensure that their action would actually be noticed. Nakedness has its own media shock value, especially in unlikely places like staid Senate offices. This is reason to get naked number one, as far as I’m concerned.
In honor of this action that dramatized the “naked truth” about budget cuts, let’s take a look at a few other reasons that creative uses of the birthday suit can be so powerful.
2. Nudity embodies vulnerability
Generally, being naked in the world today is associated with exposure — vulnerability to the elements as well as to other people’s desires. Every June, for instance, the World Naked Bike Ride expresses the extreme vulnerability of bicyclists in our car-addicted culture. During a 2007 Greenpeace action, 600 hundred people stripped down on a glacier in the Swiss Alps in a remarkable mass display of human fragility on top of seemingly indestructible, yet possibly just as vulnerable, ice flows. Not only were the bare bodies “bearing witness” to the catastrophe of climate change, but the juxtaposition of bare skin against the ice was evocative of a future in which humans may be unable to protect themselves from an increasingly inhospitable planet.
Sculptural nudes are not unusual sights in art galleries; perhaps that’s why a performance piece executed in the Tate Modern museum in London on the first anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico managed to go on for more than an hour before being interrupted. During this time, a nude body was ceremoniously doused in black oil poured from jerry cans with the logo of BP — a sponsor of the museum. The pool of dangerous-looking liquid oozing over a flesh-and-blood person contrasted with the pristine museum, evoking the disaster wrecked upon the fragile earth by the destructive and irresponsible fossil fuel industry. The gallery became a painful and poignant showcase for human vulnerability and a statement about the catastrophe of fossil-fuel exploration and use — as well as a call for artists and the Tate to withdraw from toxic sponsorships.
3. Being naked emphasizes our connection to nature
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) may be the quintessential birthday-suit activists. PETA organizers have noticed that naked people, especially celebrities, look more like their animal cousins than when they’re dressed, and they’ve effectively used nudes to promote several iconic campaigns, appealing to our sense of connection to nature and fellow mammals, as well as our desire to see attractive people naked.
The first “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign launched with the Go-Gos in 1991, and since then many celebrities have posed with nothing on but their own skin to raise awareness of the brutal treatment of animals killed or trapped for their fur. The message is very clear: Be comfortable in your own skin so the animals can keep theirs!
Other PETA actions make the message even more bluntly. Covered in blood, and not much else, thousands of anti-bullfight protesters lie on the ground in Spain and other regions where the violent sport is still practiced. There’s nothing subtle about this message, or the message of the PETA activists who crouch naked in cages — it’s not just eyebrow raising, but consciousness-raising that the group is after.
4. Show you have skin in the game
Being naked in a public way is a way of showing commitment. And if a little skin exposed is a good thing, think of what a lot of skin can do for your issue. Some of this thinking must have motivated the women of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN to reclaim their exploited breasts and naked bodies as tools of protest and persuasion. From protests of rapes, corruption, religious repression and political scandals, their “sextremism” has been widely covered by media all over the world, bringing much focus to FEMEN and its causes. The fearless FEMENistas are taking to its ultimate conclusion the idea that the personal is political, and that breasts can be political too. They recognize that not only do women have responsibility for tackling all kinds of thorny issues, but they bring a unique commitment to this fight by throwing themselves in, skin and all, to combat political marginalization on the basis of gender.
5. When you’ve got nothing left to wear… wear nothing!
In the face ever-increasing austerity measures handed down by bankrupted governments, it is becoming increasingly more likely to have the proverbial shirt taken off of your back. Classic protests making this phenomenon more than proverbial were held by Spanish firefighters, who lined up against a wall naked except for their boots and hats. Students in Quebec took their fight against tuition increases and threat of future debt to the streets with naked marches in the chilly spring of this past year, both to highlight their economic vulnerability and to expose their nonviolent means of protest while the state escalated and cracked down on the demonstrations with draconian anti-protest laws and less-lethal weaponry. As it were, the chant in French “Dans la rue, avec nous” (In the street, with us) also played on the French word nu, which means naked; the protest, a manifestation in French, was called instead manufestation.
See what I mean about puns?
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Waging Nonviolence is a leading publication on social movements around the world, and we’re looking to expand our coverage and work with new writers.