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17 March 2023

Victoria Bateman: “I use my naked body to try and subvert things”

The feminist economist once saw modesty as a necessity in order to be taken seriously. Now, she protests nude.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Victoria Bateman was a teenager living in Oldham in the 1990s, she would typically wear a long skirt, long socks and a high-necked blouse. At that time “it was pretty normal”, she said, “for teenage girls to wear little skirts, little tops – boob tubes – to show off their tummy and legs and so on”. Bateman, however, was all too aware of how authority figures judged girls who wore revealing outfits, viewing them as “pieces of meat”. She was from a working-class family her parents worked in the sheet metal industry and hated the idea that she would be deemed “trashy” or “common”. She wanted to be known for her intellect, not her body.

That image of a “puritanical, almost Victorian” teenage girl who was bullied at her comprehensive school for her modest dress is far from the 43-year-old Bateman who greeted me when I visited her at home in Cambridgeshire. She opened the door wearing a pair of navy pumps and a Liberty print scarf tied in a bow around her neck. She wore red lipstick and had her hair up in a Heidi braid. She was otherwise completely nude.

If this sounds shocking – or at least unusual – I knew to expect it. Bateman is promoting her new book, Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty, and so really her nakedness was appropriate. Her state of undress was, however, a surprise when she appeared on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 in 2019: she entered the studio in a coat and disrobed as she delivered her message that “Brexit leaves Britain naked”. John Humphrys was rattled.

Bateman is a lecturer in economics at the University of Cambridge. She chose the subject in order to better understand the circumstances that led to the recession of the early 1990s, which caused “a serious headache” for her family. She has a particular interest in feminist economics and the ways financial policy affects women, having watched her mother struggle to look after her and her two younger sisters alone, following her parents’ “very messy” separation when she was 14.

Bateman is known for protesting in the nude at conferences, university meetings and events. She often has a political message written across her chest, such as “Respect”, a nod to the Aretha Franklin song, or “My body, my choice”. Sometimes, as she did when she spoke on the value of women’s reproductive and caring labour at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she wears bank notes to cover her breasts and “lower regions”.

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[See also: The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism]

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It took Bateman a long time to feel comfortable appearing naked in public, she explained, perching on a chaise longue in her bright, high-windowed living room, a cup of tea balanced atop a Taschen tome of The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries. “Initially I felt that my body was a liability,” she said. “I felt: if I’m going to be taken seriously in life, I need to be modest.” In her twenties, as her career in academia progressed and she began presenting at conferences, Bateman worried about what she would wear more than what she would say – whether her dress might appear see-through when she stood in front of a window, or if her skirt might ride up as she sat down for dinner. “I wasted so much time worrying about these things,” she said, sighing. “My body didn’t feel on my side.”

She felt constrained by a culture “that labels women as either bodies or brains”. As the first person in her family to go to university – her father left school at 15 – she was determined to prove her academic ability. “One day, in my early thirties, I thought to myself: look, there are so many problems in the world! We’re surrounded by poverty, we’ve got issues of climate change. Why, as a woman, do I have to spend so much time worrying about how I present myself? To hell with this!”

Bateman’s first naked act was artistic: in 2014 she posed for a nude portrait by Anthony Connolly. Art was critical to the development of her feminist thinking. Aged 17 she went to the “Sensation” exhibition in London, where she saw Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. The piece shocked her, she said, excitedly. “I was used to slut-shaming. I knew how quickly girls could lose their reputation. So the idea that here you have an artist who is openly slut-shaming herself seemed really quite a challenge to the society I knew. It forced me to reflect on how I judged myself.” Today a 2m-tall oil painting by Oswald Birley of Beatrice Collier dancing the Apache – an early 20th-century style said to re-enact a violent “discussion” between a sex worker and a pimp – hangs in her reception room.

Now Bateman uses her naked body “to try and subvert things”. Her aim is to show that behind every “scantily clad woman” is a “real, thinking being who deserves to be taken seriously”. In Naked Feminism, she argues that the “cult of female modesty” – societal attitudes that judge a woman’s worth on her modesty – is on the rise around the world. In June 2022 the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, the ruling guaranteeing a federal right to an abortion. In December Indonesia’s parliament approved a law making sex outside of marriage illegal. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has reimposed restrictions on women’s dress, behaviour and education.

[See also: Louise Perry: feminists have fallen for the illusion of limitless liberty]

Photo by Tori Ferenc for The New Statesman

Bateman is aware that while she believes that puritanism is making a comeback, other feminists would argue that, at least in the West, we are instead living in a time of “raunch” culture – where children are sexualised via the media, and hardcore porn has never been more accessible. But she argues that the effects of society’s desire to “protect” women’s bodily honour are far worse than its opposite. In the book she presents data that shows that in the countries with the strongest “modesty cults”, such as where premarital sex is most frowned upon, for example in Nigeria and Pakistan, girls are less likely to complete their lower secondary education. She believes that in societies where female modesty is enforced by culture or law – be that by virginity testing, female genital mutilation, the withdrawal of women from the workplace or education, or the denial of contraceptives – all women lose.

Bateman receives online abuse for her naked protests and has particularly come to expect it from “religious zealots” and social conservatives. Worse is “not feeling that feminism is on your side”, she said, with a hint of sadness in her otherwise sprightly voice. “I have a lot of women telling me I’m setting a bad example for younger women, or I’m causing a disservice to womankind by causing men to view women as sex objects. But I don’t think that immodest women like me are responsible for women being seen as sex objects. Ultimately I think we should be able to achieve our feminist utopia while being free to do what we want with our own bodies.” For Bateman that means undressing. But she does not expect all women to do the same. “I am completely anti burqa bans, anti headscarf bans. Because ultimately I think every woman should be able to dress exactly as she chooses.”

She is wary of contemporary feminism “increasingly appearing like a group of ‘clever’ women, who reveal and monetise their brains, ganging up to obstruct and marginalise those who do the same with their bodies,” she writes. She is particularly critical of groups that work to criminalise sex work in the name of feminism. Bateman sees herself as part of an umbrella movement that includes sex workers and feminist creatives such as the American performance artist Annie Sprinkle.

But, as Bateman told me as we moved through to her kitchen – where she had laid out a three-tiered serving stand filled with sandwiches and slices of cake – she isn’t always naked. She has “modest days” and “immodest days”. She doesn’t go out into the village undressed and isn’t even sure her neighbours know about her protests. Her nude appearances are targeted. “I very much use my naked body as a political messaging tool,” she said. She didn’t slip on a coat as she headed into the garden to feed the squirrels.

Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty is published by Polity Press

[See also: Mary Harrington interview: “Make sex consequential again”]

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