The heroic nude dates back thousands of years, to my distant ancestors, the Ancient Greeks. Communal nudity was not uncommon to Greece, where farming, exercising, swimming, and sparring was practiced in nothing but bare skin. The prefix gymn means naked, denoting all of the activities originally practiced in the buff, including gymnastics and “going to the gym.” Millennia ago, it was normal for Olympic athletes to compete entirely naked. Spartan boys, recruited into the military by age seven, did not bother with clothing while training to be warriors.
More importantly, painters and sculptors considered the human form divine, and the nude body the greatest expression of nature’s ideal. Which is why most gods, as physical manifestations of nature, were usually depicted sans clothing. Among these were Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Aphrodite.
Following in the bare footsteps of their divine progenitors, the heroes of the Classical Age were imagined as nudists, even though the term nudist did not exist at the time. It was assumed that a hero had little need for protective wear, and that the strength of his body was a measure of his worth. This tradition of naked gods and heroes was later adopted by the Romans, and continued through to the Renaissance Age, as evidenced by Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man and Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel. Even heroes of the Bible, like Michelangelo’s David, borrowed from the Hellenic ideal.
The spread of Christianity did much to upend this perspective, swaying Europeans away from the natural depiction of the human body, in favor of austere, joyless iconography.
In an effort to eradicate rival faiths, early Christians smashed centuries-old idols, and burned people who they labeled witches, usually women who practiced nature-worship in the nude. With a zealous belief in an afterlife—God’s “Heavenly Kingdom”—the natural world was deemed the domain of the Devil, a place of temptation, lust being chief among them. What resulted was the taboo of public nakedness which persists today.
For nearly a thousand years, shame dominated civilized society. During the repressive Victorian Age, nudity was inseparable from sex and pornography. The heroic nude was a thing of the past, and centuries of art exemplifying the dignity of the body was forgotten to all but a small academic circle.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press opened the doors for new ways of thinking, even as the Church pushed against what they perceived as threats to doctrine. Eventually, access to the written word gave rise to the novel, and in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs would resurrect the heroic nude in his Sci-Fi/Fantasy epic, A Princess of Mars, in which his heroic duo, John Carter and Dejah Thoris, go about the story “entirely naked.” Burroughs’ would go on to create one of the most iconic heroes in literature: Tarzan, who also spent much of his time in the buff. Other nude characters include Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Pyrénée (below) is a modern French take on Mowgli and the Jungle Book story.
The sexual revolution of the sixties saw a drastic shift in social mores, and a move away from the Church. But while the taboo of fornication was overturned, that of public nakedness remained. The reasons for this are multifold. In the United States, the Right to Privacy protected people’s choices in the bedroom. Public nakedness, however, could not be afforded the same protections. Secondly, the human body became excessively commercialized, used to sell everything from bath products to erotic film. Magazines like Playboy pushed the notion that a) nudity should only be associated with sex, and b) only people with specific proportions should be allowed to display themselves. This led to the objectification of women, and to the self-loathing of those whose appearance did not measure up to the Playboy standard, resulting in unhealthy fad diets and plastic surgery. Meanwhile, in Europe, communal nudity was becoming more accepted, as school-aged children were exposed to Classical and Renaissance art in museums like the Louvre in Paris. Consequently, public nakedness is legal in Spain, and in parts of Germany, England, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. In countries like Greece, nudity is tolerated on most beaches, without anyone making a fuss or calling the authorities.
Back in the United States, the art community remained largely exempt from the taboos associated with the human body. In colleges throughout the country, students learned to capture the human form in pencils and paint, with live nude models posing in the classroom. These studies would come to influence entertainment media beyond the campus, evidenced by the way superheroes are portrayed today. Superman and Batman, with their skin-tight costumes, are sexless versions of the heroic nude. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan does away with his costume altogether, strutting about the comic page entirely exposed, as is Frank Miller’s Leonidas in 300.
From the thirties to the sixties, Sci-Fi literature provided a medium for writers to experiment with social norms. Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke challenged conservative, outdated traditions, leading to the normalization of interracial relationships and the LGBT+ community. Meanwhile, fantasy author Robert Howard took inspiration from the Classical Age for his Conan the Barbarian, made popular by artist Frank Frazetta. Trained in figure drawing and anatomy, Frazetta introduced the world to a modern take on the heroic nude.
Today, the naked body is no longer a cause for scandal. Like the printing press before it, the Internet has provided a platform for writers, artists, and actors to express alternative ways of thinking and living, with athletes no longer ashamed to display their bodies, like the Olympic champions of old.
In my fiction, I have labored to revive the heroic nude, to capture the beauty and dignity of the human form without any of the crass, hyper-sexualized emphasis so prevalent in our society. Xandr and Thelana continue in the tradition of my Greek ancestors, roaming the lands of Aenya entirely in the buff, because for them, naked is a label without any meaning. Their culture, the Ilmar, know nothing of shame or body taboos.
Beyond paying homage to my roots, nudism offers me a lens through which to express a variety of themes, which include humanism, feminism, and environmentalism. For me, nudism is more than simply living without clothes, but a spiritual philosophy, a way of life emphasizing a reverence for nature. It gives me a sense of awe, for our species and for our place in the universe.
Xandr and Thelana make their debut appearance in Ages of Aenya, with a Thelana prequel novella, The Feral Girl, currently in the works!
If you would like to learn more about naturism and nudism, please visit the links below. Fair warning, most of my articles include nudity!