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The Tyranny of Clothes

A human rights issue?

“MY BODY, MY CHOICE!”  “FREEDOM TO CHOOSE!”  “END THE MANDATES!”  Anyone who took any notice of the anger displayed at the anti-vax/mandate fiasco in Wellington will have seen a plethora of signs and banners demanding the rights of an individual to be the sole governor of their own body, particularly the right to decide what is injected into it.

Of course the “my body, my choice” slogan isn’t new.  It was coined in late 1969 as a feminist struggle for reproductive rights and subsequently noted by the global feminist struggle.  It was widely seen at feminist rallies and protests against anti-abortion laws.  The feminist movement apparently determined that a woman’s body takes precedence over the body of the unborn child, but that’s another argument.


Opponents of infant circumcision have also used the slogan as a critique of the practice's alteration of infant genitals.  There are plenty more issues that have riled people up enough to start waving the slogan around: recreational drug use, equal marriage rights, surrogate pregnancies, or assisted suicide, sex work, voluntary amputation, gender reassignment surgery, to name just a few that come to mind.  Many of us 


Protesters gather in parliament grounds.  Wellington, February 2022

have one or two political issues surrounding our bodies that get us fired up.  Some of you reading this right now probably have some button-pressing issue on your mind. 


So we come to these four words that define our belief about our rights: “my body, my choice.”  How you react to those words determines which side of any of those debates you find yourself.  That brings me to my point: there isn’t a bunch of little debates; there is just one big debate being argued on multiple fronts.  It’s all one and the same argument – the right to be sovereign over your own body.


Let’s just get one thing clear at this point.  We’re not talking about a sovereign right to determine what you do with your body in terms of behaviour.  This is about self-ownership (sovereignty over one’s own person), bodily integrity (freedom from violation by others), and personal autonomy (ability to make informed, uncoerced decisions about the treatment of one’s own body).  In essence, the slogan means, “This is MY BODY, and I get the sole right to choose what happens to it.”


On the surface, it would seem that universal acceptance of the principle of “my body, my choice” should be a no-brainer.  After all, who would want to argue that others should have any rights over their body?  But when you look a little closer at some of these issues that have claimed the slogan, it’s not as black and white as you first think.  Several of the issues involve the rights of more than just one person, e.g. the abortion debate.  Some individual rights are limited by the principle of “The Common Good” e.g. the Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates.  On the other hand, some of the issues neither harm nor offend anyone else, yet they still must overcome huge societal hurdles to become accepted.


Here’s another one for you: mandatory wearing of clothes.  Who on this planet has a God-given right to force me to hang any shred of cloth on my body?  Who has any right to tell me that my body is offensive to look at if it’s unclothed?  Who gets to define the word “offensive” anyway?  What kind of tyrannical society do we live in that compels me to cover with cloth any part of me that it considers obscene?


These are all reasonable questions, but it’s interesting, don’t you think, that a protest march on parliament for a law change on this issue would be pointless in New Zealand, as there are no laws that specifically force me to wear any clothing.  There are no statutory clothing mandates to complain about, so the Government is not the appropriate target of any useful persuasive efforts to address this matter.


Where, then, do I direct my protest?  In front of whose face do I need to wave my “MY BODY, MY CHOICE!” placard?  Into whose ears must I scream my right to choose whether or not any form of textile touches my own skin?


The problem with words such as “offensive” and “obscene” is that they can be used in a subjective sense or a normative sense.  For example, I personally hate the smell of parmesan cheese.  To me, the smell is offensive.  But that’s just me.  Most people love parmesan cheese and don’t find the smell offensive at all.  Normatively, the smell of parmesan cheese is completely acceptable, while subjectively (to me) it’s not.  So what one person finds offensive, the vast majority may not; that’s subjective offensiveness.  But when the majority of a society is offended by something, then that’s normative offensiveness.  Yet even that can never be absolute; what might be normative in one society – or even a demographic within a society – might not be normative in another.  For example, as a teenager heavy metal rock music was popular among my age group.  But the majority of our parents hated it and found it offensive.  The music was normatively offensive in their demographic, but accepted and even relished in mine.

Let’s have a look at an example more relevant to our topic: clothing.  In 2006, the Mayor of Whanganui at the time, Michael Laws, proposed a bylaw that would ban gang patches and insignia from being worn in the Whanganui CBD.  However, for human rights reasons, the ban required an act of parliament, which wasn’t passed until May 2009.  But in 2008 Mayor Stan Semenoff (Whangarei) wanted to follow in Whanganui’s footsteps saying, "Gang patches can intimidate members of the public, and we want our CBD to be a welcoming place, not a threatening one."

But medical herbalist Joan Lourie who owns a business in Whangarei’s Cameron St disagreed.  She was aware there might be things going on that she did not know about, but the


gang members she had seen were just going about their business like anybody else.  Because they were causing no harm, she thought it would be unfair to limit their movement within the city.


"The idea of banning someone because of what they wore created unnecessary judgement,” said Joan.  "We are all different.  I would hate someone to say, `You can't wear that jacket, Joan!  It's offensive!'", she said.


Joan maintained it was an individual’s right to wear what they wanted, especially if it was meaningful to them.


"Taking that away undermines people's rights,” she said.


So then, what about my own rights and personal convictions?  What about yours?


I am known for being a strong advocate of the right to choose whether or not to wear any clothes at any given time.  Incidentally, this is one reason why I don’t belong to any naturist club.  They are just as guilty of taking away my right to have some clothing on as society is for forcing me to wear clothes!  People have different reasons for their desire to be clothes-free.  For me personally, the reasons include the commonly quoted ones: it’s physically and mentally good for me, it feels good to be unencumbered by clothing, it makes no sense at all to wear anything to swim in (especially the ocean).  But I have other convictions too.  More important ones, I feel.


How many of us have even once considered that a child may have had to work in a cotton field without protection against hazardous chemicals or work in a garment factory, day and night, to help produce the clothes people wear?


Hazardous work in cotton production is among the worst forms of child labour, as children are exposed to harmful pesticides (as indicated by ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which was universally ratified in 2020).  Not only are they exposed to harmful chemicals, but children working in cotton fields are subjected to isolation, high temperatures, and at risk from insects and other animal threats, causing serious health impacts - just to produce the shirt on your back!


Supply chains in the garment sector can be highly fragmented, with participants adding value at different levels.  It's difficult to trace the origin of a garment back to the textile production and further to the production of cotton because of this complex value chain and non-transparent subcontracting practices, usually in informal settings.


Now think for a moment about the environment and the amount of pollution created by the textile industry.  Consider these shocking facts as listed on the website of The European Parliament, an important forum for political debate and decision-making at the EU level


Water Use:  It takes a lot of water to produce textile, plus land to grow cotton and other fibres.  It is estimated that the global textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic metres of water in 2015, while the needs of the EU's whole economy amounted to 266 billion cubic metres in 2017.  To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required according to estimates, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.


Water Pollution:  Textile production is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.  Washing synthetics releases an estimated 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean a year.  Laundering synthetic clothes accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. A single laundry load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres that can end up in the food chain.


Greenhouse Gas Emissions:  It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.  According to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017 generated about 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.


Waste in Landfills:  The way people get rid of unwanted clothes has also changed, with items being thrown away rather than donated.  Since 1996, the amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40% following a sharp fall in prices, which has reduced the life span of clothing.  Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos every year.  Used clothes can be exported outside the EU, however 87% are either incinerated or landfilled.  Globally less than 1% of clothes are recycled as clothing, partly due to inadequate technology.


I’m not a big fan of labels – neither clothing labels nor personal ones.  If I have to wear a personal label, then Naturist it is.  But really, I’m just an ordinary bloke who claims the right to choose if and when I decide to wear any clothes.  My body, my choice!  And yes, some of the reasons are self-indulgent.  But others are that wearing clothes supports an industry that directly causes human suffering and serious environmental impacts.  Think about that next time you’re in the fitting room!



29 April 2022

Nudity is a Human Right

A declaration written by Will Forest, originally published on his blog, nudescribe


WHEREAS human beings manifest bodies that occupy physical volume in space as a necessity of existence;


WHEREAS human beings are born naked into these bodies and thus begin, naked, the basic acts of life through the intake of breath and breast;


WHEREAS nudity is thus the essential and most natural state in which human beings manifest their bodies;

WHEREAS the freedom to move the physical volume of the body through the elements without encumbrance is a natural and healthful practice for body, mind, and spirit;


WHEREAS human beings have devised intricate processes for crafting and distributing cloth and clothing, for use in protecting or adorning the surface of the body’s physical volume;







WHEREAS human beings have also devised layers of social significance that accompany the range of bodily clothing displays, from nudity through the most elaborately crafted costumes;


WHEREAS these layers of social significance are constructed arbitrarily according to custom, context, and cultural expression; and enforced arbitrarily by political or ecclesiastical contrivance;


WHEREAS the recognition of the right to practice diverse cultural expressions, such as freedom of religion or political party and freedom to form a family, is inherent in the protection of human rights;


BE IT HEREBY DECLARED that FREEDOM OF DRESS, or the right to wear as much or as little clothing upon one’s body as one desires, including the right to manifest one’s body in its natural state, is a human right, to be fully protected by all governments for the betterment of humankind.

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