Of the Shame of Nudity
Nudity as a symbol of poverty is as old as mankind.
One day I read a Tumblr post asking the question “Why are people so hung up about nudity?”
The simple and most often given reason is that it is all the fault of those close minded religious conservatives. There is truth to this response, but it is an oversimplification.
To answer this question we must look back to the dawn of human society and the role of human clothing. For my northern European ancestors, warm clothing meant the difference between life and death as the last ice age came to a close. For the peoples of the Fertile Crescent, clothes were expected to do the opposite. It was to protect people in the newly developed act of farming from heat and sun. The simple fact is that while clothing was originally highly functional, as we humans moved from small groups of hunter/gatherers to larger social groups, we developed social systems that used clothing to support that development. One of the keys to the development of large social systems was the visual identification of those from different clans, groups or social status. Clothing filled this social need.
From the beginning slaves filled that lowest rung, and one way of identifying slaves was that they wore inferior clothes or no clothes at all. We see this pattern in the art work from ancient Egypt and from ancient literature that equated nakedness with poverty. So even before the rise of monotheism, being naked was shameful. It was shameful not for some vague moral reason, but shameful because without clothing you had no social status. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible, public nudity is nearly universally associated with being poor and destitute.
From the dawn of photography until well into the 1960;s, photos of "ethnic" nudity were a not so subtle way to emphasize the superiority of Westerners over the "primitive" in other parts of the world. This served also to reinforce the same of nudity to people in North America and Europe.
This powerful image makes it clear that this young women is property by the fact her breasts are exposed to the gawking boy. Her face of resignation tells the story. In images like this the message of the shame of nudity is strongly reinforced.
This is not to suggest that exposure of the genitals was in itself shameful as most early civilizations had fertility cults to one degree or another and public or semi-public copulation was part of cultures both in the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe. Further, the modern sense of privacy and personal modesty was simply not imagined. Not just in the pre-monotheistic world, but even until quite recently (historically) privacy was the exclusive domain of the very rich. Extended families nearly universally lived in single room dwellings until the past few centuries. This fact precluded the kind of privacy taken for granted today. Among the very rich and powerful, slaves and servants of both sexes attended their masters in all things, from bathing to sexual liaisons. At the height of the religious middle ages, no nobleman or noble woman would have even noticed the body servants standing quietly at the side of the bed while they engaged in all manner of sexual activities with spouses, courtiers or lovers. This was not because they thought less of their own nudity, but rather that they thought nothing of their servants. The same nobleman or woman would have been mortified if a peer had seen the same thing.
A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a man who grew up in a slum in India. He told me how as a child he lived in a small apartment with his parents, grandparents, uncles and older brothers. Due to the very limited space, it was simply impossible not to see family nudity on a regular basis. Even more, when his family members had sex with wives or girlfriends it was very often right in the same room as him. I know some would think this liberating, but in his world it was a deep shame because it was a sign of their extreme poverty that family members had no privacy. He told me that he and his friends never thought it was sexy or kinky for people to have sex mere feet from him. Of course due to the heat, the sexual acts were not covered by blankets so nothing was hidden. He grew up embarrassed him that he could not avoid seeing and hearing the grunts and groans as people fucked. To this man and his peers sexual privacy was a privilege of the those who were not as poor as they were; thus it was aspirationial.
It is hard for modern Westerners to see sexual privacy as a luxury. Clothing, and the lack there of, has dramatic social implications that we simply overlook because it is so obvious. One is expected to dress the part of one’s social standing. Thus, public nudity is a direct affront to this societal order. It is an act of rebellion, of anarchy.
With that understood one then can look at the effects of monotheistic religion. In the West that generally means all the brands of Christianity and in the East it encompasses the many brands of Islam. In my alter-ego of Rev. Polyamory, with my background as an ordained Christian minister, I will write of that history.
In the early days of Christianity nudity in mixed company was not an issue. There is strong evidence that for the first several hundred years of Christianity local custom was followed. Christian adult baptism was conducted publicly and in the nude well into the 4th century. Further, in the Greek territory of Anatolia (now Turkey)where the new religion first took root among non-Jews, mixed gender social bathing was the norm for Christians and pagans alike. The Christians made their group distinction by their abstaining from the culture of casual recreational sex (both hetero and homo sexual), but simple nudity was not a distinctive of the early Christian community. However, it should be noted that even the early Christian practice of sexual restraint was more a way of differentiating themselves from the pagans than of a moral imperative. It was not until Christianity was co-opted by the Roman government that morality became primarily defined by sexual practices and by extension clothing that hid the sexual nature of the body. It was in the effort to eradicate the pagan traditions that government and church united to make public nudity verboten.
From that point forward, for Europeans, public nudity was an assault on both the authority of the Roman Church and on European social order.
There were exceptions however; most notably in the parts of northern Europe that were never conquered by the Romans. These were the last cultures to convert to Christianity from paganism. These places such as Scandinavia abandoned their ancient religion after the Roman Empire was a distant memory as such they were least influenced by the Roman need for absolute control over the culture to ensure the survival of "civilization". In these places, they saw no benefit in becoming Romanized and therefore the prohibition against public nudity never fully erased the ancient traditions.
In northern Europe clothing was never as an important in social distinction, but very important to survival in the cold winters. This led to a tradition of shedding clothes in hot springs and bath houses (saunas) in the winter months with no regard to the sex of those present. And with the coming of the summer solstice, clothes came off during joyous celebrations of the warm season (OK, relative warmth). Nude bathing at rivers and beaches never completely disappeared from these cultures. Though I must admit I don’t think I’d get naked in cold German rivers at any time.
In addition to these historical reasons that nudity is upsetting to many people let me add one more that I believe is more modern in nature and perhaps more clandestinely oppressive. Over the past century as diet and healthcare have improved, people in the west have come to expect a longer more pleasant life. This change, along with the rise of photographic media, has led to a pervasive body-beautiful culture. A person’s worth, even a political leader, is tied to their physical appearance. However, as we now can expect to live an active social life well into our 70’s and beyond; we are faced with an increasing separation, in terms of decades, from our body’s sexual peak and our continued desire to be sexually attractive. With wardrobe we can hide the effect of years, but naked, this is nearly impossible (unless your Demi Moore or Cher). Thus, even among believers in human liberty, there is an aversion to the open expression of the beauty of human nudity because middle aged people have been socialized to believe that only young nude bodies are attractive.
This feeling of having lost ones youthful beauty is now compounded in the pervasive Hollywood and internet depictions of nude male and female bodies that reflect only a very small percentage of even young people. Like clothing, the beautiful naked bodies on today’s screens are a product of costly hair & make-up, costly (and time consuming) professional gym routines and plastic surgery that exclude the average people who work long hours just to put food on the table. So, in effect, we have augmented clothing as the sign of leisured wealth with an expected perfected nude appearance.
So the writer asked, why are people (especially Americans) so hung up about public nudity? Nudity is a threat to the established social order, an assault on the privilege of wealth and a challenge to the media youth culture.
So I say: Be a rebel, go naked.