The Muscle of Beauty, The Body as Protest


On August 17th, three young women of the band Pussy Riot were sentenced to three years each in jail for staging what they called a “punk prayer” on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Two months earlier, Representative Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives after referring to her vagina during a debate on abortion rights.

I cannot help but draw a line.

Pussy Riot’s protest was not specifically feminist – they were praying, in punk rock form, for the defeat of Russia’s Vladimir Putin – but it was gendered.

During the reading of her final verdict in the case, Judge Marina Syrova referred several times to the clothing the women wore during their protest, noting the shortness of their dresses and the provocative nature of their neon-colored tights. She accused them of engaging in “homosexual propaganda.”

Pussy Riot was not just punished for being political protestors, though Putin’s Russia has a history of engaging in that kind of oppression. They were punished for being women inappropriately. For being whores.

For the use of their bodies.

As women, our bodies have always been battlegrounds. Much as we would like to believe our bodies are private territories, states have almost never treated them as such. We have been legislated into corners – what medical care we can receive, what we can wear, what skin can be exposed.

In 2011, Oklahoma enacted a law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound, view the image, and receive a verbal description of the fetus. In 2012, seven more states are considering such a bill.

Representative Paul Ryan, now the Republican party’s nominee for vice president, has sponsored a federal bill that would allow hospitals to refuse a woman emergency abortion care, even if her life was in immediate danger.

Listing all the ways in which our bodies are not our own would be superfluous. We know. We feel it inside us that these decisions are no longer our own. We carry the weight around our shoulders.

A religious scholar in Saudi Arabia, speaking against allowing women to participate in physical education in public schools, called sport the first “steps of the devil.”

These efforts to restrict the female body, to punish us for being female, stem from a deep fear of the power of the female body.

We know this, too. And we are starting to use the body to fight back.

The women of Pussy Riot didn’t just play their music, nor did they stay outside the church they wished to use as the site of their protest. They placed themselves inside. They thrashed with their bodies. The clothing deemed too provocative by the Russian court was intended as such – intended to draw attention to their bodies. Not as sexual objects – any video of the event clearly shows very full coverage. As dancing bodies. As colorful bodies. As physical bodies refusing to be made blank.

In conjunction with the release of her modern-day protest record, Generals, The Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn began a collaborative, nominative photography project called The New Revolutionists.

The series of black-and-white photographs, inspired by Richard Avedon’s “Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” seeks to recast true revolutionary women. Women who stand up to injustice, writes Burhenn on the project’s website, “are rarely pristine; they get their hands dirty.”

The photographs are an action of the body. Women engaged in spiritual battles, women glaring directly into the lens, women hungry and ready to fight. Fists clenched, arms raised, mouths open. Some are bare-chested, unafraid to be exposed. In posing for still photographs, they are claiming a ground, asserting a physical presence. This is our land, their eyes say. We will not budge an inch.

Once the law has begun to crawl its way under your skin, there is no other clear path but to use the body as a tool of protest. These legislative efforts – the refusal to allow the biological term for a part of my body – the accusations veiled in a description of our clothing – they are all designed to negate my body, to strip it of existence, to undo its power.

But my body exists. It has a heartbeat and skin and yes, it has a vagina. I will stand somewhere and you will have no choice but to see me.

The Michigan Senate was back in session this week, and six volunteers from the local chapter of Planned Parenthood stood on the steps of the Capitol Building, holding letters that spelled out the word vagina.

This is our last stand, our final frontier. We will use our bodies to fight on behalf of our bodies.

It’s no coincidence that this work of the body-as-protest so often takes the form of art, music, sound, dance.

Eve Ensler, a woman who has built her life around the forced acknowledgement of the female body, has spent the last year building support for a new protest movement called One Billion Rising, whose mission is this:

One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.

One billion women violated is an atrocity.

One billion women dancing is a revolution.

If we will be forced to use our bodies as weapons, the battle will be on our terms. And it will be made of beauty.

We are not ashamed of our bodies – we are not afraid of them. We will celebrate their tremendous power. We will dance in honor of them, in churches or on the steps of Capitol Buildings or in front of cameras. We will dress our bodies in neon tights or short skirts, or we will bare our chests. We will not allow you to look away.

The beauty will be blinding.

This is not to say that all protests by women – gendered or not – are flights of fancy, are hippie-dippie fairy flower circles. Art is work rooted in beauty, and beauty is the farthest thing from irrelevant. Nor is it to suggest that all female protest is sexualized. The body is more than that.

Women – and, while we’re at it, queer folk – know something of the muscle of beauty. We know the work of labor, birth, creation, is bloody work. We don’t have to be mothers or menstruating to know the truth of our bodies: that beauty is born out of the raw pulp, the mess.

By using our bodies as sites of protest, we are creating a space for action in place of a negative space. We will create something from the black place of nothing you call our bodies.

While the three women of Pussy Riot sat behind a glass wall, in a cage, inside a Russian court, awaiting their verdict, a revolution of the same kind was brewing in the Midwest. For a week in August, the female volunteer musicians of Omaha Girls Rock day camp met with their newest students. In workshops and one-on-one instruction, girls from all over the Midwest received training playing the instruments of their choosing. They learned collaborative song-writing. They formed bands. At the end of the week, they recorded their songs.

They learned the power of music as a means of social change. But more importantly, they learned how to use their voices, their hands. They learned the power they hold inside their bodies.

And they began to sing.

Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian's Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, 2017). Her essays have appeared in numerous publications including Orion, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Guernica, Diagram, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown, a mom, and a stress baker, among other things. More from this author →