Across the globe people are shedding their clothes for political causes. Chinese supporters of Ai Weiwei are posting nude pictures on the Internet, while an Egyptian art student has created a storm with her naked photos. It's the perfect way to addle authorities, but the protesters may end up paying the price.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono did it. Legendary German communard couple Uschi Obermaier and Rainer Langhans did it. And now political activists around the world are stripping off to express their displeasure too.
Forty years on, naked protests are back. It seems that no matter what social or political conflict you look at, people are getting their kit off as a form of civil disobedience against the oppressive system.
The protest organization Femen, a group of young Ukrainian women who originally demonstrated against sex tourism and prostitution, but who are now targeting sexism in general, have long been making headlines with their naked protests. In Egypt, art student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy is fighting for the right to freedom of expression by posting nude photos of herself on her blog -- and has triggered an uproar from Islamic conservatives as a result.
Meanwhile in China, hundreds of supporters of Ai Weiwei have been posing naked to demonstrate against the actions of the authorities against the artist. The nude photographs, which have been posted on the Internet, are a scathing response to the Chinese government after it accused Ai Weiwei of pornography for a series of naked photos he made. His fans have taken pictures of themselves in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker" statue or have exposed their bare posteriors for the benefit of Chinese bureaucrats. It's an effective way of expressing their contempt for the state.
Making Fools of the Man Indeed, nude protests have many advantages. They don't cost anything, and they have enormous symbolic power. The protestor does nothing more than pose naked in bed, on a lawn or in a public place. The authorities, however, have to use force or bureaucratic power to stop them. It is never the naked protestor who appears ridiculous -- no matter what shape their body is in -- but the oppressive authorities. A system that has to mobilize men in uniform to stop someone from posing in their birthday suit has a problem. Nude protests allow those in a position of weakness to show strength. And who doesn't root for the underdog?
From those humble origins, the nude protest has developed its own aesthetic, which in some cases operates according to the laws of the advertising business. The animal rights organization PETA has adopted the protest form for its high-profile campaign "Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur," where models and other celebrities strip down. It's a win-win situation: It's a campaign for a good cause, with attractive high-earners posing for a clean conscience. And it's all cleverly orchestrated down to the last glossy magazine page.