Occupy is Not a Photo Opp

Amy doesn’t tend to wear clothes. When I first moved into Bird House, a co-op on the Berkeley-Oakland border, I was a bit startled whenever I encountered Amy’s curvy, bare, tattooed body passing me in the hall, washing dishes, sitting down for dinner–completely exposed, no shame, not a quiver of fear.

It took me a few weeks to get used to my new housemate, and to realize that, for Amy, being naked isn’t about sex or being sexualized. She simply isn’t ashamed of her body so she doesn’t hide it.

So, a few weeks ago, Amy was volunteering at the Occupy San Francisco kitchen, ladling baked beans onto the plates of hungry occupiers. As she did this, she was wearing pants, but had left her bra and shirt back in the tent.

As folks moved through the line, some grinned and blushed at Amy’s bare breasts. Others hardly seemed to notice the toplessness and thanked Amy for preparing the food. As Amy does at home, she smiled at everyone who moved through the line, warmly telling them, “I love you.”

And then a woman in a shoulder-padded blazer pushed through the line and confronted Amy.

“And what exactly are you trying to prove?” the woman spat.

“…nothing,” came Amy’s soothing, gender-neutral voice.

The woman’s eyes darted from Amy’s bare breasts to her Mother Mary tattoo to her unconventional haircut (half of Amy’s head is buzzed, while the other half has chin-length locks).

A tight frown crossed the woman’s face and she said, “I hope you realize you’re mis-representing the whole movement with your childish behavior!”

This type of internal-policing has broken out in Occupy encampments nationwide.

Unable to grapple with the idea of a true autonomous zone, self-conscious occupiers obsessively try to force everyone else to fit their preconceived notions of what the movement should look like. These people mistake representation for reality: they think that the news blurbs, photos, and videos are the movement. It is as if these people have internalized the media–news-cameras gazing out at them from within, driving them to perform Occupy instead of living their experience of it.

But Occupy is not a photo opp.

At encampments from New York to San Francisco to everywhere, people from all backgrounds are revealing themselves to each other, talking out their differences, agreeing to disagree, and healing from all these many years of suffering under an oppressive system that values symbols (grades, money, status, etc) more than the quality of our shared experience.

“Well,” the woman continued to yelp at Amy, “I hope you realize you’ve made yourself into a sex object to every male here!”

“Now that just ain’t true!” interjected a middle-aged man who was sitting nearby.

He stood up and calmly explained that the Occupy SF encampment is a place of love and community, and that seeing Amy’s breasts wasn’t going to make anyone stop loving her. “It’s Amy’s body. And if she don’t want to cover it, she don’t have to.”

Throughout our media-saturated lives, we are conditioned to believe that our naked bodies are a symbol. A symbol of sex. A symbol of shame. A symbol of liberation, even. But our bodies don’t need to represent anything. Symbols need only penetrate as deep as we let them. To Amy, Amy’s body represents nothing more than it is: a body. And by letting go of the symbols society has attempted to attach to our flesh, we can begin the slow process of occupying ourselves.

The shoulder-padded woman shook her head in disgust and walked away.

Amy thanked the man for his words.

He smiled. “I meant them.”