From Lady Godiva to Extinction Rebellion, a history of the naked protest
On a chilly March morning, 20-year-old student Eden stood in a crypt beneath a church in Central London. Joining in a sharing circle with a group of other women, of all ages and backgrounds, they discussed the day’s agenda. The stenciled paint across their bare chests read “climate rape,” “climate justice,” and “climate emergency.” After covering up to walk to Waterloo Bridge, Eden stripped along with 31 other women and proceeded to brave the elements, despite the freezing rain, for two hours. The topless protest, held on International Women’s Day 2020 by Extinction Rebellion, aimed to draw attention to the disproportionate impact of climate change on women across the world.
Before the pandemic came along and locked us up in our homes, naked protests seemed to be increasingly dominating news headlines. Although the unclothed body as a uniform of rebellion has a long history, the phenomenon has vigorously resurfaced in the form of bare bods on bridges, bums in Parliament, exposed thighs (and more) on two wheels — all in the name of climate action. Nudity can thrill and disgust in equal measure. It can both embarrass and empower. During a time where there is an overwhelming amount to protest, why do people continue to strip down to get their message across?
This is not the only time Eden has protested semi-naked. “I think a lot of people fear women in particular having autonomy over their bodies, both the nakedness of it and the empowerment of it,” she tells Mic. “In a way it is shocking, and in this society, we are afraid of it. So, let’s use that. We’ll play you at your own game.”
The forerunners to the naked protest range from medieval pagan sects to Lady Godiva’s mythic naked horse ride in 1035 A.D. From then, naked protests have been used to fight a whole host of issues, from animal rights to anti-war groups, Brexit to nipple censorship. However, there appears to be a particular trend throughout history that coalesces human bodies, particularly undressed ones, with actual places and physical landscapes.
You put yourself in a position that many wouldn't choose to be in. That vulnerability, that sacrifice, I think does touch people.
Many early documented examples originate in Africa. For example in pre-colonial Africa, women of Oyo-Ile weaponized the naked protest against Bashorun Gaa’s brutal rule in the 17th and 18th centuries. Another powerful manifestation dates back to 1929 during the Women’s War in Eastern Nigeria, where Black women resisted against both colonial authority and Westernized notions of the body. Naked protest was again used against threats to farmlands in colonial Cameroon during 1958 and 1961 in areas occupied by the Kom and Kedjom, and against the demolition of shacks in 1990 by homeless women in apartheid South Africa.
Coming later to the idea, the counterculture movement of the ’60s meant the idea of nudity in Western societies shifted from perversity to a form of social responsibility. At the height of the Vietnam war, the violence was counteracted with activism frequently featuring the naked body. One famous example was Yayoi Kusama’s nude art expositions in New York, the first being Anatomic Explosion in 1968, featuring naked dancers outside the New York Stock exchange, and in 1969 the nude Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead in the MoMA sculpture garden.
More recently, the 400 Pueblos Movement, mostly comprised of indigenous Nahua people, have used the bare body to protest environmental abuses faced by their community, first speaking out against the unlawful stripping of 200,000 acres of land from residents and the imprisonment of 350 farmers. In a similar vein, in 2002, women in Nigeria commandeered the largest oil producing facility in the country and threatened to strip naked to bring attention and shame to Chevron Texaco’s exploitation of the Niger Delta region.
A contemporary art-world example is Spencer Tunick’s 2007 photograph of hundreds of naked volunteers on a shrinking Swiss glacier. “I always think the naked body alone is a lifestyle. But the naked body with purpose and meaning is an artwork,” he tells Mic. The image symbolized the vulnerability of the glaciers as a result of record-breaking rising global temperatures.
In his 2010 book A Brief History of Nakedness, author Philip Carr-Gomm traces humanity’s preoccupation with nudity in religion, politics, and popular culture. He believes that the particular power of the naked protest lies in its vulnerability, exploiting the metaphorical “truth” of nakedness. “Wherever there is paradox, you’ve got power,” he writes. “When opposites are in play. On the one hand you seem to be completely powerless because you haven’t got any weapons. You haven’t even got any clothes. Yet when you are most vulnerable, strangely that is when you are most powerful.”
This power has been firing up protesters all the way to modern day. Sarah, a 30-year-old teacher from Liverpool, also partook in the International Women’s Day protest and, later that year, in the topless protest at the Houses of Parliament. “I think there is something that really calls to people when they see this action because it is so vulnerable," says the veteran organizer and participant in naked protests. “You put yourself in a position that many wouldn't choose to be in, and so that vulnerability, that sacrifice, I think does touch people.” However, she makes clear that there is an important distinction between protesting naked as an ethical performance of vulnerability and strength and being sensationalist just for the sake of it. It is a risk that Carr-Gomm also draws attention to. “The big challenge for naked protesters is precisely the challenge of the medium dominating the message," he writes.
While COVID-19 dominated the news for much of 2020, placing many of our lives on pause, that did not halt the climate crisis from escalating. With floods in the Philippines, wildfires in California, and record-breaking hurricanes in Central America, the time for relying solely on petitions and placards is long gone.
Thankfully, the Biden-Harris climate plan has ambitious aims. After the weakening of the U.S environmental regulations during the Trump era, Biden has made plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector to net zero by 2035, as well as hold corporate polluters responsible for the disproportionate harm faced by Black, Latino, and Native Americans from climate change, which are positive steps in the right direction.
However, that does not mean it is time to ease up pressure on those in positions to make impactful change. By carving out a space in politics, naked protesters emphasize what is often occluded from environmental discourse — actual places and material bodies. As Carr-Gomm writes: “When it comes to a political statement less is indeed more.”