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6 Reasons Female Nudity Can be Powerful

A reporter's question about Lena Dunham's nudity pointed to a bigger issue: Naked women can threaten the status quo.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Last week, in the midst of what appears to be  infinite fascination about Lena Dunham’s nudity, I saw a fundraiser for the documentary “ Free the Nipple“ and also, by coincidence, talked to Facebook spokespeople about that company’s ban on visible female nipples.  Like the reporter who recently  asked 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, is important.

2. Female public nudity is usually treated as a moral offense, a cause for concern and discussion, but it’s  rarely 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 in Abu Ghraib, men – vulnerable, humiliated and in pain – are  feminized by their nakedness.

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 and sexualized representations of nudity, it is easier to maintain  racist and sexist ideas – 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: 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 every day.  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 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 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 is chock-full of historical and analytical insights.  Women have  regularly used their nakedness to protest  corruption and exploitation that go along with colonialism.  It’s among the most important reasons why  Femen’s (topless) neocolonial narrative is  offensive.  Prior to Tunisia’s Amina Sboui’s  topless protest (after which she was arrested, subjected to a virginity test and fled), Egyptian activist  Aalia Magda (also in exile) posted pictures of herself naked to protest Shariah law and censorship. Last January,  hundreds of women in the Niger Delta marched half-naked in protests against Shell Oil Company practices in their community.  This was a repeat of  earlier and similar protests.  These were peaceful, unlike  last month’s in Argentina when an estimated  7,000 women stormed a cathedral defended by 1,500 rosary-bearing Catholic men. They fought, spat, yelled, spray-painted people and were accused, without a shred of  irony, of gender-based violence against Catholic men. Many of these women were topless.