“In order to exploit the environment all organisms adapt their bodies to meet specialized environmental conditions,”

wrote Edward T. Hall [1], the anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, in his book “The Silent Language” [2], in which he analyzed “the many ways in which people “talk” to one another without the use of words”. He gives a few examples of adaptations:

“the long neck of the giraffe (adapted to high foliage of trees), the teeth of the saber-toothed tiger, toes of the tree sloth, hoof of the horse, and man’s opposable thumb”.

The adaptation of the body is not the end of the story. The author continues:

“Occasionally organisms have developed specialized extensions of their bodies to take the place of what the body itself might do and thereby free the body for other things. Among these ingenious natural developments are the web of the spider, cocoons, nests of birds and fish.” [italics added]

Fieldfare by Andreas Trepte

The man “with his specialized body” is not an exception. (The passage below is cited by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy [3].)

“Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb. Clothes and houses are extensions of man’s biological temperature-control mechanisms. Furniture takes the place of squatting and sitting on the ground. Power tools, glasses, TV, telephones, and books which carry the voice across both time and space are examples of material extensions. Money is a way of extending and storing labor. Our transportation networks now do what we used to do with our feet and backs. In fact, all man-made material things can be treated as extensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body.”

Farmer in rocking-chair reading The Progressive Farmer. “Farmer reading his farm paper” By George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

This can be summarized in the table:

Function Body Body Extensions
Weapons teeth, fist atom bomb
Temperature control biological mechanisms clothes, houses
Rest, recreation, relaxation squatting, sitting on the ground furniture
Communication voice TV, telephones, books
Transportation feet and backs transportation networks

What I learned from this list is that one specialized extension of the human body stands out against the other developments. It is neither shameful nor illegal to squat or sit on the ground, to carry something on your back or to use your voice without touching the phone. But it is extremely undesirable to control your body temperature without clothes on even at comfortable ambient temperatures. It seems ridiculous, especially when one takes into account that the purpose of developing specialized extensions of the body is to free the body.

According to Edward T. Hall, “culture controls behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside of awareness and therefore beyond conscious control of the individual”. The rich experience taught anthropologists one thing, namely that

“culture is more than mere custom that can be shed or changed like a suit of clothes.”

Posing in the Sun | Vadim aka t-maker | Flickr

[1] Edward T. Hall – Wikipedia
[2] Edward T. Hall. The Silent Language (Anchor Books, 1973)
[3] The Gutenberg Galaxy – Wikipedia

Animals don’t wear clothes. We learnt it from early childhood. At three years old, you could keep asking why your cat didn’t wear “some clothes” [1]. You could even get a scientific answer: “animals don’t wear clothes because, for the most part, they are still restricted to climates where they don’t need them” [2]. If you are a little older, you may begin to ask yourself whether taking off clothes brings a man or a woman closer to an animal or even “crosses border” between a human being and an animal.

Once Jacques Derrida [3], a French philosopher, found himself frontally naked “faced with cat’s eyes looking” at him “from head to toe” [4]. He started thinking about “the property unique to animals, what in the last instance distinguishes them from man, is their being naked without knowing it”. The philosopher continued, “naked without knowing it, animals would not be, in truth, naked. They wouldn’t be naked because they are naked. In principle, with the exception of man, no animal has ever thought to dress itself”. It appears that clothing “would be proper to man, one of the “properties” of man”. “There is no nudity “in nature”. Then new questions arose: “Before the cat that looks at me naked, would I be ashamed like an animal that no longer has the sense of nudity? Or on the contrary, like a man who retains the sense of his nudity?” [4]

Leaving all these childish and philosophical questions aside, we can specify what indeed “distinguishes humans from other animals” [5]. The answer lies in the sphere of mind and it is not restricted to awareness of nudity. According to modern scientific studies,”mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind”.

Abraham Maslow [6], an American psychologist, introduced the notion of peak experience, “the most wonderful experience or experiences of your life; happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music or suddenly “being hit” by a book or a painting, or from some great creative moment” [7]. Peak experiences can be described “as moments of maximum psychological functioning”, when a person “feels more intelligent, more perceptive, wittier, stronger, or more graceful than at other times” [7,8].

Maslow considered “the taboos on nudity to be entirely a matter of folkways and customs rather than a matter of ethical or moral principle in any cross-cultural sense” [9]. He “had an established but purely theoretical interest in whether nudity would make people in therapy “an awful lot freer, a lot more spontaneous, less guarded” [10].

In the late 1960s, basing, in part, on Maslow’s ideas about peak experiences, it was supposed that nudism can be “a viable path to personal growth, authenticity and transcendence”. The therapy called nude psychotherapy was developed. The naked body was considered “as a metaphor of the “psychological soul”. “Uninhibited exhibition of the nude body revealed that which was most fundamental, truthful, and real” [8,10-12]. “Although nude therapy has an indisputable tabloid character, it is also rooted in a long-standing academic search for authenticity and ultimate meaning through science” [11].

Despite the controversy concerning nude therapy, it gives an insight that nudity does not interfere, but rather helps to realize the human potential.

[1] Clare Painter, Learning Through Language in Early Childhood, A&C Black, 2005
[2] Question: why don’t other animals wear clothes?
[3] Jacques Derrida – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[4] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Fordham Univ Press, 2009, see also Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418
[5] What Distinguishes Humans from Other Animals?
[6] Abraham Maslow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[7] Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, Start Publishing, 2013
[8] Margarita Tartakovsky, The History of Nude Psychotherapy – World of Psychology
[9] Jessica Lynn Grogan, A Cultural History of the Humanistic Psychology Movement in America, ProQuest, 2008
[10] Nude psychotherapy and the quest for inner peace – Mind Hacks
[11] Ian Nicholson, Baring the soul: Paul Bindrim, Abraham Maslow and ‘Nude psychotherapy’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Volume 43, Issue 4, pages 337–359, 2007
[12] Nude psychotherapy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sometimes some interesting stuff escapes your attention. Only recently I read about the work by Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny which won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2012 for “discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually by seeing photographs of their anogenital regions (their behinds)” [1,2]. Chimpanzees “were not only seeing the photographs as representations of chimps they knew, but linked the face and behind by drawing upon a mental representation of the whole body of those chimps” [3,4].

When I pushed a vision of respectable scientists, taking photos of chimps’ behinds in order to share them with other chimps, away from my imagination, I came to understanding that this discovery might hold a key to understanding the purpose of clothing. Among the Hominidae, chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans [5]. Someone even calls humans the “third chimpanzee” [6]. Though, one may ask, “What about humans?”

A psychological study done at the University of Texas in 2013 revealed that “people do better at facial recognition when the whole person, not just the face, is presented”. It appears that “when faces are partially obscured or difficult to differentiate, subtle body cues allow people to identify others with surprising accuracy”. “Our work shows that the body can be surprisingly useful for identification, especially when the face fails to provide the necessary identity information,” project supervisor said [7].

It should be taken into account that in the time-scale of evolution clothing is “a relatively new invention”. “Earliest recorded signs of clothing date to 36,000 BCE”. Considering that the use of clothing has a relatively short history, two scientists have assumed that it is possible “that the responses of the brain networks specialized in body perception could show attenuated responses towards bodies wearing clothing” [8]. It indeed turned out that “the human brain showed enhanced visual processing of nude over clothed bodies”. Human visual system has been found to be particularly sensitive to detecting nude bodies. The experimenters discovered that “brain mechanisms specifically devoted to processing visual information” worked more effectively as the amount of clothing on images shown to healthy male and female volunteers decreased from full clothing via swimsuits to nude bodies. The response traditionally assumed to be most pronounced to human faces proved to be even greater to nude bodies than to faces [8].

With all these in mind, we can now suppose that one of the purposes of clothing is to hide one’s true identity and “fool other’s into believing that he or she has is actually someone else”. In culture, the putting on masks attempting to hide one’s true identity is often considered as suspect or even criminal (see, for instance, [9]).  Of course, under certain circumstances, there might be reasons to disguise one’s identity [10]. But, despite the fact that you may “enjoy being someone different”, it’s nice to know you’re still yourself at the end of the day [11].

Siu Ding nude project #1 by Jesse Clockwork | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

Siu Ding nude project #1 by Jesse Clockwork | Flickr – Photo Sharing! (Creative Commons License)

[1] Frans B. M. de Waal, Jennifer J. Pokorny, Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception, Advanced Science Letters, Volume 1, Number 1, June 2008, pp. 99-103(5)
[2] List of Ig Nobel Prize winners – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[3] Chimps can recognise friends by their behinds – New Scientist
[4] Butts, Faces Help Chimps Identify Friends – National Geographic News
[5] Chimpanzee – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[6] Jared M. Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, Harper Perennial, 2006
[7] Study: People use body cues to help identify faces
[8] J.K. Hietanen, L. Nummenmaa, The naked truth: the face and body sensitive N170 response is enhanced for nude bodies, PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e24408
[9] Christine Matzke, Susanne Muehleisen, Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, Rodopi, 2006
[10] What are some reasons why someone would want to hide their identity?
[11] David Numeroff, Laura Joffe Numeroff, Why a Disguise, Turtleback Books, 1999.

A modified version of the post with some speculations on human evolution can be found on naktiv.net or DeviantArt.

Sigmund Freud once said that his favourite dream was “being naked in a crowd of strangers”. I have read about it on Dream Sleep, “the official dream website of … the author of The Hidden Meaning of Dreams and other bestselling titles”. It is also mentioned that “dreams about being naked in a public place are one of the most commonly reported dreams”. Another recognized specialist in dreams points out that “nudity in dreams often occurs in scenarios that would shock us in our waking hours”.

What is the meaning of these dreams? (The interpretation of the dream, of course, “depends on a person’s past experience and the person’s system of values”.) According to dream interpreters,

  • if, in your dream, you appear “nude before friends or colleagues“, it may reflect your feelings of vulnerability, or that you are hiding something, for instance, keeping some aspect of your character a secret.
  • If no one else in the dream notices your nakedness, “it indicates that fears of appearing foolish in front of others are unfounded”.
  • If not you, but others appear nude, “the dream may indicate that the dreamer is able to see through the defenses or lies of others”.
  • If “the dreamer feels disgusted by the nudity of others” in his or her dream, this may mean that he or she is disappointed in them (or even in him- or herself), or don’t want to “let others be themselves”.
  • Finally, if the dreamer accepts the nakedness of those around him”, he or she “has probably shed outmoded beliefs and accepted others for what they are”.

The last interpretation seems the most plausible to me. The events of the dreams give clues to hidden and unacknowledged beliefs. Maybe, one day we, most of us, will acknowledge that we are ready to step out of the dream and drop outmoded beliefs in reality, accepting the nakedness “of those around us” and allowing others to be themselves.

Richard Mauch, The Knights dream (1902)

Richard Mauch, The Knights dream (1902) – Wikimedia Commons

1. Dream Sleep, http://www.dreamsleep.net
2. Judith Millidge, The handbook of dreams: how to interpret and understand your dreams, Barnes & Noble Books, 2004.
3. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Sheryl Martin, The Tao of Dreaming, Berkley Books, New York, 2005.

Within one-tenth of a second, people form a variety of opinions about each other based on what they see, and these opinions are not necessarily favorable to us.

Yesterday, while browsing my Google+ feed, I came across a link to my post “Is it a good idea to share your nude photographs, if you are a nudist?”  kindly reblogged and shared on Google+ by Paul K., author of the wonderful blog about nudism Zjuzdme.org. Someone on Google+ left a comment under my photo saying, let me quote, “so small dick u have”. First of all, I felt like I let down Paul, because it was unclear to whom the comment was addressed. Secondly, I thought that it was not a good idea to share my nude photograph taken on a chilly day.

With a feeling of a little disappointment, I turned to the history of visual art.

When it comes to art, there are two popular questions: “Why does Michelangelo’s Adam have such a ridiculously small penis” and why does “the most famous of Greek statues, Michelangelo’s David”, depict “big muscles, but a tiny penis”?

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo learned the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and admired the Greeks’ attempt to capture ideal beauty in their statues. According to Larissa Bonfantethere were “two concurrent strains of nudity in Greek art: one reflecting a magical or apotropaic function (herms, satyrs, etc.), characterized by the erect phallus; another, developing from athletic nudity, a more empirical interest in the naked, athletic male body (kouroi, athletes and male figures in black- and red-figure vase painting), where the sex organs themselves are less obtrusive”.

Statue of kouros - Wikimedia Commons

Statue of kouros – Wikimedia Commons

“Satyrs, animal-like human figures with horses’ tails, were represented full of vitality, naked, with exaggerated huge phalli (or phalluses)”. Actors who represented satyrs in the theater in the 5th century B.C. “wore animal-skin loincloths with a large phallus sewn on”. The herms the Athenians encountered daily in the streets of their city, from ca. 540 B.C. on, “consisted of a male head sculptured on a pillar, on which was carved an erect phallus, serving as a reminder of the powerful magic residing in the alerted male member”.

On the kouros, Greek sculpture representing a nude young man, “the sex was simply uncovered; while the phallus was emphasized on satyrs and herms, and on the stage”. “The kouros type fits the concept of the sacred quality of nudity: its nakedness represented a feature of initiation ritual. It referred to those religious dances and rituals that called for the candidate’s nakedness as a special costume or habit”. The ideal of youthful male beauty “included the small penis of a younger man”. “Youth was an essential aspect of the nudity of the kouros. Old men and ugly slaves have longer penises”.

“In contrast to the large, erect phallus of the magic, apotropaic figure, a beautiful young man was characterized by a small penis. For women, too, whether they were represented naked or dressed, in art, literature, and life, depilation and small breasts were part of the ideal of youthful beauty”.

Of course, each time has its own aesthetic values. I’ll bear it in mind when choosing the images for my blog.

No one knows exactly when people invented clothes. Usually, the origin of clothing is dated back to 100,000 years ago. According to archaeological research, “prehistoric hunters may have worn the skins of bears or reindeer in order to keep warm or a sign of personal skill, bravery, and strength” [1]. The needle was invented by the end of the Old Stone Age – about 25,000 years ago. At about the same time, people started to make yarn from plants or from the fur or hair of animals. They had begun to raise plants and started to herd “wood-producing” animals like sheep.

Of course, clothes have a very important biological function, but it appears that “even in cold climates, some people seem more interested in decorating their bodies than in protecting them. In the 1830s the British biologist Charles Darwin (1809-82) travelled to the island of Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America. There he saw people who wore only a little paint and a small cloak made of animal skin, in spite of the cold rain and the sleet. Darwin gave the people scarlet cloth; they took it and wrapped it around their necks, instead of wearing it around the lower body for warmth. Despite the cold weather, the people wore clothing not for protective reasons, but primarily for decorating their bodies and making them appear attractive” [1].

Humans “have used clothing to define our kind (especially to differentiate ourselves from animals), and to differentiate ourselves from each other” [2]. In all societies and cultures, “dress characterizes group membership and beliefs”. “Shamans … have always worn special clothing to identify themselves. … Motorcycle gang members … wear leather jackets, boots, and various items such as brass knuckles to convey toughness and group identity” [1].

It is not a great discovery that “what makes nudity appealing … is the absence of clothing”. “Nudity is the oppositional counterpart to clothing”. Clothing and nudity “constitute a single system of meaning” [1].

So what does nudity mean? There is a simple answer: “nudity is associated with sex because … one usually becomes nude in order to engage in sex” [3]. Despite the fact that one may find this explanation exhaustive, there’s another point of view on nudity.

It was noticed that “in a clothed society, … nakedness is special, and can be used as a “costume” [4]. In other words, nudity can be “imagined as a form of clothing” [2]. If so, when was it appropriate to wear this “costume”, in historical perspective?

“In anthropology, for example, nudity-as-clothing can appear as the category of “ritual nudity”, in which the theorist analyses the way nudity can function as a kind of costume in ritual or magic” [2]. “In Greece the remarkable innovation of athletic male nudity, which surely originated in a ritual, religious context, developed a special social and civic meaning. It became a costume, a uniform: exercising together in the gymnasia marked men’s status as citizens of the polis and as Greeks”. Men “attended the gymnasium, and proudly wore the “costume” that was appropriate for this place”. “Nudity as a costume was fashionable” [4].

“Throughout the sixth century B.C., black-figure Attic vases regularly show athletes competing in the nude, as well as nude gods, heroes, mortals, revelers, etc.” [4]. “In the convention of heroic nudity, gods and heroes were shown naked, while ordinary mortals were less likely to be so, though athletes and warriors in combat were often depicted nude” [5].

In this context, the “modern” attitude towards nudity seems disappointingly primitive. Nudity, a “costume” related to magic and heroes, has lost most of its meanings. It’s time to find them again.

Isaac Newton by William Blake

Isaac Newton by William Blake – Wikimedia Commons

[1] Marcel Danesi, The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, University of Toronto Press, 2007
[2] Ruth Barcan, Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, Berg, 2004
[3] Yahoo Answers: Why most peoples always associated nudity with sexual?
[4] Larissa Bonfante, Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 4, 1989
[5] Nude (art) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Are nudity and shame inseparably linked?

Some scientists believe that “it is archetypal aspect of human nature to obscure the sex organs – called “shame-parts” in many languages”. According to the biologist J. Illies “if one were to put children by themselves on a solitary island in order to allow them to grow up according to the nature of their species, free from all repressive influences of society, they would reinvent the loincloth at the age of five” [1].

Another point of view is that “shame is not congenital, but the reason why people are ashamed does have a universal, biological background. At its base lies the genetically indiced man-female relationship”. There are “naked women in the Amazon region who feel ashamed when they don’t wear any bands around their arms or ankles. Shame emerges when there is a deviation from the clothing standard, which is applied differently in every culture” [2].

I was reading about the attitude towards nudity in two cultures separated in time and space, both of which are important parts of our humanistic traditions. Some details seemed to be interesting to me.

1. In ancient Greece, it was nudity which separated the Greeks from barbarians, “from whom they wished to be distinguished”. In ancient athletics, bodies were “fully on display” and the “athlete’s naked body communicated important information about their culture and identity”. The nakedness “gave physical proof of discipline, strength, and endurance” [3].

One reads in Plato’s Republic that for most “barbarians”, it was “disgraceful and ridiculous” for a man to be seen naked. “And when the practice of athletics began, first with the Cretans and then with the Lacedaemonians, it was open to the wits of that time to make fun of these practices… But when … experience showed that it is better to strip than to veil all things of this sort, then the laughter of the eyes faded away before that which reason revealed to be best…” [4].

Herodotus confirms that “among the Lydians and most of the foreign peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked” [5].

But it appears that feelings of shame were not alien even to naked Greek athletes. “It was highly improper to allow glans of the penis to be seen; it had to be kept covered by the foreskin at all times. Men doing athletic exercises drew the foreskin over the glans and tied it with a string. To the Greeks, a short foreskin was a clear sign of a dissipated sexual life. Thus when Jews began to appear in the exercises, their circumcized penises became a source of deep embarrassment” [1].

2. In some sense, the period of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) may serve as an opposite pole to the era of naked sportsmen and sportwomen. Even in ancient Greece, the nudity of the Spartan girls, who wore short chitons which “did not cover their thighs and both of their breasts” during the exercises, was considered as scandalous [1]. During the Victorian Era, women “were urged to cover their entire bodies. Any skin showing was seen as a women exhibiting herself”. Women “were not to advertise their bodies” to men, since a woman’s body was considered as the “property of her husband” [6].

There is a widespread myth that, at the height of the Victorian Era, it was “common to cover all “legs”, even those of pianos and tables, in order to prevent sexual arousal” [6,7].

Victorian attitudes to the body have provided “fertile territory for myth-making” [8]. On her first encounter with the cast of Michelangelo’s David  presented by a Duke of Tuscany, “Queen Victoria was so shocked by his nudity that a firm suggestion was made that something should be done. Consequently, the correctly proportioned fig leaf was created and stored in readiness for any visit Queen Victoria might make to the museum, for which occasions it was hung on the figure from two strategically implanted hooks” [8].

[1] Shame and the Origins of Self-esteem: A Jungian Approach. Psychology Press, 1996.
[2] Projet Nudité (Project Nudity)
[3] Anathea E. Portier-Young. Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014.
[4] Plato, translated by Paul Shorey. Republic. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1969. Book 5, sections 452c-452e
[5] Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1920. Book 1, chapter 10
[6] Denman Collins. Anomalistic History. Lulu.com, 2011.
[7] Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.
[8] The naked truth about Victorians – Telegraph