Confession time: I would live naked 24/7, if I could, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I hate clothes. They block the sunshine, the air, and most of your body from the sense of touch. They are grating, hot, and sometimes they itch, not to mention expensive and a lot of work to maintain. How much time is wasted washing, drying and folding underwear? How much water, for that matter? I believe there are many thousands, possibly millions of people, who would go without clothing if given the chance.
Cold weather and sunburn aside, clothing doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. Some people argue that it is necessary for adornment, to make us stand out, but jewelry, body paint, piercings, and tattoos can also be used to accentuate the body and express one’s individuality. If anything, a society free of body taboos allows for greater fashion possibilities. Imagine an outfit from the future, made without the restrictions imposed by shame? As for me, the unclad body is infinitely more beautiful. Evolution has been designing us for millions of years. Through a process of sexual selection, we have been deciding the qualities we find most appealing in men and women.
Conservatives insist clothing keeps us from engaging in wanton sex, but any nudist will tell you that an orgy has never “broken out” at a clothing-optional resort, and in fact, becoming accustomed to bare skin helps us to control unwanted urges. In Muslim countries, women are often blamed for rape, the assumption being that men cannot resist revealing attire. While sexual violence is never excusable, accusing the victim is always more prevalent in societies with stricter dress codes. Liberal-minded individuals, on the other hand, contend that clothing is simply our natural state of being, that we are animals with removable layers.
Ages ago, we lost our fur (we’re actually in the process of losing it still) to shed body heat quickly, which helped our ancestors chase down prey over long stretches of land. Even today, a marathon runner can outlast a horse in a long-distance race. Clothing appears to have been a byproduct of losing our fur. But the parts of the body we choose to hide is largely dependent on climate, which, in turn, impacts local culture. Compare the burqa worn by Afghan women to the nakedness customary to the Bororo people. The Sahara is dry and hot and saps needed moisture from the body. Covering the head and mouth is necessary for survival in the desert. After a time, this survival technique became culturally conditioned, and as Islam spread throughout the world, so did the practice of covering the head. Conversely, the Amazon rain forest, where the Bororo live, is humid and warm, ideal conditions for nakedness.
But our lives are no longer dictated by climate, at least to the extent it once was. Throughout the world, most people rely on some form of air conditioning, so that, even in a country not ideally suited to nudity, clothing need not be worn. In Munich, Germany, there are public parks with “urban naked zones,” even though, for much of the year, the cold makes it impractical; while in Scandinavia, getting into the sauna wearing anything but a smile is greatly frowned upon. Cap ‘d’agde, France, is perhaps the freest city on Earth, as tourists can literally go anywhere, from the bank to the grocery store, in nothing but their birthday suits. But if this were a perfect world, we would not have to travel halfway across the world to enjoy such simple pleasures. We could all choose to visit a park, the beach, or even the mall as God intended. So why don’t we live in such a world? More to the point, why does the thought of public nudity strike most people with dread?
There are numerous factors to consider, of course, like religion and the media. But in a world that has largely come to accept homosexuality, religion does not hold the sway it once did. Even the fashion industry, which profits from making women feel unattractive, is losing its influence. Beauty pageants are becoming a thing of the past, a product of a more sexist age, and far fewer women are wearing makeup than decades ago. But while athletes, actresses and singers pose nude without scandal, they are having little effect on the nakedness taboo, at least when it comes to the general public. Part of the reason is the photographer’s lens, which is a form of cover in itself. The artistry of movies and magazines, much like in the Renaissance, allows for cultural exceptions. Despite our increasingly secular and liberal society, public nudity continues to shock. It’s not simply a matter of popularity. It’s not as if skin isn’t trending. For 99% of people, stepping naked beyond your front door is like jumping from a plane without a parachute. But why?
Sure, we have nude beaches and resorts, but those who frequent them represent a tiny minority. Where are the nude cities? The nude countries? Nudists have always been outliers, challengers to the status-quo. We argue over 2% of skin, from coin-sized nipples to square inch pubic regions, which seems silly if you think about it. There is hardly any difference between a bikini and total nakedness, yet everyday beach goers never think to cross that line. It is not as if they hold some deep seated beliefs about modesty. We all do what society expects of us, just as Muslim women rarely consider the moral implications of the hijab. The freedoms we enjoy in America, from not having to wear the swimsuits of the 1900’s, is a thing we take for granted. Proper attire has everything to do with time and place. A woman in a miniskirt might get called a whore, but a grandmother in a one piece, by virtue of being on a beach, is deemed more modest. Once, it was taboo to go to certain venues without slacks and a dress jacket, like to church or a fancy restaurant, and we are likely to be shocked if the president addresses the nation in only a tank top.
In most situations, nakedness elicits a sense of shame, and shame can be a powerful emotion, one that overrides our reason. Sometimes, it can even be destructive. Sexual predators use shame to hide their actions. It is a tool used also by racists and bigots. For how long have LGBT people lived in fear of public humiliation and ridicule? Peer pressure is another form of shaming. The desire to “fit in” can be so powerful, teenagers will ignore their better judgment to engage in destructive behaviors, like drinking, smoking, using drugs and having unprotected sex. But the question remains, why does shame have such a powerful impact? The need for acceptance is as primal as that for food and water. Again, the question is why?
Like most of human nature, the answer can be traced to evolution. If the Discovery show, Naked and Afraid XL, has taught me anything, it’s that primitive survival is hard. We are a social species, relying on one another for our basic needs. The romantic notion of Adam and Eve, living alone in the wilderness, is just that, a notion. While real-world examples of Tarzan, Mowgli and Robinson Crusoe have been recorded, they are always the exception, never the rule. Our earliest ancestors lived in communal groups, divvying tasks to each member of the group. While a small band of young men went hunting, those who stayed behind had to raise the young, stoke the fires, maintain the shelters, find and maintain clean sources of water, and gather fruits, nuts and vegetables. Every one of these jobs was essential to survival, and no one person could be expected to perform them all. Even the best, modern day survivalists depend on modern equipment, medicine, emergency paramedics, and a home to return to, if all goes bad. This is why we have such a strong need to “fit in”—because, in prehistoric times, not fitting in could very well mean a death sentence. Shame, then, is a gauge to help us determine how best to fit in, to better align ourselves with our communities. People with no sense of shame were likely to become outcasts, who did not survive to pass on their genes. Maybe this is where we get the phrase, “I’d die of embarrassment,” because, historically speaking, “dying from embarrassment” was a legitimate concern.
Today, we no longer worry about survival like we once did. If we are socially ostracized, we have the option to move to another community. Nobody is likely to “die of embarrassment” anymore. But shame continues to be a part of us, just like our spleens. This is why we can never live in a perfect, free world. Even the staunchest of nudists are prone to this gene. Free body articles (like this one) pop up almost on a daily basis, but I can count on one hand the number of bloggers willing to offer their real names, or to post nude selfies. Those of us who long for a nude world continue to hide in anonymity, never telling our coworkers, friends or families what we believe. Though we can never hope to get rid of shame entirely, we can change the things we consider shameful. Just like in the Amazon, Celtic Europe and Ancient Greece, nudism can become our tradition, so that when someone in the future goes to a beach, the only exposure they’ll have to worry about is exposure to the sun.
I once dated a girl who had never visited a nudist venue. Before meeting me, going nude in front of anything but her bathroom mirror was unthinkable. But she liked me a lot, and was willing to join me in an outing to Paradise Lakes. To make her feel at ease, I stressed that she didn’t have to go au natural if she didn’t feel like it, since the resort was clothing optional. But after an hour of lounging by the pool, she started to feel out of place. She was in a different community, where everyone was naked. I kept telling her, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it,” but eventually, out of a sense of shame, she got rid of her bathing suit.