Today’s views on nudity rest precariously in the middle of shunning it and embracing it: nudity is empowering, we say – but only sometimes; a woman can celebrate her body in whatever way she wants, but only in certain contexts. This is particularly the case in South Africa. Although we live in a country enshrined by a liberal and progressive constitution, we are still a deeply conservative and patriarchal society. We can debate that too, but look at any of our major institutions: schools, universities, churches or parliament: we’re liberal, but only to a point. We are quick to police the naked body, and particularly women’s naked bodies.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous album covers of all time, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1968 Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, stunned the world by the duo appearing nude on the sleeve. It was immediately covered with brown paper bags in retailers, and countless more were seized and confiscated by police. Nearly 50 years later, we’re still debating nudity. Campaigns like #FreeTheNipple remind us that gender politics are still at play: women’s bodies are policed far more than men’s, whether it’s being told to cover up or encouraged to strip down.
Public spaces are dangerous for many kinds of bodies, especially for women and queer people: the social gaze polices them, analyses them, and judges them. Social-media guidelines police women’s nipples but not men’s. On the streets, or on online platforms, we are told what we are and are not allowed to do with our bodies. For that very reason, nudity can hold immense power, because in being visibly nude, we resist the gaze and, more importantly, we resist the rules that we are told to follow.
This is not to say that nudity is only empowering. Nudity has power, yes, but it isn’t empowering for everyone. It’s about choice, and what you choose. As Nomzamo Mbatha said on Twitter: ‘I will always belong to myself.’ This is what’s empowering, allowing every person choice and autonomy over their own body, whether it is for protest, for art or simply self-expression or self-love. The power of nudity is multifaceted and far-reaching.
This July Marie Claire celebrates the power of nudity in The Naked Issue. 19 celebrities posed nude to raise awareness and funds for their chosen charities. To see the gorgeous, tasteful shoot get an issue of the magazine, and to donate to the charities online click here.