What does it mean to be naked? Western civilization seems to understand the concept, and most people will agree that, regardless of personal belief, public nudity is not the status quo. But there is constant disagreement as to what constitutes nakedness, how to define a public place, and when or where and under what circumstances the human body should be regarded taboo.
The other day, I went with a friend of mine to the beach. His eight-year-old daughter was wearing a rather small bikini bottom that kept slipping off her butt. At one point, she was digging in the sand and you could clearly see a good four inches of plumber’s crack. It didn’t matter to me, being a nudist and all, but I jokingly remarked, “Your daughter is on the wrong kind of beach.” He turned to me, somewhat offended, and said, “She’s just a kid.” OK, I can understand if she was two, but eight? When and where does society draw the line? If she were nine, would that kind of exposure be less acceptable? What about ten? Eleven? What if she were completely nude? It’s quite common to see a toddler running around without a bathing suit; most people don’t mind. But at what age does nudity become taboo? And who decides?
Things get more confusing as you add variables. For instance, we could agree that any and all adult nudity is unacceptable. But again, what constitutes nudity? Is a T-back bikini, which reveals part of the butt cheek, OK? What about a thong? How short do you cut your bathing suit? Years ago, thongs became illegal in Clearwater, Florida. Some lawyers actually drew up diagrams, which looked like a surgeon’s guide to liposuction, to help police determine the parts of the gluteus maximus that were legal. I have yet to hear of police pulling out a protractor and geometry book to arrest someone, but the whole thing is preposterous. It gets worse when you consider how different bodies are shaped. One diagram doesn’t fit all. Skinny women with bony butts have fewer inches of cheek than obese women. Does this mean obese women are at a higher risk of breaking the law?
Now, if we could come to an agreement as to what constitutes nudity for every kind of person and swimwear, things get hazy when we try to define a public place. Wearing a thong at the mall or at a restaurant may not go over well, of course, and unlike the beach, shoes and shirts are typically required. But what about public locker rooms? The other day, I needed to ride my bike eleven miles from the beach, but my bathing suit was soaked. I could have tried the hand dryer, but it was mounted too high, and the numerous changing stalls were intimidating. If men are too shy to undress in front of other men, they’re likely to be offended with my bottoms in my hand. OK, what about your own backyard? While technically private, laws regarding nudity, even on private property, depend on many factors and differ from county to county. After all, I can’t strip on my driveway without getting arrested. Do I have a high enough fence or hedges? Do your neighbors, like mine, have a two-story house with windows looking down on your property? What if the fence has a hole in it so that a child can look through it? According to Florida law, nudity is not illegal unless it is in a “lewd or lascivious manner,” but what the heck does that mean? Lewd and lascivious are even more ambiguous than nakedness, which is why I constantly worry about my neighbors calling the police. Who knows whether a judge deems my playing pool volleyball with the family lascivious. I am sure a lawyer could get the charges thrown out, but why go through the hassle? For all I know, my neighbors might be nudists themselves. Or they might be Bible-thumping Baptists who believe the sight of genitalia damaging to their children. I suppose I could stick to nudity within the confines of my own house. But again, I have seen some scary news stories about people arrested after they were seen through their windows. There was even a story about a couple who lost their two kids for months to Child Protective Services after taking their bath time photos to Walmart.
Things get harrier when we consider specific body parts and their functions. What if you have to pee behind a bush and somebody sees you? Embarrassing, perhaps, but should it be illegal? Recently, Facebook changed its policy regarding breastfeeding photos after a public outcry. Now here’s a switch, the general public coming to a consensus that showing naked breasts is OK, whereas a privately owned company disagreed. Whatever the reason, female nipples (but never male nipples) result in either mass hysteria or complete indifference. Since 1992, it has been perfectly legal for a woman to walk bare-chested in New York City, and yet, all live television broadcasts are delayed seven seconds due to 2003’s Nipplegate, after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” revealed part of her nipple during the Super Bowl halftime show. It forces me to wonder: How can it be OK for a woman to show her breasts in public, even in church (according to Pope Francis), as long as she has a baby in her arms? Why do we assume that children are not harmed by the sight of (nipples + baby)? Do babies somehow nullify whatever psychological effects nipples have on youth? When I was in Morocco, my wife’s cousin pulled her breast out in mid-conversation to feed her child. Even for me, it was a bit of a shock. After all, Morocco is a Muslim country, where many women can be seen in burqas, a garment covering every part of the body from head to toe.
But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that nudity is unacceptable but for inside your own heavily fortified bathroom. What about depictions of the human body? Colleges throughout the country bring live nude models into the classroom. And these classes are not nearly as rare as you might think. The public recreation center next to my house, where my daughter studied drawing and sculpting, offered human figure study using live models. People also seem to accept the unclad body in Classical or Renaissance art, so while comic books are never allowed to show Wonder Woman’s nipples, nor can Disney ever hope to make an accurate Tarzan or Jungle Book film, not a single customer has ever complained to me about the topless mosaic mermaids in my restaurant.
In X-Men: First Class, the character Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, decides that to be true to herself, she will stop hiding behind clothing. Even though her natural “body” is blue, with some scales added over her “naughty” bits, her closest friend, Charles Xavier, is shocked, remarking, “Why are you naked?” In the follow-up movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Mystique uses her acrobatic skills to effortlessly take out her enemies in nothing but her blue skin. Does this make Mystique a naturist mutant? Is she even really naked? Or does her mutated physiology make her like an animal for whom clothing is extraneous? Perhaps the concept of nudity is limited to our own species, and, not needing clothes, Mystique is exempt from the rules of our society.
All this confusion brings to mind the countless efforts by anthropologists to define the term race, which they eventually stopped trying to do, accepting that there is no such thing. We do not typically define a thing by its absence. We do not have words for people who do not wear hats or who do not have jobs, except to add a prefix or a suffix, to say “that man is hat-less” or “he is un-employed.” Using naked to describe a person implies some special characteristic in that person, when nakedness is our most basic state of being. It would be more accurate to say, “that man is pantsless.” Like White, Black, Christian, or Jew, terms like naked are inherently meaningless, deriving from the limited perspective of our time and place in history. This is why governments have such difficulty determining when or where the human body should be legal, because while we can all agree on the ethics of theft and murder, what is or isn’t offensive will always remain open to interpretation and prejudice.