Thermodynamics of nudism

Is there anything common between naturism and thermodynamics? Maren Möhring, the author of Working Out the Body’s Boundaries: Physiological, Aesthetic, and Psychic Dimensions of the Skin in German Nudism, 1890-1930 (in Body parts: critical explorations in corporeality, edited by Christopher E. Forth, Ivan Crozier, p. 229-246), argues in favor of the existence of close links between naturism (at least, German naturism) and what she calls thermodynamic theories of energy. Referring to The Human Motor by Anson Rabinbach and multiple naturist sources, she affirms that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the body

was conceptualized as a thermodynamic machine haunted continuously by the threat of exhaustion. Within a thermodynamic universe fixated on energy conservation, the importance of the skin was based on its capacity to absorb the rays of the sun and thus to energize the body. The nudists believed that the “electricity of the sun,” the “beneficial, invigorating and refreshing ultraviolet rays,” would restore the body`s energy supply. It has not yet been noticed in the literature on nudism that society‘s growing acceptance of sunbathing might be connected to this energetic imperative.

Dr. Maren Möhring asserts that nudists considered not only sun-bathing, but also “artificial” electric light baths, and even X-rays (X-rays bath? I don’t think that someone tried it) as healthy and revitalizing for the body. Even sunburn was not able to frighten nudists of that time. It was considered a “health enforcing” phenomenon because it “hardened the skin” and allowed new skin to emerge after the burned skin had peeled away. From that point of view even the tiniest piece of clothing could disturb this energizing process, so the slogan: “Fight the bathing trunks! Fight any kind of bathing costume!” was put forward.

Well, it was interesting to read about the modern scientization of the body, but I could not find in the article any assumptions (accepted by early nudists) about the physical mechanism that could be behind the above-mentioned thermodynamical skin’s capacity to absorb the rays of the sun and to revitalize the body. The simple fact that skin can hardly be considered as the principal organ responsible for power supply of the human body makes this thermodynamical theory hanging in midair. I think that even the pioneers of nudism didn’t underestimate the importance of nutrition and didn’t try to live on sun rays.

Empty sea by jonathan charles photo | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Empty sea by jonathan charles photo | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

4 comments
  1. Rick said:

    Interesting but the assertion sounds more like allegorical mythology than scientific principal.

    I do believe that exposing the skin to air and sun (in moderation) is beneficial to our health. From what I’ve read on European naturism in the early 20th century, there was a great deal of emphasis on nutrition and exercise in keeping the body fit.

    • I agree. In this post I’d like to show, in particular, that the study based on written sources only may lead to wrong impressions and conclusions. Polybius wrote that

      The knowledge that is acquired by reading is gained without any danger, or any kind of toil… But the knowledge which is drawn from personal examination and enquiry, is attended with great fatigue and great expence.

  2. Science works by narrowing concepts to esily definable parameters – so, especially “energy” has a purely physical meaning in thermodynamics while most people experience energy in phenominolgical terms, related to psychology and behaviour. Likewise non-scientists, especially philosophers, borrow already defined scientific terms (like thermodynamics) and extend their use way outside the original definition. This causes a lot of misunderstanding.

    The quote from Maren Möhring is a good example, where “energy” and “electricity” should be understood to mean the subjective feelings associated with these words, not the physical properties.

    Physiology hovers on the borderline between these domains with psycho-physiological adaptations far too complex for rigorous scientific analysis, so empirical description is the main language and is open to different experiences and opinions.

    My experience is that sunlight, the sea-shore and beauty are all powerfully energising and I hope my photo represents that feeling…

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