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Undressing the politics of nudity

Undressing the politics of nudity

by: Moroetsana Serame - 12 October 2018

Exploring nudity as a form of activism and art with Bella Makhubo.

During traditional ceremonies nudity is acceptable but when womyn start to exercise this same agency over their bodies in their daily lives it becomes controversial. A prime example is the public outrage at Zodwa Wabantu’s nudity yet when nudity is placed in the context of virginity testing and coming of age ceremonies it becomes acceptable.

The body positive activist sheds light on how society makes us hate our bodies. Nudity in many African communities is seen as disgusting and is associated with things that have negative connotations like witchcraft. Loving all parts of your body and expressing it through nudity is revolutionary in a world that deems it an unlawful way of existing and expressing yourself as a womyn.
Social media is no different. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram also perpetuate the policing of womyn’s bodies. When womyn post nipples on social media they are reported and blocked and told that their nudity is against “community standards” yet when men do the same, it is acceptable.

Similarly womyn breastfeeding in public has become a controversy yet men urinating in public hasn’t. A confusing contradiction and a thin line between consumption and censoring. According to a recently released breastfeeding policy review, South Africa still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates on the continent. Minister Motsoaledi, spokesperson for health said in an interview with Joe Maila from the Cape Argus, that the government fully supports breastfeeding as it has proven to be one of the interventions that reduce infant mortality and that criticism of public breastfeeding is unwarranted and absurd.

The Virgin

The Virgin by Harmonia Rosales

Bella not only experienced shame from men but even womyn when breastfeeding in public. “My mother and aunts were mostly the ones who policed my body once I became a mother.” She also sheds insight on the conflict she experienced on how to express body positivity now that she is a mother and how she has chosen to raise her son. The blogger says it has not been as easy to post nude pictures on social media. After her son was born there was a switch in her mind and she did not want her child to see her pictures until he was old enough for them to have that conversation.

Men have a lot more freedom and are able to navigate the world with a lot more ease. They are able to sit with their legs wide open in crammed taxi’s, touch their genitals in public and these interactions with their bodies go unsexualised. Yet there is a shame imposed onto womyn. “It is unfair that breastfeeding is deemed as shameful to such an extent that womyn resort to breastfeeding their children in restrooms because of how uncomfortable the reactions you receive are. It is ridiculous,” says Bella.

Nudity is only deemed acceptable if it’s for the consumption of male entertainment. This is usually packaged in the form of the hyper-sexualisation of black womyn and womyn of colour. Sara Baartman would be a prime example of this. Similarly protest action using our bodies as black womyn is met with body-shaming and objectification. Bella often experiences this body-shaming and objectification as a body-positive blogger.
When we were younger my mother used to make us cover our eyes whenever people were naked on television but I would peek through the holes in between my fingers and catch a glimpse of the bare figures I was not meant to see. I never quite understood why being naked was so controversial. Much like a mischievous 5 year old me, society seems to hide behind conservatism yet has a fetish for certain kinds of nudity.
“Nudity has always been a part of African culture yet its place has always been a cause for controversy,” says Bella Makhubo, a body-positive activist, mother and blogger. She joins me in exploring the politics of nudity as a form of art and activism.

Image taken by Thina Zibi

Image taken by Thina Zibi

Race also forms a large part of how nudity is seen in society. Eurocentric forms of nudity seem to be more acceptable. From as early as the 16th century euro-centric nudity in art was not an anomaly. Harmonia Rosales recently re-visualised Michelangelo’s work using black womyn instead of white men which caused an outrage. “White figures are a staple in classic art featured in major museums. They are the masters of masterpieces. Why should that be?” said Harmonia.

The Creation of God by Harmonia Rosales

The Creation of God by Harmonia Rosales

The intersection of nudity and sexuality is equally political. Representation of queer and trans narratives in media is also often fragranced with a similar lace of hyper-sexualisation. The way relationships existing amongst members of the LGBTQIA++ community are portrayed in media often just focuses on sex and even then plays on stereotypes and disappointingly fails to capture the true essence of the people behind these stories. These representations never go deeper into the complex emotional and holistic character of these relations as they would with their heterosexual counterparts.

Image shot by Zanele Muholi

Image shot by Zanele Muholi

Perhaps the reason why society is so afraid of nudity is because it forces us to confront the naked truth. Nudity is a raw, unfiltered stillness in a fast-paced world that tries to ignore the frictions of race, gender, sexuality and other social complexities. Nudity is political.