May is “Body Month” on this website, with topics devoted to our cultural relationship with the human body, body image, and how we live within our skin. Stay tuned for articles about breastfeeding rights, the way a baby learns to inhabit her skin, and the myth of moderation. As with each year, in honor of the first Saturday in May being World Naked Gardening Day, the blog discusses the American body taboo.
When my in-laws visited Maui, I encouraged them to try out Little Beach, a clothing optional area on the south coast of the island. While technically existing outside the law, this small slice of paradise is generally left alone. “No, no. That’s okay,” they told me even after I reminded them that they would be 6,000 miles away from anyone they knew. The first time I went, I had my own spell of trepidation which subsided after the sun, sand, and sea connected me deeply to the earth. Aside from the years of cultural conditioning, especially as a New Englander – home to witch trials and dour Puritanism – that which prevents us from living naturally, whether on that beach or in our food choices or when picking out a house, little was different from me and a person inside a National Geographic. It was a taste of freedom.
My daughter loves being naked. When her diaper gets changed, my mother has called it “Nudie-Tudie Town.” The moment she’s out of her containments, she starts kicking and cooing, having a grand old time. And as sure as clockwork, when we start to re-robe her, the wails come flying out, as if to say, “No, no. That’s not okay.”
In some Amazonian cultures that have not been fettered by the Western world, indigenous people are nude, no matter the age or gender. Their sexual mores prohibit them from engaging in intercourse nearby, so they find privacy for those purposes. They inherently “get” that the human body is not the sexual body and that there is a place for each. In the United States in particular, sexuality is conflated with the human body. Mixed messages abound to leave everyone confused, ashamed, and on edge.
Let’s break it down: The message often is that sex is bad and the body equals sex. Clothing companies then tailor their outfits and their advertisements to enhance sexuality (hello, Inadequacy Industry!), so the pants are very tight or the shirts are cut low. We then tell teens that they should not be wearing these things, nor thinking about sex, but that which is available is emphasizing what has been equated to sex, which combined with natural hormones emphasizes sexuality in the teenaged mind. It’s like saying, “Go look behind the curtain,” and “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” in the same breath.
In the advertisements, the models are often overly muscled, if they’re guys, and wafer thin, if they’re girls. Because everyone wants to be liked, and because the ultimate goal is to find someone to partner off with, the message is that our bodies must head in those directions. Exercise injuries and eating disorders abound, all to have the body that will make you attractive, because… the body equals sex and only sex here in the U.S.
In the age of mass media, the message seems to compound exponentially with each passing year. Thus, with a four hundred year head start, the last fifty have been adding on like dog years.
No, the body does not equal sex. Huh? How do you mean? Sex is but one activity. Cultures that are exposed make the distinction.
We’re a society without distinctions. And when that happens, people get made fun of or put in fearful positions.
The word “nudist” conjures up pejoratives that demean people who have declared independence from cultural programming. Used for comic relief in entertainment, discussed derisively in news segments, or causing laughter in conversation, the clothing optional human is one of the last minority cultural groups (one that spent $400 million in demographically targeted travel a decade ago) where it is okay to openly poke fun and discriminate. Many people who identify with that term are afraid to be “outed,” because they fear they might lose their jobs or be subjected to harassment and ridicule.
The reason, of course, is because of our cultural history of equating the naked human with the sexual human or the uncivilized human. If you don’t mind not wearing clothes, it goes, then obviously you suffer from depravity. Subjected to sociological studies over the years, the practice of nudism has been found to be like any other segment of society. This culture takes the potential for untoward behavior seriously, weeding out potential characters who themselves equate nakedness with sexuality and are looking for easy pickings. Consider that last decade, Representative Mark Foley hammered on a nudist camp for teens as being dangerous and a potential haven for sexual predators, even though no incident had ever occurred in the history of the program. Shortly after his crusade fell short, he was drummed out of the House of Representatives in disgrace for trying to entice Congressional pages into sexual situations and sending them lewd messages.
The connection that convinces people their bodies are inherently bad has created lasting damage. Self-hatred has become the norm as self-respect has dissipated. People spend their limited time and treasure attempting to live up to some sort of ideal rather than reveling in the whole, beautiful human they are in the moment. As a person who had a body image problem, I contend that self-hatred via the non-stop thumping of the shame/perfection message leads to our over- and under-eating, inability to pick properly grown foods to maintain health, and subsequently the “Western” dietary diseases. Only through self-respect can we find the will and means to dedicate ourselves to maintaining health. One defense would be to drive a stake in the Puritanical vampire that refuses to go away.
We can choose to honor naturalness rather than condemn it, for that condemnation builds a prison in our own minds that manages to divide us from the vessels that carry us through the day. Skin is skin and just that. The rest of the story is a trick of the mind. Such tricks separate us from our humanity and from our beingness, for beneath our titles, our wealth, our geography, that is what we all are: human beings.
After 400 years, let’s construct normalcy, a relationship between our mind and our body that jettisons manmade prurience, replacing it with honor, dignity, and love.