It’s a bit funny when you think about it, that no matter how rich or famous or powerful you are, underneath our clothes, we all look the same. Kamala Harris, arguably the most powerful woman in the world, would not look out of place standing naked in the jungle amongst the Zoë. The same goes for Beyonce and Serena Williams and any darker-skinned celebrity you can imagine. This is by no means a dig at non-white ethnicities. If Britney Spears looks out of place in the rainforest, it’s only because her naked ancestors died out long ago. No doubt, Britney’s Aryan locks would be more suited to the Celtic warriors of antiquity, who marched against their Roman enemies wearing nothing but paint.
Since becoming a nudist, I have met people who refuse to believe that humans have ever lived customarily naked in any meaningful way. They insist nudism is an unnatural aberration, far removed from the norms of any conceivable society, and that tribal people the world over have always worn the minimal loincloth to hide their genitals. But the belief that we are inherently born with body shame, that exposing our sex organs is essentially unnatural and that we are all *meant* to wear clothes, is a deeply ingrained myth, resulting from our witch-burning, anti-Pagan heritage, a heritage that has spread to every corner of the world via the barrel of a gun. When debating the merits of a nudist worldview with my detractors, this often comes up as a point of contention. Their arguments go something like this: the fact that we don’t “run around naked” is what separates us from the animal kingdom. Since we don’t have fur, we wear clothes, or, our natural fur is the clothing we produce. Or, we have to cover our genitals because we walk upright. Nature documentaries also get in on the act, perpetuating the view that homo-sapiens arose from their lowliest ancestors circa one million years ago with a club and a loincloth. Of course, this ignores the fact that other apes stand semi-upright, unafraid to show us their goods, and that we do, in fact, have our own fur, it’s just very fine, and localized around our scalps and genitals.
Our earliest human ancestors appeared two million years ago, with homo sapiens, the category we currently fall into, not arriving on the scene until 300,000 years ago. And, throughout that time, every human on the planet was essentially a nudist. Textiles later developed as a result of migrations from Africa to the Eurasian continents, which, during the Ice Age, saw much colder climates. Accepting the earliest estimates we have for clothing, circa 170,000 years ago, people roamed the planet for 130,000 without a stitch to their name. Taking the much shorter, 30,000-year estimate, we could claim that for the vast majority of human existence, a full 270,000 years, we lived as nudists! But even after the use of clothing became common, nakedness as a cultural taboo did not exist until the Christian era.
Clearly, the belief that wearing clothes is synonymous with being human is a modern cultural bias that has nothing to do with biology. It ignores the findings of history and anthropology and the many civilizations for whom casual nudity was the norm: namely the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Celts, as well as tribes in the Amazon, Africa, and Asia. It also ignores the existence of modern nudists, who live naked 24/7. Are we not human?
During the medieval period, clothing was adapted to indicate status, wealth, and moral standing. Aristocrats dressed in expensive finery while their slaves, the destitute, and the imprisoned lived in rags. When Columbus discovered the people of the New World going about their idyllic nude lives, his European biases regarding proper attire greatly influenced their mistreatment. In the colonial days that followed, this prejudice was used to justify oppression. The massacre of the Aztecs by the Spaniards and the enslavement of Africans by much of Europe and the Americas was largely based on the belief that naked people were of lesser worth. Since animals don’t wear clothes, it was reasoned, naked humans could be treated like animals.
In Madhusree Mukerjee’s book, The Land of Naked People, British and Indian sailors clash again and again with the prehistoric tribes of the Andaman Islands. In 1794, Lieutenant Robert Hyde described the Jarawa this way, “They go quite naked, the women wearing only at times a kind of tassel, or fringe, round the middle; which is intended merely for ornament, as they do not betray any signs of bashfulness when seen without it.” Clearly, Hyde is describing here a truly nudist culture, a people naked yet unashamed, the very existence of which must have offended the sensibilities of the British, who did not hesitate in trying to take the natives captive, and later, meeting scouting parties with violence. From the 18th century onward, attempts were made to pacify the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge, and Sentinelese tribes native to the region. The centuries’ long clash of cultures has resulted in the near-extinction of these groups, people that had been thriving in the Indian Ocean for tens of thousands of years. With much of their habitat deforested by foreign lumber industries, many Andamans have taken to local customs, marrying into Indian households while losing their language, their hunting and gathering lifestyles, and of course, their freedom from Western taboos. Greed is the culprit, as is always the case, but the islanders’ exploitation was predicated on the belief that the British could show them a better life. On the contrary, Mukerjee suggests that before the colonial powers’ arrival, these clothes-free aboriginals lived idyllic lives, subsisting off of fish, crab, and wild boar. Assumptions of cannibalism, among other horrific traits commonly attributed to naked tribes, proved to be unfounded. Mukerjee suggests that even the concept of rape did not exist for them because no word for rape existed in their language. Incidentally, sailors often raped their female captives, despite the Jarawa women being frequently described as grotesque.
In the ongoing effort to civilize the Andamans, the British were instructed to kidnap native children, forcing them into modern clothing, housing, and schools. But even after learning how to read and write, many of these children, by then adults, escaped back to the jungle. On one occasion, Mukerjee writes, a homesick boy living some years on a British vessel was sent home, but when the sailors urged him to remove his clothes so that his people would recognize him, he refused, having already developed a sense of shame. When Mukerjee visited the Onge to research her book, she found they would dress when foreigners were present, which might explain why you often see photos of tribal people in Nike shorts. After decades of contact with the outside world, primitive tribes have had body shame imposed upon them, but as Mukerjee writes,
“From what I’d read, the Onge hadn’t gotten the hang of clothes. They didn’t wash them and so got skin diseases; they didn’t change out of wet clothes, and so contracted colds and tuberculosis. They were far healthier before being forced to cover up.”
Clearly, if the Onge had been accustomed to the minimal loincloth, they would have known to deal with parasites (particularly when it comes to underwear) but they didn’t, because total nakedness had always been the norm in their society.
Later, in a bit of self-reflection, Mukerjee seems to stumble upon a bit of nudist philosophy when she writes,
“They were all boys and men, clad in waistbands, armbands, headbands, and necklaces, made of leaves and shells and red threads. They had no facial, body, or pubic hair that I could see. They were not self-conscious about nakedness, and in that heat, it was my neck-to-ankle clothing that felt out of place. Wearing only ornaments seemed natural and logical.”
The Zoë of the Amazon, the Surma (below) of Ethiopia, and the people of the Andaman Islands, among many lost and forgotten tribes, all share one thing in common: they prove that being human and not wearing clothes is not mutually exclusive. From our earliest hominid ancestors to the Ancient Olympian athlete to tribes still thriving today, we are all nudists with a shared humanity. This is an important distinction because it teaches us about acceptance, that no matter how different our way of life, our traditions, our habits, we are all essentially human. If we can learn to see one another as we truly are, naked as we come from the womb, we find there is little that divides us.