Nakedness (Daniel Copeland; photo

This article has taken a good deal longer to write than I expected. I found it quite difficult to put my thoughts and feelings on this subject into words, especially in such a way as to form a coherent argument. I’d like to thank my classmates in Anthropology 411 (Bodies, Technology and Medicine), 2003, for the “online blackboard” forum which helped me to crystallize my views, as well as the Dunedin Nude Walking Group for granting me the experience of social nakedness. The photos shown here that depict naked human bodies are taken from, and don’t include any pictures of me; I do have some, but not in enough variety for a gallery page yet. More naturist links are found at the bottom of the page.

— Daniel Copeland

There are many things you are allowed to call yourself in polite company. In most circles, you can say “I’m a Mormon”, or “I’m a vegan”, or even “I’m a hip-hop fan”, and not be looked at as if you had uttered an obscenity. Do you think this is because we live in a liberal, pluralistic society that doesn’t make judgements on people for how they choose to live? Try saying “I’m a nudist” and see what happens to the conversation. If you say naturist instead of nudist, you may first be asked what you mean, but once you’ve explained, the same uncomfortable silence will ensue. After that, everybody will avoid your eye, and probably back away a bit, and then start talking rather rapidly about something unrelated. Well, that’s my experience, anyway. Why is this?

Naked people are generally viewed with shock and dismay, especially naked men. They are not to be trusted; they might start doing disgusting things at any moment. Why is this? Does wrapping cloth around yourself make you more reliable? I, for one, am far more trustworthy when sober and naked than when drunk and clothed. Yet people who happily accept me in the latter state at parties will express revulsion at the mere suggestion of the former.

Many people are OK with discussing the topic, but reject the idea of trying it for themselves. It would, they say with a shudder, be far too cold. Well, the gentleman pictured is braver than me, but I walk barefoot on snow and frost when the occasion demands it, and have generally found it pleasantly cool; certainly much nicer than a cold, wet gravelled road, for instance. Note also that within Europe today, the places where nakedness is acceptable in the widest range of social situations are Scandinavia and Russia, neither of which is renowned for its balmy tropical climate.

Why, then, do people cite warmth as their reason for wearing clothing in much milder conditions? Some even object to skinny-dipping on the basis of cold — as if swimming togs could keep you warm in any way! Truth to tell, I think “cold” refers to the feeling of being dangerously exposed, not to the elements, but to the eye. Others, we fear, would find our bodies disgusting, or else take advantage of us sexually.

That’s a clue to the problem. In most sectors of English-speaking society, nakedness is only acceptable when doing things that can’t be done clothed, such as showering. The only such activity that requires the presence of another person is sexual intercourse, and so to be naked with someone else is to invite them to have sex; hence the feeling of violation when we see people naked who we don’t want to have sex with.

But our civilization is historically unusual. We all know that societies with less complex technology than ours generally wear little or nothing, and that, I think, is why we tend to consider them wild and “primitive”. It’s also easy to dismiss the traditional communality of the Japanese bath as an “exotic” Asian custom. What often comes as a surprise is that many “sophisticated” countries of continental Europe allow a similar degree of public nakedness. In France, a large section of the city of Cap d’Agde is clothing-optional. Croatian and Greek beaches, and Baltic beaches too for that matter, are largely inhabited by naked people. In Finland and Sweden, saunas are popular places for social gatherings. You don’t wear anything in the sauna, and it’s usual to run out from time to time to roll in the snow. Most people in the Scandinavian countries also go swimming naked outdoors. Researchers working in Antarctica have adopted similar practices as good-humoured tests of toughness.

Nor, as you might think, is this a new state of affairs brought about by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In the armies of the ancient Celts, alongside the charioteers, riders, and ordinary armoured fighters, there was an élite group of warriors who went into battle wearing only the gold torcs about their necks that marked them as nobles. They apparently shared (or originated?) the Greek belief that their physical abilities were enhanced in that primal state. Their home life is less well documented, as the everyday tends to get left to outsiders to record. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder says “The wives and daughters-in-law of the Britons march naked in certain worship rites, with a similar plantain — known as glastum [=woad] in Gaul — smeared over their whole bodies, imitating the complexion of negroes.” But as Romans tended to play up the bizarreness of the cultures they conquered, we cannot be sure this is accurate. Julius Caesar’s blatantly biased description would have it that the Britons lacked the art of weaving. Could it be that he encountered them living naked, and jumped to an easy conclusion about their state of technological advancement? Or was he just making it up?

If Roman Britain seems comfortably remote, look again. Ireland, never conquered by the Romans, preserved many Celtic traditions and laws well into modern times. Once more, alas, travellers’ tales are our fullest source of information. According to one seventeenth-century account, a European nobleman visiting an Irish chief

was met at the door by sixteen women, all naked, excepting their loose mantles, whereof eight or ten were very fair; with which strange sight his eyes being dazzled, they led him into the house, and then sitting down by the fire, with crossed legs, like tailors, and so low as could not but offend chaste eyes, desired him to sit down with them.
Some English writers saw this as evidence that the Irish communal property laws rendered many of them too poor to afford clothing. If that were so, it seems strange that the nobleman’s host subsequently invited him “to put off his apparel, which he thought to be a burden to him, and to sit naked.” But if it was a matter of preference, then it makes perfect sense; the chief was simply looking out for his guest’s comfort.

So where does today’s special dislike of nakedness come from? Probably the strongest opposition to naturism is found in certain Christian groups. On the other hand, the percentage of Christians in the naturist movement is also quite high. Through Christian history there have been many sects, most famously the Adamites, who advocated living without clothing. Neither side can claim exclusive support either from church tradition or from scripture. While the Tabernacle priests were instructed to hide their bodies from the all-seeing eyes of their Creator (Exodus 28:42–43), the prophets had no such restrictions. Isaiah was expressly commanded to go naked (Isaiah 20:2), and in King Saul’s time, this seems to have been the general practice; when Saul himself took his clothes off in public, it was assumed that he was prophesying (I Samuel 19:24). In New Testament Galilee, it seems to have been usual for fishers to strip for work (John 21:7). In the third century, Christian baptisms were performed naked, as Hippolytus prescribes:

At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.
Since a note in the Talmud prescribes the same condition for Jewish ritual purification, we may suppose that this custom goes back to the common roots of Judaism and Christianity — and thus to Jesus’ own baptism.

But the anti-nude Christianities prevailed. Nakedness came to symbolize wildness and separation from civilization. In the chaos that followed the collapse of Roman society, there was nothing positive about such states. They were associated with the lawlessness and vile sins (including some highly imaginative accounts of orgies) that only Christendom held at bay. As the Middle Ages shaded into the Renaissance, artists revived ancient Greek sculptors’ standards of “ideal”, nude, human beauty. Meanwhile, the horror of all that was ungodly flowered into the infamous witch-hunting craze.

The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries put an end to that, and reversed the mediaeval concept of the world sliding into darkness. But the notion of inevitable universal progress which replaced it was equally naïve. The abhorrence felt for the natural and wild did not change. It peaked in Victorian England, where idealized nudes filled art galleries while real bodies were hidden as far from sight and mind as possible. Even elsewhere in western Europe, to combine nudity with real life was scandalous; hence the furore over Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (pictured). The nude was reduced to an artistic abstraction, just as photography was beginning to flourish.

Depictions of sexual matters, including nudity, gradually became more acceptable in the twentieth century as Christian public forms were replaced by secular ones. But the damage was done. Nudes were not seen as people, but as sexual symbols; they were chosen to fit very narrow standards of bodily beauty. As artistic nudity became more familiar, those standards narrowed further. Today women are practically expected to wear corsets inside their skin. Multimillion dollar industries — diet programs, exercise equipment, cosmetic surgery — have arisen to help ordinary people look like the pictures, while commercial fashion and pornography both, in different ways, ensure that the ideal remains unattainable. If we saw one another’s bodies every day, the absurdity of that ideal would be obvious; but we don’t.

The world pays a heavy price for our modesty. Third World countries do not have the environmental and human rights laws found in the West, so factory employees there are considerably worse off than beneficiaries in developed states. But, again because of their lack of regulation, they are magnets for multinational corporations, which operate on the principle that a company’s only responsibility is to its stockholders. Nor do such factories really do much for the local economy. As Mark Rosenfelder points out, a company advanced enough to put a plant anywhere it wants to won’t need any local resource except dog-cheap labour. Its suppliers and highly-paid experts will be rich Westerners. Then there’s transport to consider. Think how much less oil the world could use if we didn’t have to move all those tonnes of underwear, swimsuits, casual wear and what not else from Third World factories to First World department stores.

Developed societies have different problems. Despite all the efforts of suffragettes and feminists in well over a century, women still get substantially less income than men — mainly because it is more difficult to be a working mother than a working father. One important reason for this is that, in most workplaces, breast-feeding on the job is unthinkable; and that, in turn, is because it is considered immodest for a woman to expose her breasts. Hence the protest actions, particularly in Canada, in favour of “topfreedom”, the right for a woman to take her top off in any situation where it would be acceptable for a man. As you see, social issues cannot really be dealt with one by one. Economic and environmental rights and wrongs, individual freedoms, and cultural constructions of modesty and sexuality all intertwine in a complex web.

Real Women Have Curves is a far better expression of naturist politics than many films which show more skin. Ana (America Ferrera) works, as she comes to realize, in a sweatshop, where she and several other Latina women make $600 dresses — which none of them could ever fit into — for $18 each. After wrestling with a “fat and undesirable” self-image, due partly to the dresses she makes, Ana protests against everything the factory stands for by stripping down to her underwear and inspiring her co-workers to do the same.

And that’s pretty much the central message of naturism: it’s OK to be you. You don’t have to have a Barbie-doll body, wax-smooth skin, or a washboard stomach to be acceptable. You don’t have to be a sexless abstraction with no naughty bits, either. You don’t need products upon products upon products, be it clothes or exercise equipment or implants or whatever, to feel good about yourself. You can live naturally.

But, of course, natural is a tricky word. In advertising, it’s one of those words (like value or style) that sound good and mean nothing, and are therefore employed at every opportunity. It’s straightforward enough when applied to objects: a thing which has been modified or constructed by people is artificial, and a thing which hasn’t is natural. That concept can’t really apply to human bodies or behaviour. All human behaviour is, by definition, constructed by people. The body is always “clothed” or inscribed within particular cultural formations. Nonetheless, I think there is a sense in which it’s a meaningful word to use.

Going through life clothed, we become accustomed to having zones of sensation on our skin. Full tactile awareness — of the wind, of the rain, of anything we might brush against in our movement — is restricted to our head and hands. The rest of our body receives only vague information about big changes in temperature, and large, firm objects (such as chairs) that we lean against. If you go barefoot after years of wearing shoes, it’s quite surprising, at first, to find how much sensory data you’ve been missing. But this is nothing compared to the startling experience of outdoor nakedness. There are no zones of touch and non-touch. Your skin is a single entity. And you suddenly realize that you have never truly been whole until now. Natural, if anything, is too weak a description. If others are present, there is a further dimension to the experience. The mere fact that we have buttocks and genitals is a powerful source of shame. We only discover how powerful when they are revealed. To stand naked in front of another person, rejecting the shame of being your whole self, is one of the most liberating things you can do. It feels like coming home; more than that, it feels like opening a window in your brain. You are free, and it turns out you were never really free before.

The complementary situation, of seeing someone else naked and being entirely unconcerned about it, brings yet another revelation — you are seeing an undivided human being for the first time. As far as the sense of sight is concerned, clothing serves a purpose broadly analogous to the meat-markers used in freezing-works. When it isn’t there, the body-zonation you have unconsciously accepted makes no sense at all. You can’t pick out the person’s face as the privileged site of their recognisability; the body is unique and complete from head to toe. You can’t mark off the thighs, chest, or buttocks as “sexy parts, ogling, for the purpose of”; beauty is an attribute of the whole. All of which makes a nonsense of one of the most cherished dichotomies in clothed society: a human being is either a body or a person — never both at once. Life models in art classes, for instance, are often not allowed to converse with the artists even during rest breaks. Nakedness is permissible in sexual foreplay and intercourse because, there, we allow ourselves to become bodies rather than persons. Being “ogled” feels degrading because the offender, viewing you as “merely” a (sexual) body, denies your personhood. Social nakedness reveals the awkward, embarrassing, glorious fact that people are bodies. You just have to get used to it.

In order to survive without police interference in sex-phobic English-speaking countries, naturists traditionally maintain that our lifestyle “isn’t sexual”... as if the distinction between sexual and non-sexual was that clear. We may enjoy the sight of a beautiful face without feeling arousal as such. Some cultures nevertheless condemn this pleasure as “sexual”, and cover the face with a veil. Our culture likewise pigeonholes the joy we get from shared nakedness into sexual contexts. Naturists can step outside the pigeonhole and still feel the joy. That is, of course, if we use the word “sexual” solely to mean “copulatory”. Sexuality is often used in a broader sense, to evoke a sort of spiritual well-spring, whereby your feelings about yourself and your body flow into your ability to build healthy relationships. In that sense, social nakedness is deeply, and very positively, sexual.

This should calm the fears of those who say that, by removing the “mystery” of a partner’s body, social nakedness makes sexual intimacy impossible. If that were how it worked, it would be difficult to stay intimate with the same partner for long; their body would soon be too familiar to be mysterious. I’m no expert, but I think intimacy depends more on establishing a mutual trust which allows your partner privileged access both to your body, in terms of physical touch, and to your emotions. If anything, the embarrassment of having “naughty bits” and the fear of not living up to commercial ideals of beauty make that kind of trust more difficult.

There are those who object to the general ban on masturbation and sexual intercourse in naturist settings. Surely, having accepted the body, we can accept the things it does as well? I can sympathize with this viewpoint, but I don’t think making these behaviours public is good practice. A key element in our culture’s body-shame system is the fact, mentioned earlier, that bodies are not allowed to be uncovered except for activities that are perceived as “body things” rather than “person things”. Public nakedness as a preliminary to public sex does not challenge this restriction.

It is also, I’m afraid, a fact that a few people, including some who identify themselves as nudists, coerce others, especially their children, to go naked — often with a sexual motive. Such actions are utterly opposed to naturist values. Naturism is about freedom; coercion is the exact opposite. Sexual coercion is more damaging to body acceptance than compulsory clothing. Though I suspect that Nikki Craft’s assessment of the extent of the problem is exaggerated (it’s certainly muddied by her personal dislike for particular naturist leaders), that is no cause for complacency. Even one sexually abusive action is an atrocity.

Where Craft goes wrong, I think, is in implying that naturists as a general rule are apathetic about sexual offenders. My (admittedly limited) experience is that leaders of naturist groups are highly discerning about whom they choose to admit, and will generally err on the side of caution with regard to people whose attitude makes others uncomfortable. While clearly necessary, this can come across as rather judgmental. I suspect it contributes to the somewhat cliquish character of many naturist clubs. There’s no quick way to get around this. Certainly, sexual abuse is a matter for the police. But you can’t rely on the police to be understanding about naturism. In some places, they will be; in others, the authorities may well be looking for any excuse to ban social nakedness outright.

Ultimately, I think there is only one long-term solution: normalization. If nudism were as acceptable, socially and legally, as, say, vegetarianism or pacifism, there would be nowhere for abusers to hide. Normalization is worth seeking for other reasons as well. Organized naturism, in my country at least, seems to be in decline; at the events I go to, I’m frequently the only adult born after 1970. It’s not that members of existing naturist clubs are the only people around who are interested in getting naked in company: National Nude Day has been well-attended so far, for example. (Without the underlying naturist ideal, though, the liberating and relaxing aspects of public nudity may well be lost — at the National Nude Day event I attended in 2004, for example, most of the males were very self-conscious about their penis size, whereas, at naturist gatherings, nobody cares.) The problem is that so many naturists keep it quiet. We should be raising our public profile to the point where social nudity is a generally recognised and acknowledged lifestyle choice.

The whole Western world works for hours every day making useless products to get the money to buy useless products, thus pushing up the demand for useless products and the workload for those who make them. Nobody actually wants sweatshop labour, global warming, massive pollution, stress burnouts, or the current glut of advertising, but the corporations chug on in the pursuit of profit and create all these things. The first step towards global sanity must be a reduction in the demand for products. We must refuse to let the advertisements make us feel ugly. We must show people that the glamour industry's ideals are unrealistic and unnecessary. And we must get our message across widely, because one or two people here and there won’t make much of a difference all by ourselves. How can we compete with the advertisers for attention? We need a highly visible way of not using any products. It’s hard to think of a better one than public nudity.

So brave the disapproval of your friends, and tell them you’re a naturist. Go on holidays outdoors with no clothes on. Take a camera; naturist etiquette puts strict controls on photography, but in some ways it’s our friend. The more visible our lifestyle is, the closer we are to acceptance. And ultimately, once you can work up the courage, step out of your door and go naked in the street.

To the Index

Last updated: 20 October 2006