Nudity and shame. Examples of cultural differences

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].

References
[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

10 comments
  1. Good article. Those hypothetical island children very well might have invented loincloths… after scratching those sensitive parts on shrubbery! But the Victorians’ piano leg story has long been debunked, right down to it’s original source. Surprising that a scholarly book published in 2011 wouldn’t have caught that.

    One more thing rarely mentioned; married women weren’t allowed to attend the (nude) Olympics, upon punishment of death. Things weren’t quite as peachy back then as nudists like to portray! 😉

    But certainly, clothing styles and taboos are totally societal once the necessities of life have been achieved. In fact, social nudism itself is a construct of a society with leisure time to spend in an enjoyable fashion which happens to contradict the norms of whatever society it exists apart from!

  2. I really do wish that there were an island of feral humans somewhere for us to study. It’d be unethical to just abandon kids, but it would be so educational if we had a bunch of test-cases. I don’t think shame is inevitable, but it does appear that shamelessness is unstable, as it seems bizarrely common. I always wonder how it starts. You’re just enjoying your day and somebody tells you to cover up your sinful nose. Why would you listen to such a nutter? But I guess there’s some social penalty associated with not giving in, judging from how common some sort of necessary covering-up is.

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