In a strange twist on Republican policy initiatives, women’s breasts have become hot topic issues, again. In Asheville, North Carolina, a topless protest had at one point exceeded 2000 participants, although this year participation had declined. From acts such as this, Republican legislators in North Carolina have written and promoted a “topless bill” that would send women to prison for baring their breasts, explicitly including the nipple as part of the “crime.” As of February 26, the bill has been sent back to a committee. Rep. Tim Moore had even quipped, “You know what they say, duct tape fixes everything.” Clearly Rep. Moore has little knowledge or concern for how sensitive the nipple area is and how illogical and offensive that remark is. This issue, though, is indicative of a greater political issue of expressing opinions with our bodies.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this bill is who created and brought the bill to fruition: Rep. Rayne Brown, a female representative. Reflecting on the bill, Rep. Brown stated, “But there are communities across this state, there’s local governments across this state, and also local law enforcement for whom this issue is really not a laughing matter.” It isn’t a laughing matter? I’m quite positive that the state’s taxpayers would rather have their legislators actually debating legislation that would help improve the state, instead of spending time on something like this.
When women’s bodies are not celebrated, when they are legislated to be covered up, when they are relegated to second-class status, when they are presented as “taboo,” there are serious issues with which we must deal as a nation. Bills have been considered or passed regarding the female body this legislative session across states, perhaps most boldly in the South. We can even put politics aside for a moment and look at the reality of this situation: Women are perceived as “less than” and are silenced. Women have been silenced for so long, and notions of covering women up are further instances of silencing.
Aside from this silencing that has been happening in state legislatures, we have to also look at the corporeal reality of the politics of the human body. Dr. Dana Cloud recently spoke at The University of Alabama and noted the importance of human bodies in social justice work. When bodies are not allowed to protest, what has that become? Is it a violation of the First Amendment of the United States, a freedom of expression? When we cannot express ourselves with our bodies, we are in trouble. It is acceptable to express a viewpoint with our speech or writings, but it is not acceptable to express a viewpoint with our bodies, the very first thing in our lives that we have to express ideas with.
While one can sit and complain about conservative politics that are happening in regard to women’s bodies, we must also look at the broader picture. What is happening to the notion of a body in general? What value has a body received in modern-day political discourse? One can look at ableist and transphobic and racist political remarks and endeavors to see the further silencing and discrimination of bodies. When bodies are silenced, what do we have to fight with? Attempts at discriminatory legislation of bodies reveals a greater issue with American society, that people do not want us to speak as who we are. People want to strip individuals of perhaps the only mode of voice they have ever had. If people are allowed to use their bodies as an act of protest, it must be “appropriate” by white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, abled-privileged, upper-class distinctions of what a body “should” be and how it “should” be covered in order to get a voice at the table. This issue rings particularly loudly in the South, where many of these bills have been brought to the “table” this session.
It is time in the South to let our progressive voices rise, to let all of our bodies have a voice, to make public what we continue being told is private. We need voices at the table, and we need to organize to gain these voices.