This essay is a celebration of a woman whose name I don’t know. She strutted through the blue tents of Occupy Wall Street in a bikini and coat, bare-breasted. Posing for photos, she held a sign that read, “I didn’t say look. I said listen.” On her belly she wrote, “The naked truth is that Wall Street is screwing us all.” Months after the police evacuation she has a second life on YouTube. In a video, she and two women, also bare-chested, were told by cops to cover up. Instead they chanted louder, eyes lit with new freedom. It was obvious they occupied more than a city park. They occupied their bodies.
To occupy: it means to fill up time or space, to dwell in, to seize possession and maintain control over as if by conquest. The word fit our protest as we marched in downtown Manhattan, shouting against the bankers who gambled with the world’s wealth. Under the banner of the 99%, we entered Zuccotti Park and took over more than physical space; we seized possession of the social narrative. We translated the anxiety of millions of Americans, stranded in a broken economy into a new language. In place of capitalist competition, we practiced horizontal cooperation. In place of iTunes, we drummed, sang and danced. In place of isolation, we cuddled in the open night. And instead of propaganda or corporate branding, we practiced free art. In doing this, we seized control and dwelled in the vacant state of existence beyond capitalism.
What shocked us was the voltage of hidden truth coursing through our bodies. It healed our minds and reintegrated parts of our psyche that had been divided against each other. We were liberated from empty work, our emotions were not commodities and we felt a physical euphoria rising from the tent city of OWS. Outside of the everyday ringing of cash registers and blaring advertisements, we created a space and within that space, we experienced the body’s suppressed need for communion. And we felt the body’s need to explore desires buried in muscle and sizzling in the nerves.
In reverse, what the physical euphoria of the Occupy Movement shows is that the body is the first victim of oppression. The weight of history enters our minds through language and grows heavier throughout our lives. In childhood, we learn to see social ideals shining in the center of every conversation. And with it, come the silent questions. Are you thin enough, rich or white enough? Are you young enough, Facebooked and famous enough? Are you Christian enough? Are you married and straight? Do you have a new car? Do you have a nice house? Do you have a career or just a job?
And in trying to achieve these ideals, our eyes become scissors cutting whole parts of our physiques and minds. The harder one tries to fit inside the center, the more alienated we become from our bodies and ourselves. And these two forces create each other; the vast psychological distance of alienation and the urgent return to the body. Together they are the tidal force of history, washing over us, leaving our lives far from where they began.
Today, alienation comes from the great distance between our advertisements and our incomes. Capitalism is a global culture of spectacle where images of wealth swirl around a shrinking labor force already too deep in debt to afford the good life. And yet the anxiety caused by this systemic failure is framed as personal failure. And the Left discovered decades ago that “the personal is political.”
In the 1969 essay of the same name by Carol Hanisch, she defined “political therapy” as the realization that our problems are not ours alone but caused by a larger system. A void existed between the American collective experience and its political expression and we occupied it until we couldn’t be ignored.
In this void, the Occupy Generation created a roving world of transparent democracy. We slept in the open air on cold cement, chanting until our hoarse voices echoed through the cities of the world. And the world listened because when the body speaks, every silence echoes with its truth.
Just before one becomes free, comes a painful moment of breaking through the old self. I have to admit, when I first saw the bare-breasted woman walking through the park, I got angry. My fear was she endangered the image of the movement. But I checked myself and asked whose values was I judging her by? She wasn’t hurting anyone. She was using her body to express a political message. Once again, I was confronted with how much conservative ideology I had internalized. I breathed and let it go.
When I looked again, she reminded me of the famous painting Liberty Leads the People by Eugene Delacroix in which a bare-breasted woman holding the French flag leads the revolutionaries to victory. Now when I see the YouTube video of the three women, standing bare-breasted and chanting, I define it as one of the many acts that shattered our alienation and returned us to the body, the pivot around which history revolves.