February 28, 2003

First Person:

Baring It All For Peace – Modern Day Lady Godivas

By: Sheila K. Johnson

One recent Saturday, shortly after sunrise, I joined about 60 other women of various ages and dimensions to bare my bottom for peace.

This strange, new movement may have started in Northern California, or perhaps in New South Wales, Australia. In any case, it is now spreading across the far more puritan (and colder — it’s summer in Australia) United States.

I live just north of San Diego, site of a major U.S. naval base, and slightly south of Oceanside, home to a major U.S. Marine base. Our chosen venue was the beach community of Leucadia, founded by theosophists around the turn of the century and blessed with street names such as Hygeia, Hymettus, Eolus, Naiad and Neptune.

We were asked to wear robes or something we could easily take off and a sack labeled with our first name in which to put our clothes. As we assembled on the beach, empty except for the occasional surfer or dog-walker, we shivered a bit in the early-morning chill. The beach is below a high bluff and accessible only by a long set of stairs. It was from these stairs that the photographer — a professional and the husband of one of the organizers — would take our picture as we lay down, buck-naked, to form a peace symbol.

While the photographer drew a peace symbol in the sand, we women formed a large circle and introduced ourselves ... not by name, but — at the suggestion of the organizer — by where we were born, whether we had children, and what we did for a living. So I learned that this group included women born in almost every state of the union, that most were mothers (in one case a mother-to-be) and grandmothers, and that many were teachers, social workers, artists, or simply “ecologists” or “in favor of peace.” One woman, who said she was born in France and was very proud of the French, was loudly cheered. Another, who said she was a teacher and could hardly wait for her school district to see our photo, got a big laugh.

On Saturday, February 22, sixty women gathered at sunrise on a San Diego beach to make a peace symbol with their naked bodies. The women, part of a group called the Unreasonable Women of North Coast San Diego, range in age from 20 to 75. They include attorneys, teachers, musicians, writers, and social workers; many are mothers and grandmothers.

Then we distributed ourselves (still clothed) around the peace symbol while the photographer looked through his lens. When he was satisfied with our arrangement, his wife called out “Bare witness!” and we all stood up, quickly removed our robes and shoes, and put them in the sacks we’d brought. “Runners” — young girls dressed in sweats and tennis shoes — rushed around collecting the bags and stashing them against the bluff. Several of the women began to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all joined in.

When I decided to participate in this small, anti-war protest – knowing it would have no effect on decision-making in Washington — I asked myself why I was doing it. I thought of Lady Godiva who, roughly a millennium ago, was said to have ridden naked on a white horse through the streets of Coventry because her husband had promised to reduce the population’s taxes if she dared. Was that the symbolism we sought: that we would gladly bare our all in order to achieve a public good? Or were we saying to Bush and Co. that our “immoral” act of disrobing in public was nothing compared to the immorality of their war plans?

When I was lying on the sand and looking at that sea of supine female flesh, another thought occurred to me. We all looked so beautiful. Fat, thin, young, old, scarred, or flabby. Perhaps the sculptors of classical Greece wouldn’t have agreed, but certainly Rembrandt or Rubens or Degas would have appreciated and understood the message. The human body is something to be treasured, not something to be cut up or blown apart in a war. Most of the women who came to make that statement with their own bodies have given birth to other human beings whom they love. They were indeed baring witness to their deep longing for peace.

Johnson is author of “The Japanese Through American Eyes” (Stanford University Press) and editor for the Japan Policy Research Institute. She is 65 years old.

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