Baring it all for justice

Larisa Manescu

On Oct. 24th, I accompanied my roommate to the West Mall, where we witnessed members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition attempting to gain signatures for a petition urging the University Co-op to stop accepting products made with sweatshop labor and switch to the Alta Gracia brand. My roommate, along with the members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition, wore nothing but underwear adorned with cardboard cutouts that read, “We’d rather go naked than wear sweatshop apparel.” Although their attire did garner a lot of attention, the disapproving head-shakes and judgmental eye shifts I noticed made me wonder: How practical is it to employ nudity to attract attention to a cause? Were potential petition signers turned off by the public exposure, or were people that wouldn’t have signed at all drawn in?

It’s impossible to fully answer these questions, because it is impossible to control for factors such as the demographics and views of the people walking through the West Mall on any given day. But in a world saturated with terrorist attacks and violent protests, using the nude (or half-nude) human body in a nonviolent manner in support of an honest cause should be among the least of our worries. Beyond tolerance, it should be respected as a successful example of victimless radicalism.

The protest’s reliance on the appeal of underwear wasn’t a spontaneous incident but one step in a series of planned efforts. Members and supporters were not reveling in getting naked to draw attention to themselves or to have a good time but to draw attention to their cause in a practical way.

And this isn’t the first time they’ve done it. Alonzo Mendoza, a UT senior and member of the coalition, commented, “We had previously done naked protesting as part of our campaign to have UT affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium, and given its success in garnering attention and support from the University’s community, we figured that we would get even more attention this time around since we’ve been building up from the momentum of last semester’s successful campaign.”

Once UT affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium in June, the coalition pushed the Co-op to invest in the Alta Gracia brand, which produces college apparel while paying its workers a living wage and has an open-door policy for inspectors from the Worker Rights Consortium. Jessica Alvarenga, a junior and coalition member, said that the second West Mall venture was an “educational yet fun awareness event that proved effective as [they] received almost 900 signatures.” After seeing that the petition received a significant number of signatures — proof that there is student demand for products provided through fair-labor means — the Co-op invested $35,000 in Alta Gracia (although this is far short of the $250,000 the coalition called for).

The gradual accomplishments of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition demonstrate the effectiveness of persistent and dedicated activism. You don’t have to agree with their cause to see that their relatively radical approaches, including two nude awareness events and a sit-in in UT President William Powers Jr.’s office that resulted in arrests, have captured the attention of students and elicited action from the Co-op.

There are other causes for which nudity is deeply meaningful and intrinsic to the message, such as the SlutWalk marches that occur annually around the world. SlutWalk participants proclaim that a woman’s appearance is not an excuse for rape. To illustrate this point, scantily-clad women march with signs bearing slogans such as, “Don’t tell me what to wear, tell men not to rape.”

Whether organizations use nudity to make a point or purely to attract attention to their causes, the technique gets results. Change cannot always be effected with moderation, and although some find the nudity inappropriate, the shock factor bluntly exposes an important issue and increases interest in it. After all, in a world full of unrelenting injustice, there is no time for passive, half-assed advocacy.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies junior.