After a lifetime of promoting nudism, have I finally thrown in the towel? Or in this case, thrown on the towel? Sorry, textiles, today is not the day. But as a lover of philosophy, I feel it necessary to follow the example of Socrates, and examine what I feel most passionate about in as objective a way as possible. Too often, nudist bloggers will profess their beliefs without fully thinking about them. But for me, critical thinking is crucial, the only way to determine whether the nudist way of life is truly the best way to live.
My wife is a champion of pragmatism. On more than one occasion, after my droning in defense of some philosophy, she has shot me down with just a few words. She is, in other words, utterly immune to bullshit. In just such a way, my wife has forced me to reevaluate my most cherished notions. As a true pragmatist, she isn’t quite opposed to the idea of nudism, but neither is she enthusiastic about it. But the objection she most often brings up is this: all of the pro-nudist arguments people make, and many I have made myself, can be dismissed by a single fact.
The genitals do not have to be exposed for that to work.
On Women and Beauty Standards
Felicity Jones, founder of Young Naturists America, bases her free body philosophy on feminist principles. In her view, public nudity helps women feel good about their bodies, by exposing the “flaws” that 99% of “real” women have. Before frequenting nude beaches and resorts, my only exposure to the female body was Playboy, where less than 1% of women are represented, most of whom have had plastic surgery, breast augmentation (paid for by the magazine) or whose photos were airbrushed. After visiting clothing optional resorts, I learned how unnatural the Playboy ideal was, and how much more I appreciated the real thing. No doubt, if more women (and men) were exposed to the nudist perspective, society’s concept of beauty would change. One nudist slogan goes so far as to state, “all bodies are beautiful.” But here we have a problem. Couldn’t the same thing be achieved without exposing the genitals? Most women who hate their bodies focus on their overall weight, and only rarely on the condition of their vaginas. While there is a new trend in plastic surgery that does, in fact, reconstruct the labia and repair the hymen, this is an aberration, and not much of a concern for textiles, who never expose themselves but to their partners. It’s enough for women to simply visit a beach (or any water park) to discover different body types. Perhaps, instead of encouraging women to go naked, we should be encouraging them to hit the beach, and conversely, discourage magazines from altering photos.
Nudism’s feel good philosophy is wishful thinking, as we will never reach a point where all bodies are considered beautiful. To be certain, beauty is a difficult thing to define, and has been debated by philosophers since the Ancient Greeks. And yet, one thing is agreed upon, that by its very definition, beauty is selective. If we are all beautiful, nobody is beautiful. It must exist as an exception, stand out from a crowd, if it is to mean anything. But beauty is also a social construct, something that exists “in the eye of the beholder.” My wife tells me that I only see her as beautiful because I love her, which I admit to being true, in part. In cultures throughout history, what constitutes beauty widely differs. During the Renaissance Age, people preferred women who were, for a lack of a better word, “plus size.” These were known as “Rubenesques.”
In modern times, supermodels starve themselves to achieve the ideal bony physique. Nudists love to point out these changes, to show the transitory and illusory quality of beauty, but they rarely question it further, as to why these changes in perception occur in the first place. From an evolutionary standpoint, beauty is a measure of health, a way for an animal to determine the viability of a mate. Species avoid intercourse with those that are too young or old to produce offspring. For a rhino, a long horn is beautiful, and sexy, as it is a sign of good health and strong chromosomes. Peacocks find colorful plumage beautiful, whereas other bird species find a male’s singing voice arousing. During medieval times, when food was scarce and disease rampant, being too thin was an indication of poor health. Today, with our overabundance of calories, heart disease is the #1 threat to our survival, and so “thin is in.” The media, however, exacerbates this quality to the extreme, and so we have teenage girls also dying from bulimia and anorexia. While nudism helps broaden our perceptions as to what constitutes beauty, it can never be defined in such a way as to divorce it from its evolutionary function, which is why we will never see boys sexually aroused by grandmothers (beyond the occasional fetish). In short, beauty can be measured objectively, not with a tape measure, but within the parameters of health and procreation.
Nudists also contend that public nudity acts as an equalizing factor, that in sharing our flaws, we somehow cancel them out. But I think the opposite is true. Clearly, a woman with a double mastectomy would prefer, given the choice, to have breasts. I have seen women who have undergone the procedure at nudist resorts, and have always admired their courage, which is its own beauty, I admit. But who could blame a woman for wanting to conceal such a surgery? Clothing may have been invented, in part, to make the body more appealing, by hiding what in that culture was deemed unattractive. While I personally believe we are far more beautiful the way we are born, when we are naked, our differences are more pronounced. A prehistoric person, born into a world without textiles, would not have the option to accentuate their better features, or draw attention away from others.
Nudity and Objectification
Another position embraced by nudists regards equality of the sexes, characterized by the Free the Nipple campaign, which postulates that men and women’s nipples are no different, so that criminalizing one and not the other is tantamount to sexism. Forcing a woman to cover her nipples, however, cannot be compared to paying her less money, or taking away her birth control. The latter speaks of a woman’s value, and deeply entrenched prejudices that view women as worth less than men. The former has everything to do with sexual stimulation. Men’s nipples have never aroused women, which is why they are deemed permissible. Free the Nipple, therefore, has less to do with equality, and more to do with objectification, and sexuality. There is, of course, some overlap, as objectifying women can also be viewed as a form of inequality. But the issue I am making is this: for the vast majority, a man’s nipple differs significantly from a woman’s, if only in perception.
In other cultures, however, the female nipple is a common sight, as it is more associated with feeding infants. In Morocco, for instance, public breast feeding is legal, because the role of mother in Muslim countries is given greater respect. But in Puritan America, the nipple has long been divorced from its biological roots, becoming a commodity, for titillation and male gratification. But if tomorrow, every woman on the street was to go topless, all this would change. So far, I am in agreement with Free the Nipple. But here’s the problem: if Free the Nipple hinges on the fact that the nipple is not inherently (by its nature) sexual, what of the genitals? Are they not, by definition, sex organs? If so, how can nudists make both arguments? Or does Free the Nipple not represent the nudist view? Display of sex organs in public is either acceptable or not acceptable.
Accepting that the function of the nipple is irrelevant, we must consider how a woman’s body is used to objectify her. Conservatives have long maintained that to remain dignified, women must dress modestly, but nudists see this as damaging, as any single image, taken at an inopportune moment, can be used to ruin someone’s reputation. It also places unfair constraints upon women, to dress the way society dictates, and to be defined by the clothing they wear. Public nudity, nudists argue, frees women from objectification, by eliminating the shame associated with the body, and the sexual implications that go with it. A woman was once thought a “slut” for wearing a mini-skirt or short shorts. In some Muslim countries, women endure the same type of shaming for not covering their faces. But with nudity becoming more commonplace, nudists contend, the body loses its power to arouse, and therefore, its capacity to objectify. While I agree with this, in part, in that women should not be judged for what they wear, I do not accept the notion that arousal is synonymous with objectification. It is in our natures to be sexually stimulated. We could never, in a thousand years, make the female body so common a sight as to eliminate desire altogether. I have been a nudist for most my life, but I would be lying if I were to say that I see no difference between a naked girl and a clothed one. Admittedly, I prefer girls who go au natural, because no outfit can compare in beauty to the naked body, and because it sometimes arouses me, and any heterosexual man with healthy testosterone levels who says otherwise is being disingenuous. But this does not mean that scantily clad women are any less deserving of respect. Only when we regard people as things, and little else, can we claim objectification. This is why I take issue with Cracked.com and Upworthy, and sites that cry sexism whenever a female heroine is depicted in a skimpy outfit. I do not consider a female character, like Thelana (who never wears clothes) to be an affront to women, as long as that character is portrayed with emotion, intelligence, and soul. Sexuality is a big part of who we are, and by reflecting this aspect of ourselves, we add to our humanity, rather than detract from it. Conversely, it is possible to objectify a person in non-sexual ways. Consider the racist caricatures of Germans and Japanese used during World War II. Given no inherent connection between sexuality and objectification, then, the argument that nudism can somehow eliminate this trend is dubious. If every man and woman were to strip down to their bare skin, we would still find ways to objectify our neighbors. The best that nudism can achieve, is to make it so that women are judged by their actions, and not their appearance.
Health and Social Benefits
Other pro-nudist arguments involve the health benefits of sunshine and air to bare skin, which again, fails the genital test. Must we expose our genitals to produce enough Vitamin D? No. Bathing suits allow enough of our skin to breathe. Another argument involves social interaction. In nothing but our bodies, we cannot judge social class, and so the boundaries that separate people dissolve. But again, could this not be achieved by everyone meeting in their underwear? How different is a rich man’s underwear from a poor person’s? Besides, it doesn’t take much to learn whether someone at a resort is a doctor or a lawyer. Nudists will often wear their Rolexes or engagement rings in the pool, or can be seen walking out to their Mercedes’ in the parking lot. Conversely, it’s rare, in this day and age, to determine someone’s social standing simply by looking at them. The wealthy of the world no longer dress like aristocrats. Bill Gates, sitting at a Starbucks, doesn’t come across as a billionaire. Only the people wanting to make their social standing known do so, and that can happen at any venue.
Nudity and Children
Finally, nudists need to address the elephant in the room: children. At one point in time, sodomy and oral sex were illegal (and in some states still are) but the right to privacy made such laws irrelevant. The problem with reversing the naked taboo, both in perception and with regard to the law, is that public nudity is just that, public, and cannot be defended by privacy rights. People morally opposed to nudity would be forced to accept it, and the opposition’s ‘ace in the hole’ has always been, and remains, the protection of children. If the primary function of our genitals is intercourse, detractors argue, exposing genitals to children is one step closer to pedophilia. Of course, a curious thing about our species, that goes largely overlooked, is a quirk in our evolution which gives our genitals multiple purposes, sex being the lesser function. For children, genitals are for waste removal, nothing more. Still, I worry about kids at nudist venues, because resorts are not colonies. Nudism exists as a sub-culture within a much larger culture, one that almost universally equates nudity with sex. While the vast majority of human beings, nudist or textile, would never think to take advantage of a child, we cannot account for everybody; we can never know the reasons a person chooses to be naked around naked children.
Being an author, as opposed to a philosopher, I do not have to commit to the ideas I explore in my work. I cannot say with any certainty that the world would be a better place if we were all to go naked. There exist Amazon tribes that have never seen clothes, who’ve never felt the need to hide any part of themselves, but this is the exception. Other tribes, that have never been influenced by Christianity, or the taboos of western society, have come to the same conclusion, that hiding the penis and vagina is necessary. From China to India to Ancient Greece, public nudity was and remains taboo. Perhaps, it is human instinct to think of sex in sight of genitalia. A society like the Ilmar, who live naked 24/7 without thinking of sex, is a fantasy. The Ilmar are no more realistic, in this regard, than elves or dwarves or any other imaginary race.
Or are they?
I do not have all the answers, but I feel it is important for nudists, like myself, to examine each of these issues carefully, and address them honestly. First and foremost, we need to admit the reason we choose to be nudists, and it can be summed up in three simple words:
It feels good.
Being naked feels good, really good. I am naked right now even as I write this. Why not just walk around in my underwear? Why does my penis have to be exposed to the air? Because underwear, for me, is like wearing a wool sweater on a hot summer day, like swimming in jeans, like going to bed in roller skates. If I could live in a world without having to look at another pair of underwear, I’d jump at the chance. Not everyone feels this way, of course. My wife has tried nudism at home and admits to feeling nothing special. But whatever nudists write in defense of nudism is a rationalization for how they feel. This is not, however, to dismiss the benefits of the lifestyle. Women who feel good freeing their
private public parts, are also helping to minimize the objectification of their sex, while creating healthier concepts of beauty. Whether this can be better achieved through other means is a moot point. Though we may never divorce nudity from sex, lust in and of itself is not a bad thing. Rather, we should celebrate human sexuality, and regard as taboo only our inability to control our behavior. A man who rapes a drunk girl at a party, or a pedophile who exploits a child, or a drunk guy who kills someone in a bar fight, is driven not by reason, or any sense of rightness, but by their animal urges.
Ultimately, people do not make decisions based on what is rational. If that were so, nobody would ever drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. If news broke out that a ring of pedophiles had been caught at a nudist resort, textiles would blame the lifestyle, but Catholics have yet to abandon the Church even after the many sex scandals involving child molesting clergy. No matter the risks, we are comforted by what is familiar, and so most people are made uncomfortable by nudity not because of its implications, but by its strangeness. But why is nudity strange? If anything, we should be overly familiar, and comfortable, with our bodies.
Looking back through the ages, perhaps it is not that we have been too civilized to accept nudity, but not civilized enough. As a member of the human species, I would like to believe we’re better than that. I would like to believe that someday there will be no nudists, because men and women will realize we don’t need to hide to treat one another with respect and compassion. Perhaps, as in the Garden of Eden, true nakedness is a state of purity we have yet to live up to.