Why This Girl Stripped Down In Public

The ongoing conversation about body image and body positivity has led to a wide variety of social experiments and videos. Some of them function as rude awakenings, drawing attention to some of the worst aspects of humanity and imploring us to examine our behavior and change it. But others highlight the goodness in the world and bring hope — like, for example, this latest one. Yoga teacher, dancer, and actress Jae West removed her clothing and stood in one of London's busiest locations to make a statement about body image and self-acceptance. The video is powerful, to be sure — but the actions of the people within the video isn't actually the most important part of the whole. It's what we — the viewers — do with it that matters.

The experiment was part of the movement led by activist group The Liberators International, which creates “participatory public and private events that involve and encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to participate in acts of unconditional kindness, dance, and/or human connection.” Followed by two fellow Liberators with cameras, West went to Picadilly Circus with a white board, a few markers, and a blindfold. She stripped down to her underwear, propped up her white board, blindfolded herself… and just stood there, blindfolded, her arms held out, a marker in each hand.

Here's what the white board said:

At first, she simply continued to stand there as Londoners and tourists alike passed her by:

But then, someone came up to her, gently took one of the markers from her hand, and drew a small heart on her body.

And then happened again:

And again:

And again, by all types of people of all ages. By the end, she was covered in hearts:

“Body image and self-acceptance is something that I have always been passionate about endorsing after experiencing an eating disorder myself through high school and my early 20s,” writes West on Inspiralight. The inspiration for this particular piece came from Amanda Palmer's TED Talk “The Art of Asking” — specifically a story Palmer told about stripping down and letting her fans draw or write anything they pleased on her. “That night as I was going to bed, the idea of linking the vulnerability of nudity with self-esteem issues in a public setting came to mind,” writes West. The experiment, she says, was “a reality check of how harsh we can be on ourselves. We really can be our own worst critics. The unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves can cause us to reject the love that others openly give because of a feeling of unworthiness.”

I'll admit that part of me wonders whether the results of the experiment would have changed if it had been undertaken by someone who wasn't a conventionally attractive woman. This isn't a comment on West or her bravery; rather, it's a comment on us as a society. We're much more willing to act compassionately towards people who fit conventional beauty standards, so I have to question whether the passers by would have accepted the statement made by West's piece as readily if it had been made by someone whom society has arbitrarily deemed “unattractive.”

But then again, maybe that's the point. Sure, society is kinder to conventionally attractive people; having that brand of beauty, however, doesn't mean that you have a perfect life. Everyone — and I do mean everyone — can and does suffer from body image issues; as such, one of the things we can take away from West's experiment is that, regardless as to how “perfect” someone may seem, we can't assume anything about them or their personal struggles. Nor should we.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that the point of the whole thing wasn't necessarily to achieve validation through the approval of others. The sign she displayed during it held a message of solidarity (emphasis mine): “I'm standing for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder or self-esteem issues like me.” It says, “You are not alone.” It says, “I am with you.” And the hearts that everyone drew on her body? They aren't saying, “I think you specifically are physically attractive.” They're saying, “I support self-acceptance — for everyone on the planet."

It's crucial to remember The Liberators' emphasis on creating participatory events. Yes, Jae West is brave for placing herself in such a vulnerable position with so many strangers. Yes, she makes an important statement about body image and self-acceptance. But we are not passive — either with regards to West's video, or in the world as a whole. What we do with this statement is what matters, and the compassion with which we treat ourselves is as important as the compassion with which we treat others. We're all in this together — so let's make it count.

Watch the full video below, and find out more about The Liberators International at their home on the web.

Images: Peter Sharp/YouTube (7)