Written on the body

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At Rhodes University, women annually strip off their clothes to use their bodies as message-boards to carry statements against sexual violence. This year, for the first time, the ‘My Body My Choice’ exhibition of the resulting photographs has travelled to Cape Town. Rebecca Davis had to get undressed to bring you this story. 

“Now please take off all your clothes.” I have just entered a small room in Cape Town’s City Hall, which is being used as a pop-up photography studio. The person giving me the instruction is photographer Sian Cohen. It helps that Cohen is a small and extremely nice woman, because coming from many other people’s mouths, that request would meet with a polite refusal.

But context is everything. This shoot is taking place as part of the ‘My Body My Choice’ exhibition, a collaboration between the City of Cape Town’s Arts and Culture Department and Rhodes University, scheduled to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children. On the third floor of the staid old City Hall, a room has been hung with portraits of young women, nearly all of whom are either stark naked or topless. Each of them bears a message, in the form of either a placard or via words scrawled on their skin. 

Some are defiant. “I won’t be a rose on any man’s lapel”, reads the placard carried by a woman who sports a tattoo of a rose. 

“I bought the jeans, I control the zipper” are words painted down another woman’s abdomen. Some are political. 

A placard reads “Struggle songs don’t turn me on.” 

Another: “Zuma will never be my president”. 

Some are angry: “More than just three holes, two hands and a heartbeat” is written on a placard cradled by a seated woman. 

And some are joyful, with the young women shown dancing, leaping, tossing their hair back. “I see my body as an instrument, not an ornament,” one placard proclaims.

For the past four years, female students and staff from Rhodes University have been disrobing annually for these photo shoots. Organiser Larissa Klazinga – the Student Services Officer at Rhodes – explained that the idea was originally raised by two student activists, Beth Vale and Kwezilomso Mbandazayo. Marie Claire magazine had just run its annual ‘naked’ issue, where celebrities are asked to get naked in the name of charity. The students wondered if a similar concept could be used to raise awareness around sexual violence.

“I thought it was a terrible idea,” remembers Klazinga now. “I said people would think it was weird. I asked, isn’t it better to stand around crossly?” 

For over a decade, Klazinga has been synonymous with the feminist movement at Rhodes University. Among her initiatives has been the university’s annual ‘Silent Protest’, launched in 2007, where students wear T-shirts saying “Sexual violence = silence” and have their mouths taped shut with duct tape for 12 hours on one day, while going about their daily activities as normal. The aim is to highlight the frequent silence around sexual violence in South Africa, as well as the extremely low rates of reporting of such violence. Since its inception, the project has grown to be one of the largest anti-rape campaigns in South Africa, with 1,500 female and male students taking part this year.

“We wanted to carry on the momentum of the Silent Protest in a way that was more celebratory, less austere,” says Klazinga. The idea of the naked photo shoot came out of these discussions. “People use women’s bodies to sell toothpaste and cars and beer. We wanted to use women’s bodies to tell their stories.”

And so, despite Klazinga’s early misgivings, they decided to give it a bash. They set up a “safe space” in a Rhodes teaching room, and brought in student photographers from the Rhodes Journalism Department. Sian Cohen, who now works in marketing in Cape Town, was one of the initial photographers. The first arrivals, Klazinga says, were initially awkward and unsure. “We told them they could be as naked as they felt comfortable with, and that they could write anything they wanted on their placard or body, as long as it was some kind of political statement.”

A naked protest against the objectification of women will seem counter-intuitive to many. Why is it necessary for the subjects to be naked?

“Women’s bodies are so often sexualised. Women are often told to cover up, or are told they brought sexual violence on themselves through their clothing choices,” Klazinga says. “But nobody has the right to violate your integrity. It’s irrelevant what you’re wearing, or not wearing.” The other point to be made, she believes, is to do with the harmful messaging in the media about what constitutes the perfect body. “Let’s face it: fatties don’t end up in fashion magazines,” says Klazinga. And indeed, there are all shapes and sizes in the exhibition.

Only women are allowed to pose for the photos. Klazinga doesn’t see this as a difficult issue. “We don’t objectify men equally,” she said. “Men’s bodies aren’t generally sexualised in the same way. Rape is gendered.” Yes, she says, men get raped too; but afterwards, nobody suggests that their clothes constituted an invitation. 

Earlier on Wednesday, female participants in a body image workshop run by Klazinga had spoken, often poignantly, about their experiences of street harassment and sexual objectification. While walking to the exhibition that same morning, one woman reported, she had been approached by a man who told her he wanted to “stick it in deep”. What did she do? “I told him to f*** off!” she said, to approval. But other participants noted that often fear of escalating the physical threat in such a situation prevents women from expressing their offence in the moment.

Klazinga is the first port of call at Rhodes for students who have been raped. She estimates that the campus of 7,000 students experiences around the same rate of sexual violence as any other South African university. But when it comes to service provision for the survivors of rape, she believes they are ahead of the rest. “We will call out a doctor for you at our expense, get you post-exposure prophylaxis [to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection] and counselling, and assign you a support officer who will give you legal advice and explain the procedure should you wish to press charges.” Matching the trend for the country more generally, she says the rapes they deal with are most commonly perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

The activism around rape and sexual violence on the Rhodes campus in recent years, Klazinga explains, was informed by national politics as much as local happenings. In particular, the rape trial of Jacob Zuma in 2006 was a spur. “We started thinking: what would it mean if we had a president who was a rapist?” Klazinga asks. One of the ‘My Body My Choice’ photographs shows a young black woman with her head lowered but her hands raised in defiance. She is topless, but around her waist is loosely draped a kanga: a sign of solidarity with the woman who accused Zuma of rape, who was believed to have been wearing such a garment on the night of the incident.

Since the first photo shoot participants awkwardly arrived for their pictures to be taken in 2009, the initiative has grown steadily. The ‘My Body My Choice’ album now has over 300 photographs, and these days they have to limit the number of participants because they are over-subscribed and the process is a lengthy one. The exhibition’s trip to Cape Town is its first outing beyond Grahamstown’s borders, but Klazinga hopes the project will take off nationally.

All subjects who participate in the shoot sign detailed release forms, specifying where and how their photos may be used. There is no online database where the images can be accessed, in order to protect the women who posed. Of the people who have entered the City Hall to view the photographs, Klazinga says that responses generally fall into two camps.

“You do get some men who seem to be here to look at naked women,” Klazinga says. “So yes, there is objectification even in this space. But mainly people who come in are moved. They see themselves reflected in these photographs, and that’s affirming.”

On the second day of the exhibition in Cape Town, women who had attended the body image workshop were offered the opportunity to be photographed naked by Cohen. Pots of paints and placards were brought out, and the small group of women busied themselves with crafting their message. “Know thy worth,” painted one woman, who intended to pose in a yoga posture. “I contain multitudes,” another had written on her chest. “You don’t know what I’m thinking,” was the simple message of another.

The photo shoot itself happened in the privacy of a room with only Cohen in attendance. “Some of them do come in quite nervous, but they end up loving it,” Cohen said. At least one participant declined to undress, saying that she considered it unnecessary to the message. This decision was not questioned or criticised. 

Klazinga had informed me that it would be their preference for me to participate in the photo shoot in order to develop a better understanding of the process. I agreed. As someone who is not particularly nudity-averse, I found myself nonetheless apprehensive as my turn drew near. I struggled with the wording of the message I wanted to convey, though I’d decided that I wanted it to be related to the frequent victimisation of female writers in online comment threads. “How about just, ‘I write what I like’?” suggested Klazinga. I liked it: punchy, accurate, and with a nod to Biko thrown in for good measure. I painted the words in bold black paint on a placard. Then, screwing my courage to the sticking point, I entered the studio.

Undressing in front of someone you met ten seconds ago is weird, even for the most sexually empowered. I kept up a constant stream of prattle to conquer the awkwardness. Cohen liked the placard, which was large enough to provide a shield for the most contentious parts of my body, but asked if I would be up for writing the words on my face instead. I said that I would, but after an experimental snap the idea was ditched, with Cohen tactfully blaming some environmental factors for the reason why I looked “washed out”. 

In the end, then, I simply held my placard in front of me and looked at the camera. And smiled, because I wanted to look like a friendly naked feminist. After a flurry of snapping, it was over. Cohen showed me the end product, I agreed that nobody would be involuntarily blinded by it, and I retrieved my clothes from the corner where I’d discarded them. (Not in any great hurry – by that stage I had become positively brazen in my nudity, no doubt to Cohen’s disadvantage.) 

Walking out, I had two thoughts. The first was: Despite my outrage at the doctored images of unattainable beauty falsely peddled by magazines, I would not be at all averse to the use of Photoshop on my own photo. (Because, to quote the American comedian Maria Bamford, “I’m a radical, militant feminist – and a hypocrite.”) And my second thought was that I felt powerful. Strong. In control of my body. And ready to tell anyone who catcalled me to f*** right off.

Written by:  Rebecca Davis

Picture credit: www.dailymaverick.co.za

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on www.dailymaverick.co.za.