After attending the Topless Day Parade in Venice Beach, California August 26, 2017, I considered multiple ways I could approach this topic of nudity in parades and marches. Here are eight possible approaches to talking about nudity in this event and other parades and marches with nudity:
- society and cultural attitudes towards nudity - how it differs depending on social context and various countries’ public nudity acceptance, rules, and taboos
- science fiction, religious movements and nudity - the Raëlian Movement beliefs and why they sponsor the Topless Day Parades
- audience/bystanders and their reactions/participation - in particular the Venice Beach Topless Day parade because it doesn’t have formal boundaries/barriers between participant and audience; and it occurs in a tourist area that has always encouraged creative expression and women in bikinis and even males in thongs
- male and female participants vs. those who only watch - issues related to the gaze, corporeality and objectification, body as political vehicle, subversive bodily practices, dissolved boundaries/collective intimacy, utopian ideas
- aspects of the performance - music, speeches, signs, messages, dancing, chanting, costumes, decorations, props, participants, setting/surroundings
- comparison of Venice Beach, California Topless Day parade to NYC, Denver, and other examples of the U.S. parades shared online, as well as those international examples
- motivations of participants who parade in the nude or partially nude
- nudity in parades and marches around the world - many examples such as Topless Day protest parades/marches, Burning Man Critical Tits bicycle parade, Burning Man Critical Dicks bicycle parade, Brazilian Carnival parades, LGBT Pride parades, World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) parading, and other mass movements of naked bodies parading/marching
Part I: Being there that day
While waiting for the local Topless Day parade (Venice Beach, California) to start, I pondered how I felt about nudity on parade. Are we conditioned and enculturated to think of the naked body in a particular way? Exactly how is culture, society, personal experience, and situational context shaping this event?
Then a woman in a knee length pencil skirt, pasties, and Raëlian symbol necklace stood in front of the large inflatable pink breast. She spoke about the nurturing aspect of breast as it related to a mother and child. She explained how males with thick breast tissue, bigger than some women’s breasts, are allowed to expose their chests. She referred to various posters as she preached in accented English about the unlawfulness of banning the display of bare breast.
Other participants prepared by picking up signs and donning their breast themed accessories, that included colorful and real looking nipple pasties, nipple ear headbands, boob beret, boob umbrella, and pillowy boob belly. When the parading began, the crowd chanted “free the breasts, free the mind” and “go topless, go topless, go” over songs that played through a mobile speaker. George Michael’s “Freedom” and the Bee Gee’s “More than a Woman” took on new meaning as it related to women’s freedom to go topless as men freely do. I walked around the parade, photographing the signs and body messages that read “My body is not a crime,” “It’s legal in NYC since 1992, why not Venice Beach,” “Breast are Family Friendly,” “It’s boobs not bombs,” “War is indecent, not breasts,” “Equal legal rights for everybody,” “Show your nipple pride,” and other messages. Behind the Topless Day parade were the official street preachers.com group with their megaphone. Their group carried religious signs that read “Jesus Saves From Hell,” “Cry to God / Jesus Saves,” “Ask me why you deserve Hell” and wore t-shirts with similar messages.
As the parade proceeded down the concrete boardwalk, it looked like a paparazzi crowd of cameras surrounding these pastie and bikini clad men and women. I couldn’t help but think of Bettie Page and her popularity with men’s photography groups. While the parade walked past beachfront stores, Snapchat’s headquarters, street vendors and performers, and restaurant patios, additional topless women and men joined the group. Many bystanders watched in surprise and amusement. One bare chested man covered a boy’s eyes. A boardwalk rapper created lyrics on the spot that incorporated parade sign messages. People of varying ages, ethnicity, and race, continued to stop to watch as the parade came to its final destination on a grassy, sandy mound where the group asked for a moment of silence. Afterward, a member of the parade came over to me with an educational flyer and asked if I wanted to buy pasties/stickers from her ziplock bag. Three dollars for one or $5 for a pair. And eventually the audience and participants dispersed going their separate ways while some remained nearby to watch other performances by street dancers, artists, and musicians.
Part II. Reflexivity, baring my thoughts
So I re-wrote this blog multiple times after reading about nudity in general, nudity in protests, and nudity as entertainment and decorative display in parades. Initially, I thought I would focus on the participants, then I considered the audience, and finally I thought, why not just provide an autoethnographic perspective.
a. To disrobe or not
I thought about being a female at the Topless Day parade not baring my breasts but documenting it. Why hadn’t I disrobed, especially since I felt these were bold, bad ass women. They were willingly marching amongst a dense population of men crowding around them with their cameras and eyes the entire route. No protection from a grab or a stare. No protection from the eyes of people who might adversely judge them according to his/her/their cultural ways. Although, the men who wore electrical tape over their nipples and wore women’s bikini’s were showing support, and the guy leading the parade in security guard shirt with women’s bikini over it presented a semblance of protection, I felt these men were not in the same baring it all position as the women with painted or pasties-covered nipples and breasts. And although I recognized that women worldwide were dually expressing vulnerability and power through this gesture of going shirtless, I personally felt scared, exhilarated, nervous, empowered, vulnerable, and all kinds of mixed feelings.
b. Parade vs. protest march
I tried to separate myself from this documenting of the Topless Day parade. However, it’s hard to divide myself and my feelings from it. With many parades it’s simply an aesthetic experience even if I know people in the parade or feel it represents part of my culture and society. I don’t often have an immediate visceral feel about parades as much as I do with protest marches.
A protest march is putting out issues that people can disagree or agree with. It requires the viewer and even the participant to reflect what it is they believe. For many, a Topless Day parade may seem as if it is not a very serious issue in comparison to all these other weighty protest marches happening (e.g., March For Science, Women’s March, Immigration and Worker’s March, National Pride March, Native People’s March, and the numerous divisive or peaceful political marches happening around the world). Yet, this particular Topless Day parade, a protest march for women’s freedom to go shirtless, produced all kinds of feelings in me because it was about human beings and their bodies, culture and society, rebellion and conformism, men versus women, bodies shamed versus celebrated, tourist versus local viewpoints, religious beliefs of one group versus religious beliefs of another, norm versus subversive, and liminal time versus everyday time. It was also making me reflect on my provincial past life experiences in conservative U.S. rural and urban areas where I felt public or group nudity could be considered shameful and embarrassing. I’m still aware of those views held by people, and I carry a little of my own social and cultural baggage still, but I also have opened up to how nudity has its place and acceptance in different contexts where it doesn’t always have to be sexualized or judged. It doesn’t mean I’m willing to bare all publicly, but I’ve felt the rebellious, as well as relaxing side of nudity at times and in some ways wish it didn’t have so many taboos. Sitting in Korean spas nude and laying out at a pool with three generations of a French family, all topless sunbathing, were my relaxing nude moments. While coed nudity during a Spencer Tunick photoshoot was a more nerve racking experience. However, I still felt oddly courageous as I laid naked on pavement of the NYC 59th street bridge with my friends and strangers. Burning Man on the other hand, I didn’t go nude and since most people seemed nonplused by it, much in the way a nudist/naturist at a camp/resort might feel, it didn't seem to matter either way and I chose not to get sun burned or playa sanded on those body regions.
c. Nudity facilitates attention
Maybe, nudity and the mix of feelings it elicits because it is illicit in so many places, is the reason why it is a perfect gesture and costume for a parade or protest march. It draws attention. And what’s a parade or protest march without their audience, it’s….I don’t know, but it’s probably not as exciting and memorable. So I’m not suggesting all family oriented parades and protest marches need to bring out the naked people, but I am saying that a Topless Day parade is possibly more than meets the eye. It reflects something about the culture and society. And if I person cares to reflect, it can reveal something about one’s self.
d. Blog writing inspiration
The following references listed below were inspiration in my writing as I thought about nudity in parades, marches, festivals, science fiction, religious movements, culture, and society worldwide. I wrote several blog versions, employing supplementary texts and academic reasoning. Then I just scrapped them for this more autoethnographic blog entry. If you have particular performance studies or other references you would suggest that relate to this tentacular topic or other comments about the topic, then add your thoughts in the reply section. (*tentacular, a great word co-opted from Donna Haraway’s work)