Nude protests grab instant media attention, but must be distinguished from other forms of nudity such as naturalism, exhibitionism, streaking or flashing.
Vinita Dawra Nangia
When Pooja Chauhan of Rajkot stripped to protest against dowry demands, she got instant attention. Nudity is bound to get you eyeballs – not just in India, but anywhere in the world. What changes is the attitude towards the naked body.
Most high profile, organized international groups take advantage of this attention grabbing tool and get people to drop clothes for causes they espouse. Especially PETA, which ropes in celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell to pose naked on billboards to grab world headlines
Nudist protests have ranged from anti Bush-in-Iraq campaigns to female prisoners in Johannesburg disrobing to show displeasure at being shifted to another prison; Mexican farmers going topless to naked protestors in Spain against the annual ritual of bull-chasing. The Queen of England too wasn’t spared, as nude activists protested use of bearskin to make hats for her Palace guards.
Pooja’s is the second incident in India of a naked protest, first being when women in Manipur stripped in front of 17 Assam Rifles gate in 2004 to protest killing of Manorama. And yes, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that women strip as a form of protest far more than men do.
What do nude protestors hope to achieve when they shed clothes in public? The most obvious answer is media attention, which is instantaneous. Even though, much to the chagrin of naked campaigners, media focuses on the form of protest far more than the reason! Interestingly, apart from a play for attention, votaries of this unique form of protest reveal they are trying to highlight vulnerability of mankind and also reveling in freedom of breaking away from conformity.
Isn’t it interesting how the judgment we pass on nudity changes with context? Nobody derides a child for being born naked, but shed your clothes at any other stage of life at your peril! When 500 young Londoners stripped for artist Spencer Tunick in Selfridges as a live installation, it was called art, but when Protima Bedi streaked down Juhu in 1974, it lived on as her single biggest recognition in life as well as death. If a lone man walking down a road throws off his clothes, he’s called an exhibitionist, but if he participates naked in a group, he’s elevated to the status of nudist protestor with a cause! Nudity in a film is ok, but someone walking around naked in a non-sexual context isn’t!
If we agree that attitudes towards nudity reflect our degree of sexual repression, then a society as sexually repressed as India, is bound to frown upon nude protests. And so in India, Pooja, who bared her body to bare her soul, has to disappear the day after her protest, amidst snickers that the least she could have done is wear matching underwear if she planned to shed her outers!
One could have traced nudism to Adam and Eve, but their covering themselves in “shame” spoils it all. The true first votaries of nudism were really the Greeks and Romans around 1300 BC when Greek students exercised and were educated in the nude and athletes played naked in early Olympics! From here on things worsened to the extent that in the Victorian era even legs of pianos and chairs were covered so they wouldn’t arouse sexual interest!
It was only in the 20th century that organized nudism came into practice, with the first nudist park, Freilichtpark (Free Light park) opening near Hamburg in Germany in 1903.
Lately nudism, which is the phenomenon of people enjoying the liberation of being naked with each other, has a large number of votaries. There is no sexuality involved in this; it’s all about celebrating the human body. Exhibitionism on the other hand, has sexual connotations and derives pleasure from an audience. An extreme form of this is flashing, which is exposing oneself indecently in an attempt to shock or traumatize someone. As opposed to this, streaking is the “non-sexual act of taking off one’s clothes and running naked through a public place.”
Interesting, how the same act can arouse such different emotions in varying contexts!