MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Naked protest has to be smart. Otherwise, it's just peep-show politics.
That’s the lesson that Mexican feminist Gisela Perez de Acha learned from her first year of topless protesting — a controversial form of civil disobedience in a traditional, machista society.
“I’m not just trying to hit people in the face with my boobs,” said the 25-year-old lawyer and founder of Mexico’s FEMEN protest movement. “I want people to see and hear our message.”
The challenge, she says, is learning how to integrate body and message for maximum impact. When done properly, she says, naked protest is provocative, disruptive and subversive; it transforms a woman’s body into a powerful political agent for change, rather than a sensual object of prurient lust.
“We’re using marketing tactics to give people what they want to see, but giving them a different message. I could use my body to sell beers, but instead I’m selling a feminist message. And that’s subversion,” the activist says.
The Body Politic
Getting naked in public is a risqué approach to protest in the country that popularized the poncho. Even Mexican feminists tend to view public nudity as a foreign concept, Perez de Acha says.
In a way it is. FEMEN, a radical feminist protest movement that started in Ukraine in 2008, has since spread to half a dozen other European countries.
Perez de Acha was introduced to the topless protest group while studying in France during a Law School Exchange program in 2013. After getting involved with the movement in Paris, Perez de Acha brought FEMEN back to Mexico, establishing the group’s first chapter in Latin America. In January, the group officially “revealed” itself to the Mexican public at a protest against the government in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, she says, the group’s first attempt at naked protest fell flat…well, not literally, but it was unfocused and unconvincing.
“I wrote PRI is a ‘big dick’ on my chest,” she says, with a laugh to hide her chagrin.
That message, she admits, was confusing and meaningless, making the protest a failure. Instead of transforming her body into a power political canvas to challenge passersby with a provocative message, she just had a bunch of heavily breathing men with their hands in their pockets, staring at her boobs.
The protest wasn't headline news, but the cameras were there and the photographs from the event were immortalized forever on Google image search.
“F**king Google,” she says.
Perez de Acha’s parents, pious Catholics who sent their children to the most conservative religious schools in Mexico, are deeply distressed by their eldest daughter’s penchant for public nudity, which is considered disorderly conduct under Mexican law. Her guy friends just think it’s funny.
But for Perez de Acha, topless protest is liberating and empowering. She says getting naked is about claiming ownership of her body and challenging machista gender norms that allow men to go topless in public but not women.
“We have a right to be naked; it’s not erotic, it’s political,” she says.
Nudity is not something Perez de Acha takes lightly. When explaining her philosophy of naked protest, she delves deeply into the footnotes of the seminal writings by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Octavio Paz, Ricardo Flores Magón, and several people I haven’t heard of. She talks about “rape theory” and “sexual surplus,” and a few other terms that made me acutely aware of my male ignorance. (I nodded encouragingly.)
The theoretical concepts behind naked protest are equally confusing to some Mexican women. Perez de Acha says she has had a hard time recruiting other feminists to join her movement because many Mexican feminists view FEMEN as a type of neocolonialism — a “pretty white girl” protest tactic that has no place in Mexican tradition.
Others have criticized Perez de Acha of perpetuating traditional beauty constructs that reward shapely women and discourages those who are squat or homely.
Perez de Acha acknowledges the criticism, and admits her movement probably wouldn’t have the same media impact if no one wanted to see her naked. But that’s the essence of naked “photo protest,” she says. It’s about using the rules of the game to turn the tables on the establishment.
An activist is born
Perez de Acha cut her teeth as an activist with the protest group known as #YoSoy132, a coalition of college students who fought for the democratization of the media in a country where traditional networks are often criticized for being government echo chambers.
#YoSoy132 started with a bang, but quickly fizzled as leaders were co-opted and the movement splintered. Still, it was a learning experience for Perez de Acha, who got her first taste of adrenalin from the front lines of protest.
“All that energy, standing with the people; it’s like being at a rock concert,” she said.
She also learned the power of media, marketing and message. And it’s been something she’s been trying to perfect ever since.
“Marketing can be so powerful,” she said. “I want to harness it to provoke change; and I think I’m getting there.”
Gisela Perez de Acha will be a featured panelist at Fusion’s #Riseup event on Nov. 19.