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The power of nude

Helen WhittleDecember 5, 2012

Bare breasts inevitably attract attention. With nude political protests, women around the world have recently been trying to redirect that attention to their cause. But can they fully reclaim their bodies?

Femen in Paris
Femen in ParisImage: AP

Just a few weeks ago, activist and Pirate Party member Laura Dornheim tweeted up a storm to rally interest among the journalistic community in a refugee protest camp at the foot of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

She even joked that she'd go naked in order to attract the press. And so, in a curiously modern reworking of the Godiva legend, #tits4humanrights was born.

Cut to Berlin's Pariser Platz on October 29, 2012. The sun is shining, but the temperatures are freezing. Members of the press gather with cameras and notebooks, waiting to see some flesh.

But at approximately 1:00 p.m., the assembled female protestors, including Laura Dornheim, wriggled out of their tops to reveal little more than tank tops emblazoned with slogans that read: "Human rights not tits" and "Shame on you!"

In an interview with DW, Dornheim explained that her intention never was to strip, rather to bring attention to the refugees' cause and expose widespread levels of sexism in the male-dominated German media.

"The sad thing is that it actually worked," Dornheim said.

From the sexualization of young girls to trivializing crimes against women such as rape and sexual assault, and the tide of exploitative, predatory paparazzi images of female celebrities from every angle - not least "upskirt" shots -, the ascendance of so-called mediatainment continues to assure the relevance of nudity.

Reclaiming the female nude in art

A woman takes notes of the installation 'Action Pants: Genitalpanik' by Austrian artist Valie Export during the exhibition 'Archiv' at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria, 27 October 2011. The 'Archiv' exhibition lasts from October 29 to January 22, 2012
Valie Export raised eyebrows with her "Action Pants: Genital Panic"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The female nude may be a key figure in the history of art, but in the 1970s, second-wave feminists turned that history on its head by reclaiming the power of female nudity and the social and cultural objectification of women,.

In her work "Action Pants: Genital Panic" (1969), Austrian artist Valie Export walked into an art-house movie theater in Munich wearing wild hair and crotchless trousers. She proceeded to invite members of the audience to engage with a "real woman," by which she meant the area between her legs.

And in 1989, the feminist political collective Guerrilla Girls famously asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Less than five percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female."

Outside of the art world and almost three decades after second-wave feminism, nudity as a form of political protest has found a niche in the male-dominated, ever-more sophisticated age of 24-hour "mediatainment."

Imogen Tyler, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Lancaster, has written on the subject of the history of nudity as a form of political protest. She believes the re-emergence of naked protests over the last 10 years has its roots in the social and political ramifications of 9/11 and the so-called war on terror.

"In Europe and the US, laws around protesting, on terrorism, and the right to gather in public places have been curtailed. In a context like that, people look to media outlets and to innovative ways - to more performative and aesthetic ways to get their message across," Tyler said.

Media-savvy sexual politics

Asylum-seekers protest in Berlin, October 29, 2012
The mere promise of flesh drew attention to the women's human rights campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ukrainian feminist group Femen, founded in 2008, is one organization that is turning to precisely these methods. After failing to garner much attention for their early campaigns for the rights of female students, and against sexual tourism and prostitution, a number of members of Femen decided to shake things up by going topless. A group of Femen activists even held a mud-wrestling match in Kyiv's Independence Square, intended as a satirical swipe at "dirty" Ukrainian politics.

"Of course I am always quite embarrassed to be naked in front of all these cameramen and photographers. But they are our assistants in a way - without them the world wouldn't know about us, our ideas and the problems we address," a Femen member told DW in a 2011 interview.

Campaigns ranging from Femen's topless demonstrations to PETA's ubiquitous "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" ads prove that nudity as a form of political protest has not lost its appeal.

"In this context I think there's something quite powerful and poignant about women trying to claim back agency and power in naked protests, even while these protests are often sensationalized within the news media," Tyler said.

From promoting vegetarianism and peace to campaigning against oil dependency, apartheid and the fur trade, there is one form of protest which is guaranteed to generate publicity - and it doesn't cost a thing.

The question remains whether women are really in the control of images of their naked bodies once they are in the hands of "mediatainment" industry, and later, dispersed in the sprawling, unpredictable, ether of the World Wide Web.