6 Reasons Female Nudity Can be Powerful
6 Reasons Female Nudity Can be Powerful
By Soraya Chemaly / salon.com

Last week, in the midst of what appears to be infinite fascination [2] about Lena Dunham’s nudity, I saw a fundraiser for the documentary “Free the Nipple [3]“ and also, by coincidence, talked to Facebook spokespeople about that company’s ban on visible female nipples.  Like the reporter who recently asked [4] Dunham why her “Girls” character was “often naked at random times for no reason,” many people seem confounded by expressions of female nudity that are not sexual – because isn’t titillation the whole point of women’s nakedness? The real question about female nudity isn’t why anyone would want to show or see women’s breasts if they’re not titillating.  The real question is about who has the right to say what they’re for, where and when they can be seen and by whom. That’s about power.

While it’s irksome that the reporter questioning Dunham had to ask at all, it’s an important question. It revealed how little he, and so many others, has thought about a topic that affects all the women he’s ever known.

Why is exposing the world to non-sexualized female nudity important?

1.  Women too often are made to embody male power, honor and shame.  It’s not good for us.  Our bodies, and the bodies of people who are gender fluid and non-binary conforming, are sites of moral judgment in ways most men’s are not, especially in public and in protest. Some of us experience our bodies, in particular our nudity, as objects of repression, oppression and powerlessness. Representing them as no one’s but our own, counter to prevailing representations [5], is important.

2. Female public nudity is usually treated as a moral offense, a cause for concern and discussion, but it’s rarely [6] allowed to be a source of non-sexual female power.  Male nudity is an entirely different thing.  When your average (straight) man is seen nude or semi-nude, it’s often considered humorous, as in frat boys streaking.  Or it’s a sign of virility and athleticism.  When it’s not, for example, the jarring images of the torture of Iraqi men [7] in Abu Ghraib, men – vulnerable, humiliated and in pain – are feminized by their nakedness [8].

3. Female nudity is not just about sexualization, it’s about maintaining social hierarchies, like those of race and class.  Non-idealized female bodies used autonomously undermine a continuous narrative about body-based sex and race differences. When our cultural production is singularly focused on hyper-gendered, racialized [9] and sexualized representations [10] of nudity, it is easier to maintain racist and sexist ideas [11] – and nude female bodies outside socially approved, sexualized contexts challenge those.

The cultural regulation of female nudity and portrayals of sexuality is also a powerful way in which women’s bodies are used to pit us against one another and to reinforce hierarchies among men. Dark bodies, especially women’s, have always been available for public consumption [12]: sale, rape, breeding, medical experimentation and more and the staying power of racist and sexist mythologies about white women and black men, rape and sex, are evident [13] every day [14].  When women take ownership of the circumstances of their own nudity, they can defy others’ attempts to place them within these hierarchies. Dunham’s casual yet implicitly confrontational nudity in some ways refuses to cater to the myth of the vulnerable, pure, white woman that serves as a racist backdrop to portrayals of black women as inferior.  But very few black women have the ability to challenge dominant representations of their bodies and roles [15] in the way that Dunham does, however, and that, too, is a function of our hierarchies.

4. Female public nakedness as protest or social commentary is not new and is critical, expressive and censored speech.  Lady Godiva [16] is far from the only woman to use her nudity to achieve political ends. Barbara Sutton’s excellent recounting of her experiences with naked protests in Brazil [17] is chock-full of historical and analytical insights.  Women have regularly used [18] their nakedness to protest corruption [19] and exploitation [20] that go along with colonialism.  It’s among the most important reasons why Femen’s[21] (topless) neocolonial narrative is offensive [22].  Prior to Tunisia’s Amina Sboui’s topless protest [23] (after which she was arrested, subjected to a virginity test and fled), Egyptian activist Aalia Magda [24] (also in exile) posted pictures of herself naked to protest Shariah law and censorship. Last January, hundreds of women in the Niger Delta[25] marched half-naked in protests against Shell Oil Company practices in their community.  This was a repeat of earlier [26] and similar protests [27].  These were peaceful, unlike last month’s in Argentina [28] when an estimated 7,000 women stormed a cathedral [29] defended by 1,500 rosary-bearing Catholic men. They fought, spat, yelled, spray-painted people and were accused, without a shred of irony [30], of gender-based violence against Catholic men. Many of these women were topless.

Nudity is also an enduring and essential part of the social critique of women artists [31].  The works of Lorna Simpson, Judy Chicago, Ana Medieta, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Hanna Wilke and so many others speak to identity, race, sex and class, using women’s naked bodies to do it.  When newspapers, movie theaters, cable and TV news, online media and social media refuse to show female nudity as part of female-directed political protest or artistic statement they deny them equal freedom of expression. When they do this while proliferating grossly objectifying alternatives, they silence them doubly.

5.  It’s not just that women have the right not to be sex objects, but also that we have the right to dismantle a discriminatory canon. In her 1977 essay “What’s Wrong With Images of Women?” art historian Griselda Pollock described a global, commercial, patriarchal visual culture that uses women’s bodies symbolically and makes it impossible for us to use our own bodies effectively in challenging that culture.  It’s a symptom of women’s position in the world that the efficacy of using our nudity to protest is tenuous.  Again, take Femen.  Set aside their execution [32] and bizarre provenance [33] and focus on two things: a) their use of naked female bodies to express aggression and rage, and b) the fact that they appear to meet the requirements of Western, increasingly global, ideals of beauty. They are thin, young, tall, topless and almost all white. In Louise Pennington’s words, they pass the patriarchal fuckability test. [34]   And so media eat them up. The same media that every day make choices about what not to show: models protesting racism [35] in their industry; angry, anti-Catholic feminist crowds [29];  peaceful, determined, old Nigerian women.   That’s not Femen’s fault.  They certainly aren’t the ones making media decisions about what makes the news. Did they use this bias? Should women?  Femen is exactly why many feminists doubt that female nudity can ever be an effective tool of activism [36].   However, each controversy that erupts allows us to think about how our own bodies and their “place” are used to undermine our intent and desires.

6. Self-defined public female nudity is a challenge to capitalism and its uses of women as products, props, assets and distributable resources. Nothing on Earth is used to drive sales and profits and display male wealth and status like women’s, often naked and semi-naked, bodies.  If you are thinking women make choices and are complicit, show contempt for other women because they are women — well, of course some of them do. That is a defining feature [37] of misogyny. Until we have equal access to resources, and are not subject to constant predation [38], this is a no-brainer. In the meantime, when women refuse to sexualize themselves and use their bodies to challenge powerful interests that profit from that sexualization, the words we should use aren’t  “lewd” and “obscene”; they’re “threatening” and “destabilizing.”

Women who use public nudity for social commentary, art and protest are myth-busting along many dimensions: active, not passive; strong not vulnerable; together, not isolated; public, not private; and, usually, angry, not alluring.  The morality offense is misogyny, not nudity.

In the U.S., there is nothing unique about reporter Tim Molloy’s question about Lena Dunham’s nudity.  Social media company policies [39], like many city statutes and public ordinances, mirror mainstream norms that clearly privilege heterosexuality, conflate women’s bodies with indecency and sex [40] (a bad thing), and insist that those bodies (and sex) be held in reserve, distributed and consumed according to patriarchal rules. These rules, and the puritanical obsessions that drive them, are why we have billion-dollar “good girls gone wild [41]” industries and an Internet fueled by gonzo porn, both carefully packaged pseudo-transgressions have little to do with women’s autonomy and do nothing to undermine a well-entrenched, misogynistic status quo.

We all know that the prohibitions on women’s nipples have nothing to do with women’s nipples, but everything to do with control. The threat that female toplessness and self-articulated nudity poses is culturally defined and can be culturally redefined. So, as a society, we might want to rethink that Photoshop blurring tool.

3.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 14,474 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 12,115 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 8,679 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 8,315 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 7,893 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 6,046 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 3,495 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 3,092 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 3,046 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Lessons in the Calais Jungle: Teaching Life Stories and Learning About Humanity
Aura Lounasmaa · 1,934 views today · I am part of a team of academics teaching a course to residents in the Calais Jungle, a camp for migrants and refugees outside the French city. Life Stories in the Jungle has...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,666 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
My Cuba - An Intimate Look at the Pleasures and Struggles of 6 Different People's Cuba
150 min · 1,267 views today · Cuba - diverse, vibrant and complex - is undergoing immense change. But what does it mean to be Cuban in this time of change? Six people. Six films. From the comedy and ballet...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,122 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Our Obsession With 'Good Immigrants' Breeds Intolerance
2 min · 939 views today · Society sets the bar so high to become a 'good immigrant', argues writer Nikesh Shukla, that normal immigrants are demonised. He says non-Brits in the public eye have a simple...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 932 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 579 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 573 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Bird Watching on Lesvos Island - A Poetic Call to Stand With Refugees
3 min · 535 views today · Born in Darfur, Sudan and raised in Philadelphia, Emi Mahmoud is the 2015 World Poetry Slam Champion and the Women of the World co-Champion of 2016. From a young age Emi...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 423 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Sex, Lies and America's Deplorable Democracy
Peter Bloom · 392 views today · The country’s political system is increasing rotting from the outside in and the inside out—a disintegration exemplified by the respective nomination of these two candidates...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
6 Reasons Female Nudity Can be Powerful