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Nudity: the state of being without clothes. There are many reasons for it around the world. Don’t need clothes, can’t afford them, desire to be sexually provocative, need to shock, or protest a custom or event by breaking taboos. Not to mention being naked for professional reasons.
Nudity can be natural, an unthought traditional custom, or a political or sexual form of engagement. It seems the absence of clothes is also a statement about clothes, as well as one about the human body.
Clothes make the man and woman as the proverb says; they reveal status and rank in society. Even when the clothes are a feather headdress, war or caste paint, body piercings, distortion of body parts such as ear lobes by objects, or scarring or tattoos.
It can be hard to know why a person is nude unless you know where in the world they are nude. Nudity means one thing in many African countries, something else in Scandinavia, or Polynesia, different again in Jewish or Islam countries, or Puritan dominated Western cultures. In some places only the poor are unclothed. In others the holy go naked.
Social classes or castes
A naked person subverts social structure. Naked, we are all equal. Clothes make not just mankind, but society. Without social structure, we think, we could easily lapse into anarchy. Clothing, in that case, represents power. Often, traditional power. That’s why judges and lawyers wear wigs, an 18th century aristocratic fashion; why men attend formal functions in white bow tie and tails, as upper classes did in the 19th century. Rather than advocating power though, people look for other justifications for clothing. One such is modesty, or to put it another way, shame.
Irish comedian Dave Allen once quoted the bible (as he often did) to question the traditional account it gives of nudity and clothing. Genesis (3, 7) says: (after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil) “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they discovered that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (New English Bible version, OUP 1970).
Why loincloths? asked Allen. It was their mouths that transgressed by eating the fruit. Why weren’t they ashamed of their mouths? Had they been so, they would have covered their mouths with a veil (or a fig-leaf). And today men would have looked at naked women, genitals clearly visible, with their faces covered, and been tantalised as the veils were removed from faces (“I saw her nose”, Allen imagines an excited audience member telling his friends).
The bible tells us this is how shame entered the world. Eating of the fruit of the Tree bought Adam and Eve knowledge of their nakedness. But nothing they had done so far explained why the shame they felt should be applied to their genitals rather than other parts of their body. Indeed they had earlier been told to increase and multiply, and apparently had done so with god’s approval. Adam and Eve had accepted their genitals, his penis and her breasts and vulva, without comment. Now it’s a hot topic. And the bible doesn’t explain that point at all.
In traditional societies rank is not enforced by clothing. No matter how naked they may be, what tribe members see, speak and do is controlled by rigid, unwritten rituals that determine who should defer to whom, and how. It is as rigid as the traditional bow in Japanese society. Only certain people can have sex with certain others, for instance, no matter how naked they are. In these societies, family relationships, and leadership status, control everything, and serve the same function as clothes do for us.
In our society we tend to equate nudity with licentiousness. We even have a business that asserts it, pornography. But a look around the world shows how peculiar our viewpoint is.
In many societies, ancient and modern, fertility is a good thing. Whether crops or babies, more life is good. We’ve come to negate that belief. Rising age limits, increased production of goods and their over consumption encouraged by capitalism, have meant that more people and more goods, manufactured or crops, is becoming a bad thing, an environmental stress the planet will not long endure. We look now on continued production as a threat. This makes it difficult to do justice to earlier beliefs. But as these have shaped our own, we need to make the attempt in order to understand ourselves.
Many societies, in both ancient and modern times, have venerated fertility. This has had important results for the status of women in those societies. Women produce new life. Their role as mothers is vital to the healthy function of these societies. They directly experience an unknown force, life, which makes them aspects of the Great Goddess, the source of life. In these societies nakedness is not tantalising, but utilitarian. People work naked, and genitalia are just parts of the body.
In ancient Ephesus and Corinth sacred prostitution was performed in homage to the Great Goddess. In Minoan Crete priestesses bared their breasts in ritual. Hinduism has many cults where the yoni and the lingam, the vulva and penis, are important. Because peoples in these societies watched or watch the sexual act being performed as part of a religious rite doesn’t mean they are watching what we call pornography. Even in Europe as recently as the 18th century, in some rural areas a man and woman would have sexual intercourse in the newly seeded fields while the villagers watched. This ensured a good harvest, they thought. The function of the penis and vagina, and their corollary with the fertility of the earth, were vital for survival. This transforms the view of nudity in these societies.
In our society we ‘plan’ a family, and think of considerations such as expense and the mother’s age, without much thought for religion (unless we believe in holy overpopulation). We still don’t know why a sperm combined with an egg should produce a new life, not what exactly life is. The great mystery is still there.
The nude in art
The nude is a convention in art. Paintings and sculpture show human beings naked, mainly because the source of our culture, ancient Greece, depicted people in this way. We’ve developed a double standard (surprise, surprise!) whereby painting or sculpting a nude is OK, but photographing one, or being nude ourselves, is not. One is ‘art’ (whatever that is) and the other is an appeal to our licentiousness.
A famous nude in medieval times was Lady Godiva. She rode naked through her town as a condition for the remission of an oppressive tax. Everybody thought highly of her for enduring such shame, and thought it just that the peeper, Peeping Tom, should go blind. We are viewing the story of Lady Godiva as Christians, for whom nakedness is sinful, an incitement to Lust.
Historians are a bit vague about Lady Godiva. There are a few candidates, none of whom were associated with any taxes. It is thought the story is just, well, a story, pointing a very Christian moral.
Lady Godiva in the 16th century, happy she didn’t have that haircut and Artemis in the 18th century (engraved by Louis Desplaces). Powerful forces depicted as vulnerable
However the story has a parallel from the ancient world. The goddess Artemis, sister of Apollo, was a huntress, like the Great Goddess of Asia Minor. There she was a fertility goddess, but in Greece she became a Virgin goddess. Both the Virgin and the fertility goddess had one thing in common. Their vulva and breasts were sacred, and could not be shown disrespect (compare the passage in the gospel of Luke where a bystander tells Jesus “Blessed be the womb that bore thee and the breasts that gave you suck” (King James version 11, 27). In a myth about Artemis, Actaeon peeped at the nude Artemis bathing and was torn apart by his own hunting dogs, just as Peeping Tom went blind on seeing Godiva. Godiva turns out to be a Christian version of a story about the Goddess. (‘Artemis’ is the Great Goddess, one of whose roles was Pandora, the all-giver. ‘Godiva’ means gifts of god).
The double standard means we accept some nudity. Making love with your clothes off is OK (only in private of course), and taking them off to have a shower is a good idea. But shopping nude at the supermarket or travelling on a bus minus clothes is frowned on. Even though we look good nude for such a short time. No sooner do we get over being worried about our bodies (pimples, small breasts or penis etc) than we start to get overweight and sag. There is another double standard: women have different conditions about nudity than men. Men can go topless, women can’t. Women’s underwear is fetishised. In some places a woman can be arrested for feeding her child from her breast in public, under obscenity laws. Sometimes this double standard is confusing. A woman can wear a thong on the beach which barely covers her vulva, or a top that just covers her nipples. That’s OK. If she takes them off, she gets arrested. How sensible is that? Keep that damn fig-leaf on, Eve.
But there’s another factor. What we are reacting to is often not just nudity (or clothing) but the act of looking at nudity. Being nude is one thing, seeing someone nude is another. We are worried about seeing another’s body, and obsess over it. Seeing a woman’s underpants when she sits down or seeing her breasts when she takes her top off at the beach sends the paparazzi into a frenzy. Photographing a subject in a way that reveals the genitals then exhibiting them in a public gallery causes outrage, though showing the sex act in pornographic films is OK if kept hidden (and can be also justified as a good business venture that makes a lot of money).
We are curious about the genitalia of the other sex, though many with siblings satisfy this curiosity at an early age. For pre pubescents it’s a source of fascination and even fear, as they prepare for sexual activity. Pornography capitalises on this curiosity, charging us for satisfying our curiosity while keeping us in a pre pubescent condition in order to do so. Obviously such curiosity should be satisfied, if only on functional grounds. Psychologists tell us men have a more developed sense of visual stimulation than women, who tend to respond more positively to sounds. Man the looker, woman the listener. Seeing a woman is what drives man’s sexual reactions, and seeing the sexual parts of her body more so. This is why fashion emphasises the body. A purely functional consideration dressed up as an aesthetic one. Makes me wonder if women can hear nudity, for the same purpose.
Men aren’t going to stop being fascinated with the vulva, breasts or other parts of the female body, nor women with the penis, male buttocks, or his voice. That’s an instinct we’re born with, hetero or homo sexual. The body parts we find stimulating all have to do with reproduction, and what we do is size each other up as breeding stock. The interesting thing about nudity is that it polarises how we react to feeling that fascination. Do we feel elation, or guilt?
Could we have lost our respect for sex because there are now too many billions of us on the planet? Or has overpopulation made us assert the need for social control, status and authority, i.e., clothing? Naked people haven’t been very influential as Mark Twain observed. Imagine Adolf Hitler or George Bush nude, and see them lose votes.
Is there a dichotomy that has developed between status or power meaning order, and sexuality meaning fertility? Do you think activities on these lists can be mixed?
anti fashion (film stars who dress like hoboes)
purity and asceticism
fetishism eg shoes
mind conditioning and fanaticism
pornography (its matter not its marketing)
health e.g. nudism
“love not war”
“if you’ve got it flaunt it”
acceptance of alternate forms of sexuality
The idea of beauty is often associated with the idea of nudity in artworks. This is confusing. What it means is that if a woman poses nude next to a famous nude such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or a man poses naked next to Michelangelo’s David, we would admire the sculpture or painting while finding the person offensive or disturbing.
This implies a judgment on why we look. Do we look to admire beauty, or to try to see normally hidden details of a body such as a woman’s vulva or a man’s penis? Are we improved or made sinful by the experience? Beauty, like successful art, approaches the ideal. It brings us happiness, and, if we’re lucky, wisdom. In front of beauty, as in front of great art, we have no choice but to give allegiance, to quite what we’re not sure. It must be a nuisance to the people who happen to look beautiful and who are usually over estimated.
But in front of nudity we prevaricate. It is the ideal in art, the sinful in nature, a lure of the devil, every person’s right to just be themselves, the object of manipulation, a way of influencing us in a way we don’t like, an uncovering of ancient fears, and many other things. Just a naked person.
Just someone without the obligatory fig leaf.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.