19 February 2012

Public Nakedness

by Dr Phil Church

I am still reading the Herald on an iPad, and still missing some interesting articles. In particular they seem to publish less of the opinion pieces, both from their regular columnists and from others. One in particular caught my eye when I turned to the print edition of 8 February. It was entitled “Public nakedness an altogether good idea.” It was written by one Kevin Sampson who, according to the Herald, is with his wife Joan, owner of Katikati Naturist Park, “a Tourism Industry Award winning holiday park.” I have never been to the said park to assess whether the body issuing such awards is doing good work. It is called a naturist park not because people go there to do nature study (as we knew it when I went to primary school); rather, “naturist” is a euphemism for people who like to disrobe and play tennis and bowls etc, in their “natural state.” I have never been too interested in such pursuits, not least because I am one of the 99% of people in the world who look better with clothes on.

This opinion piece was followed up on Monday 13 February by a news article that did appear on the iPad edition. This article was about award winning photographer Binh Trinh. The story concerned “dozens of naked bodies” (35 naked bodies actually – two and a bit dozen) who were draped over one another on the rocks at Bethels Beach, being photographed. Funny how these days you only need to set up a place for people to take their clothes off to win an award.

What interests me about both of these “news” items is some of the comments they contain about nakedness. Kevin Sampson believes that children ultimately start wearing clothes in public when the adults in their lives teach them to do it “because of their own insecurities or simply to conform to social mores.” If they were to grow up naked, apparently they would be freed from some of the anguish they go through as teenagers coping with “the physical, mental and hormonal changes” associated with that stage of life. I am not sure how he knows this, as it may not have actually been tried. He also concludes that some of our attitudes to nakedness are the result of “artificial social conditioning,” and that all the evidence points to the suggestion that “acceptance of public nakedness would be beneficial to society.”

The Bethels Beach article had similar things to say. One man suggested that “we put [clothes] on in the first place ... because it was cold” (really? People also wear clothes in hotter climates), and Trinh himself claimed that people, particularly women, experienced greater degrees of confidence when among a large number of other naked people, and that there was “a lot of unnecessary censuring of nudity.”

Thinking about this sent me back to the Eden story in Genesis where nakedness features prominently. Originally the man and the woman were naked and unashamed in front of each other. There was it seems something rather beautiful about their relationship, but as one commentator notes, it is unlikely that this comment is idealising nudity. It simply provides the necessary background for understanding Genesis 3 where nakedness and shame seem to go together. In Genesis 3, immediately after their rebellion against God and their eyes being opened, the man and the women are not said to know good and evil as the crafty talking snake had suggested (although I expect they did). Rather, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked. Immediately they covered themselves up. When God entered the garden for an evening stroll they were nowhere to be seen. They knew they were naked and hid themselves from God. The story concludes with God providing them with appropriate clothing, to replace their inadequate loincloths.

Nakedness pervades this story. It is not idealised, rather it is presented as the possible source of shame (or, perhaps, embarrassment). It seems also that God was as unconcerned about their nakedness as they were before they rebelled, but afterwards, clothing became appropriate. Calvin suggests that our clothing is a reminder of our sinfulness. Another suggestion is that it reminds us of our status before God. We are nearer to God than the animals (who go naked), over whom we are to exercise authority (John Goldingay).

I am not sure that wearing clothes is a social construct that we would be better off without, nor do I think we wear clothes just to keep warm. I think we wear clothes because we recognise deep down that it is appropriate to do so. Animals go naked, humans do not. We also recognise that we ought to cover those parts of our bodies that deserve to be treated with greater respect. If we deny this we probably have little understanding of what it means to be human and little understanding of our standing before God. Maybe it is not just rebellion against societal mores, but rebellion against God who, recognising the appropriateness of our being clothed did (and does) something about it for us. We ought not be too quick to rebel against that.

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