The great cover-up

This is a blog about public nudity, nakedness, call it what you will, so get used to it.  Or rather, it’s a blog discussing society’s hypocritical attitudes towards the unclothed human body, which arguably is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Just one proviso to add: I’m not discussing our sexual functions at all, and I’d dispute that the naked human body is inherently sexual – only if we choose it to be aroused and ready for that state of being.  Titilation and porn might be all around us, but that is not the kind of nakedness to which I refer.

Granted that for most purposes, especially in the UK, we may prefer to remain dressed for warmth and comfort, but there may well be times when it is desirable to divest our clothes, if it is legally and morally acceptable so to do.  Despite this we are are for most purposes (not all, read on!) not allowed to be naked in public, since this is a matter of “public decency” and that, by definition, to be without clothing unless in certain designated spaces is regarded as an outrage and labelled “indecent exposure.”  This is the Wikipedia description of this offence:

Indecent exposure is the deliberate exposure in public or in view of the general public by a person of a portion or portions of his or her body, in circumstances where the exposure is contrary to local moral or other standards of appropriate behavior.  Social and community attitudes to the exposing of various body parts and laws covering what is referred to as indecent exposure vary significantly in different countries. It ranges from prohibition of exposure of genital areasbuttocks and female breasts. In some countries the exposure of any part of the female body is considered indecent.

One other such designated location is theatre, subject of course to warnings that a production featuring nudity is for adults only.  And it was in a theatre before audiences of 300 that I once appeared in a Ray Cooney farce called Out of Order, a face that required me to be briefly naked on stage, as did an actress (though not at the same time!)  While everyone considered us both to be very brave, the longer the rehearsals and production run went on, the more blasé I became about it.

Nobody has asked me since then to remove clothing, and quite possibly if I did it again they might pay me to put my clothes back on, but in the context of the play it was just fine.  But it did get me thinking.  Why, I wondered, is this regarded as such a big deal that it causes audiences to titter and blush like schoolchildren?

Let’s face it – why should this be an issue?  There are basically two variants of human being with the same parts.  We might justifiably not wish our bodies to be seen because we are fat, ugly or have some other characteristic we believe to be unsightly – body image in many is poor – but not because our “private parts” are any different to those of other people within the same gender group.  Seldom can a less appropriate epithet have been adopted, given that women in particular find themselves subject to undignified gynaecological examination at regular intervals, and men too on occasions – but then medics have seen it all before.  In fact, there is surely barely a single adult who does not know about the differences between male and female anatomy!

Ah but then we have to deal with the morality of religion, where nakedness is regarded with shame.  The story of Adam and Eve and original sin is drummed into us as children:

The serpent, “more wise than any beast of the field,” tempts the woman to eat “of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden”, telling her that “Ye shall not surely die” and it will make her to be as god, knowing good and evil. After some thought about “the tree to be desired to make wise”, the woman took of the fruit and did eat.  She then gives the fruit to the man, who eats also, “and the eyes of the two of them were opened.” Aware now of their nakedness, they make coverings of fig leaves and hide from the sight of God.

With the exception of creationists who, for their sins, believe in the literal truth of the bible, surely everyone would see Genesis as a work of fiction?  If so, surely we should all see nakedness in another light, certainly not one connected in any way with shame or sinfulness?

After all, in art the naked body is associated with beauty.  Remember Michelangelo’s David or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, both situated in Florence?  And indeed many thousands of art works depicting the naked body, male and female, before and since?  Even amateurs and students are given the opportunity to paint nudes in live modelling classes, precisely because the human body is the most challenging subject to portray effectively.

Ah, but remember that in the Vatican some popes and cardinals instituted a policy of defacing classical statues by removing the penises and having fig leaves placed strategically to protect the blushes of anyone seeing such masterpieces.  It did not improve the statues any.  

Then there’s photography, an art form we expect to portray pornography but which can also be used to depict nudes in a non-sexual though certainly erotic ways.  If you’ve never seen the work of Spencer Tunick, look at the mass nude installations included in the photographs above.  They are not only tolerated by the authorities but apparently encouraged – albeit at times when nobody is around to see.  But some photographers who are unmistakably artists in their own right have used sex in this way, such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe.  The boundaries between erotica and porn become very blurred here – there are many shades of grey, so who can truly determine what is art and what is purely porn?  Is an erect penis inherently shocking?  Does it have to be regarded as sexual, or just an instinctive reaction? 

But do we accept paintings or artistic photographs of nudes because they are works of art, and, for example, would we also regard a naked model posing as a piece of art work in a gallery as unacceptable?  If she were outside the art gallery or if she just went into the gallery and stripped off, would that be acceptable or would she be arrested for causing a breach of the peace or some other charge?  After all, the naked rambler, Stephen Gough, has spent around 6 years in prison and been arrested many times, often with his girlfriend, over his belief that he should be allowed to be naked in public anywhere he wants.  Nor is he alone, belonging to an organisation called The Freedom To Be Yourself.

No doubt to the police is effectively no better or worse than a streaker, streaking being the phenomenon fashionable some years back, whereby people chose public occasions to run in a state of undress across sports grounds or other public places in which many people were gathered.  The police may have arrested them, but others became folk heroes, like the chap with the policeman’s helmet covering his embarrassment, and indeed like Erica Roe, the lady who famously bared her breasts at Twickenham, home of English rugby union.  She made her 15 minutes of fame and celebrity from that episode, though arguably Gough is notorious rather than famous.

But what of nakedness which is allowed?  Yes, there are naturist resorts and even naturist beaches, hidden away to protect against snoopers, though around the world nudity is tolerated and accepted at many public beaches.  So how is that more acceptable to Gough’s form of nudity – rambling the length and breadth of Britain?  Is it a case of context or because the people sunbathing on beaches are deemed more beautiful than Gough?

Culture undoubtedly plays some part in this.  No doubt the French, Germans, Spanish and Italians seem to many more “free and easy” in tolerating nudity, where we Brits are far more morally up-tight, in spite of our hypocrisy in allowing and even encouraging the sight of naked bodies in some contexts while punishing it in others.  But our hypocrisy surely pales into insignificance when compared to the USA, a country that is home both to the largest porn industry in the world and some of the most pruriently moralistic and judgemental attitudes in the free world.

To choose one example, can you think of any sensible reason why there was such an atmosphere of shock and revulsion when Janet Jackson stage-managed the exposure of a nipple in the Superbowl half-time entertainment?  I found myself utterly perplexed by this, firstly by the severity of the reaction and the notion that a nipple constitutes “indecency”.

Did the world stop turning? No! Did anyone die? No!  Was anyone corrupted or depraved?  Not at all!  We all have nipples, men, women and children alike, so what on earth is the big deal here?  Even in the UK female nipples are rarely if ever displayed on TV before the 9pm watershed, though they can be seen on beaches and in magazines.  Is it not time society got used to the fact that we have bodies and treat them with less shame? This reminds me of John Cooper Clarke’s poem You Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express!

I’d contend that everybody’s body is beautiful in its way, and nakedness has the extra virtue of stripping away status symbols and equalising us, demonstrating that we are all human, fallible, and subject to same pressures and constraints of time and ageing.  We should be eroding the shock and awe that the naked body of either gender.  There is appropriate and inappropriate, but as possessors of an equivalent body it’s time to stop the hypocrisy about exposure.  Time we all got used to it!

PS.  Just to illustrate the point about body image and how people can be proud of who they are regardless of their physical attributes, see this piece from the BBC.  The irony is that the anorexic model, allegedly a bastion of all that is right with the human body, is far and away the most shocking and unpleasant to view.

PPS. This article asks the question whether the male nude still has the power to shock.  This in turn reminded me of when I took the kids to Vienna in 2010. I remember there was a full-frontal nude female model on a huge poster advertising an exhibition – right on a busy square, breasts, pubic hair and all!  This demonstrates the difference between continental and British/American morality.  Can you imagine such a thing happening in London?

PPPS. San Francisco bans nudity but the nudists vow to carry on regardless!  Elsewhere in the States, Mardi Gras celebrations continue, with much nudity – New Orleans and Key West in Florida being famed for them!  Many think nudity is a form of freedom of speech!


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