Female nudity is powerful – but not necessarily empowering

Can female nudity ever be empowering?

Can the naked female body ever be free? Is stripping off the ultimate expression of a woman’s emancipation? Or is her bared body always subject to sexual objectification? In a foreword to The Female Eunuch (1970), Germaine Greer imagined a feminism that would win women the ‘freedom to run, shout, talk loudly and sit with your knees apart’. Perhaps this is what she had in mind when, a year later, she posed naked for the self-styled ‘sex newspaper’ Suck, agile and impish, with ankles hoisted up above shoulders, her eyes peering out unapologetically from between her knees.


This was an assertive gesture, designed to ‘short-circuit’ the tireless commercialisation of women’s bodies in pornography. Instead of pert breasts and neat pudenda, here were labia and anus in their un-coy, unaffected, un-groomed glory. There seemed nothing contradictory in Greer’s idea of a freedom where a woman might claim both the right to expose herself and the right to lampoon the dominant ways in which women’s bodies were exposed.

Before this, in Britain at least, there seemed a curious kind of innocence to the performance of nudity in the mid-to-late 20th century: from the riotous, bawdy, booby comedy of the British Carry On franchise to the bouncy blur of sports streakers dashing across cricket pitches and tennis courts while being roundly cheered on. Here, the naked female form had a wholesomeness, as though we might all, finally, be comfortable with nudity, unflustered by sex – and untroubled by inequality. The liberated, feminist breast-baring of the 1960s reclaimed the body as a site of political declaration, seizing upon the dramatic visibility of the gesture, but acknowledging too the ways in which women’s political life was inextricable from their bodies when it came to issues of sexuality, birth control, marital rape and domestic violence. This bared body was powerful and social as well as political.

And yet, the ironic legacy of 20th-century feminism seems to be a contemporary culture in which female nudity is less concerned with protest than with performance and profit. As the various ways, means and ends of undressing in public have proliferated, the relationship of the naked female form to ideas of freedom, power and politics seems all the more entangled and unclear.

Kim Kardashian West’s bum, which ‘broke the internet’ in the winter 2014 edition of Paper magazine, is equal in influence, probably, to Helen’s ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ of yore. In the shoot, Kardashian West displays suspiciously voluptuous but apparently unaugmented curves. The photograph is taken from the rear, and Kardashian West peeps pointedly over her shoulder, eyebrows raised, into the camera, revealing the glossy, oiled curve of her back and the entire rounded cleft of her buttocks: reality TV stars such as her create their own multimillion-dollar empires on the emboldened enterprise of exposure. Women’s bodies have long been machines of capitalism; but now that machine is driven by the glossy, toned and tanned bodies of miscellaneous sex tapes, swimwear shoots and near-naked selfies. Perhaps this is only feminism happily squared with free market economics. But can the naked female form really claim to be free from the exploitative and unequal logic of capitalism?

If the commercial success of brand Kardashian is a marker of feminist industriousness and business know-how, it is also emblematic of avarice in an age of unthinkable global inequality. Isn’t there a different kind of obscenity, not only sexual, in the image of a Kardashian popping a magnum of Champagne so that it ejaculates in an arc over her head, and pours into a flute perched on her posterior? The reams of pearls wound tightly around her neck suggest unimaginable riches. They should remind us, too, of how tight that bond is between sex and money, and how ineffectually feminism has fought it.

Beyond the Kardashianisation of culture, the popular re-emergence of burlesque, the reclamation of striptease, the confident general enthusiasm for a sex-positive feminism, all seem to have abandoned the determinedly anti-pornography stance of an older generation of feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Instead, in the early 2000s, the revival of kitsch breathed new life to the old arts of burlesque, refurbishing it as a kind of playful Feminism Lite, arch and winkingly coquettish, as though, in corsets and kitten heels, we might reconstitute the male gaze in knowing acts of seduction.

In burlesque, female sexuality claims a subversive power: it is not bent in the service of thoughtless titillation. And yet there is a kind of breezy flippancy to such a performance of sex, one that is oddly tone-deaf to the broader context in which it operates; it is unconcerned, for example, with the seriousness of sex work and the more straitened, often dangerous, circumstances in which it is undertaken.

Even in modern politics, bare breasts can be offered up, apparently, ‘instead of bombs’. The activist collective Femen, originating in Ukraine and now based in Paris, promote a flashy brand of ‘sextremism’, professing to advocate for women’s rights, challenging religion, the state and patriarchy with wildly unclothed abandon. Femen’s bare-breasted protests against the hijab, for example, call upon traditions of 1970s political feminism in deploying nudity as a strategy of direct action. But there’s something muddled in the way Femen activists reinstate their own objectification, whilst reinscribing the old, imperialist logic of ‘rescuing’ women of colour from their own traditions and choices. Femen’s is a different stripe of feminism to Malala Yousafzai’s, but how telling that a girl in a veil might claim to be as free and feminist as the one peeling off her vest? 

It’s true that discernible in all this bare-assed bravado is a kind of unbridled, uninhibited confidence – the self-possession of a generation of women unafraid of their bodies and the ways that those bodies are made visible or available to others. And perhaps there is something priggish and entirely unliberated in baulking at the prospect of baring all. But isn’t it also a damning indictment of feminism’s failure to move beyond the body?

In our tired culture of dignified rights and intelligent outrage perhaps there is an assertive and incontrovertible truth claimed by the naked female form. Perhaps that’s why we rail against censoring images of breast-feeding mums, and counsel our daughters to feel body-confident. Yet in a commercial culture in which women are relentlessly reduced to bodies, rather than voices, overwhelming sexualised and commodified, prized for their adherence to narrowed beauty ideals, the challenge of modern feminism is to find inventive ways of reframing the body to better express the complexity and diversity of women.

As things stand, it’s unclear how far projects such as Femen’s and practices such as burlesque are genuinely up to that task and not, instead, oddly complicit in the sexual objectification that has for so long been a woman’s lot. Besides, isn’t it time for us to trust in the powerful, provocative and intelligent ways we can describe the life of our bodies, without having to bare them?

Shahidha Bari

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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