Nipples. God they cause a lot of trouble, don't they? First they go and get themselves banned from Instagram (but only the female ones because they are more sexual and lewd, obviously), sparking an entire movement called "#freethenipple". You can't have failed to notice that for the last few months they've been popping out all over the place in the name of social activism, too.
A couple of days ago, the Mirror ran a story about Heather Varley, a 22-year-old British student who travelled to Spain to protest against animal cruelty during the Pamplona bull run, an event where loads of people run away from six ferocious bulls, the bulls trample on some of them, and then the bulls get punctured to death. It is a gruesome fiesta of sadness, especially if you happen to be a bull.
To draw attention to the animal murder at the heart of this bizarre tradition, Heather and the other protesters lay down in the streets of Pamplona and played dead. Some protesters smothered their bodies in red paint, but Heather was just… topless. I've got an inkling, just an inkling – largely due to the total disregard of the equally nearly-naked male protester next to Heather in the story – that yes, yes! Heather's nipples might have been what got this protest into the news.
Nudity might not have much to do with animal rights (apart from the fact that animals are usually naked?) but Heather understood that the way to get attention was to strip off. Her decision to bare her body is powerful because a) she's showing she understands the power still carried by the image of a woman's naked body and b) she's subverting it in a confident and political way to garner column inches.
And Heather is not alone. Over the past couple of years the idea of using female nudity to draw attention to social issues has gone mainstream. 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, the female body has become a useful tool of dissent. And why shouldn't it be? Women's bodies are so objectified that simply exposing them becomes an effective form of protest. Annoyed about Hermès crocodile bags? Lie on the streets of Bristol naked!
Stripping off worked for Femen – up to a point, anyway. Their manifesto was bang on; they wanted to re-establish the naked female body as a powerful and potentially violent thing. Not just a vulnerable, fuckable, steadily ageing receptacle. The problem is that their argument was entirely undermined when it turned out that the (kind of annoyingly) beautiful women (SO SORRY) who risked their lives to campaign against stifling sexism had apparently been auditioned on the basis of their attractiveness. Exploiting other women's confidence and trust on that level is pretty depressing.
Call me pernickety, but I do think if we're determined to use our nips in the name of social revolution we need to be certain we're not actually just falling further into the trap of a gender binary. Case in point being when you look at the media outlets gleefully reporting the topless protests and it turns out to be a list of the same tabloids that frequently push prehistoric gender stereotypes with sexist headlines and Page 3 stunts.
You have to wonder: once you have the tabloids and/or oligarchs toasting to your naked protest, just how in control are you? Isn't the attention lavished on Heather's naked body actually just reinforcing the hackneyed concept that a woman is nothing more than the sum of her physical parts? I guess there isn't really a definitive answer, but this is bigger than just Heather now that the trend for naked protest is growing. I'm not a body policeman (I love all nipples and I get mine out quite often and have pubic hair smattered down my thighs like light rain on a summer's morning) but I'm not sure when something stops being a protest and becomes a misinformed publicity exercise.
At least in the case of #freethenipple, freeing the nipple actually makes sense. Even then though, is the exposure of nipples going to be enough to turn around an already pretty fucking sexist culture? Refinery 29 published an article last week called "Free The Nipple – Just Be Sure to Protect it First", the opening point of which reads: "If you want your breasts to look extra perky at the beach (bathing suit or not), working on your pecs is key." That is the hijacking of a social issue to fit an oppressive idea of femininity and youth if ever I saw it.
If we're going to use our bodies as a form of protest and publicity raising, let's at least not conform to the ideals of femininity peddled by tabloid newspapers and fashion magazines. We need to be more aggressive and original about it. We should understand that the mainstream media is full of a lot of people who want to co-opt our nudity and use it to their own gain, and while that's fucked up, it's also just fundamentally true. In response we need to totally alienate and challenge that mainstream, capitalised concept of femininity.
What I really want is to see Heather rub menstrual blood all over her calves while roaring and impersonating an injured bull. I want to see thick pubic-hair at austerity marches. I want to see someone do a wee in front of George Osborne. It's time to move forward from the idea that basic nudity is really shocking and controversial (when actually it just sells papers) and actually muster up the courage to do something hideous and frightening with our bodies. That, surely, would more powerfully get the message across, regardless of what the cause might be.
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