Last Sunday 100 protestors marched semi-naked to Trump Tower, protesting his imminent presidency. What were they trying to achieve?
Undressing has the power to undermine authority by presenting observers with a sudden, unpredicted sight of nudity. It demonstrates the emotional resolve to carry on in the face of oppressive forces. Amid fears for women that the Trump presidency will set back feminism, the naked female body has become an apt tool of resistance. Nudity, more so than placards and chants of "not in my name", ensures that images of these protests will be broadcast worldwide.
The naked body has a very different meaning in this context than it does elsewhere. One of the reasons for the effectiveness of naked protest is the fact that its meaning can change so drastically depending on the motives for undressing. Undressing on the street sends very different messages to an act of undressing carried out on a stage or in a private bedroom. The same naked body, in these different settings, can be beautiful or monstrous, strong or vulnerable, compliant or defiant.
The home may be considered the most private place to become undressed, but undressing is rarely a truly private act. Historically, dressing and undressing has almost always been observed, either by servants or family, and in the case of the French royal court, has been a ceremonial event attended by ministers and courtiers. Contemporary notions of privacy did not begin to emerge until the eighteenth century, and through the eighteenth and nineteenth century undressing became an increasingly private activity. It was only when women discarded their corsets, and were able to undress unaided, that undressing could become a truly private act.
When we undress in public, the act is almost always intended as a message. Public nudity expresses very particular desires or demands. For anti-war protestors, the naked body advocates disarmament. A body, after all, cannot make love and war at the same time. As a form of peaceful protest, the vulnerable naked body opposes the might of oppressive powers, undermining the power of the social contract that tells all compliant citizens to remain clothed.
In times of peace, the desire to rebel by being naked in public is manifested in streaking, mooning and flashing. These acts of rebellion are increasingly commodified. There are numerous examples sports events interrupted by streakers who have been sponsored by large corporations as a form of guerilla marketing. Not least Mark Roberts, who streaked at 8 different sporting events with Golden Palace painted on his bare chest.
When no money changes hands, public displays of nudity can be legitimised by other means, such as reciprocal gestures or exchanges. At Mardi Gras, there is a tradition of exposing breasts or buttocks in exchange for strings of beads, handed over by other street revellers or thrown from balconies. Over time, this otherwise deviant act of flashing has been normalised. The gesture has become an accepted part of a cultural exchange through adherence to a precise set of rules that only apply in a particular time and place.
Even for those of us who don't choose to display our nakedness, public acts of undressing are sometimes unavoidable. Public changing rooms and dressing rooms sometimes make it impossible to hide our bodies from the gaze of others. As a result, we turn the act of undressing into a complex sequence of choreographed gestures, designed to maintain privacy while we change from one outfit to another. Bras are threaded out through armholes, and underpants extracted through leg holes, in awkward gestures that reveal our discomfort with self-exposure.
Nakedness is familiar to all of us. Undressing is a habitual act, carried out by most of us at least twice a day, and yet, the naked body is still so unfamiliar in public contexts that it demands attention.
The spectacle of nakedness is still so powerful because we cling onto ideas about the clothed form as a sign of civility and intellectual advancement that distances us from our animal ancestors. The fact that public nakedness still has the capacity to attract media attention says a lot about our unease with our own bodies. Perhaps we are uncomfortable comparing ourselves with the ideal, or perhaps we lack the capacity to look beyond erotic readings of nudity. Either way, until nakedness becomes unremarkable, we will continue to see naked bodies protesting the Trump administration.