“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

In the previous week, two short videos were deleted by Tumblr staff from my secondary blog as “sexually explicit”. Troubles never comes alone. A few days later my Vine account was suspended, due to “sexually explicit content”, I suppose. Those videos were related to my personal naturist lifestyle and I was ready for something like that. So I’ve decided to close Vine account and undertake my own investigation into the dark world of forbidden and obscenity. What content should be allowable? Or, much more widely, what restrictions may society impose on the individual? May society impose lifestyle rules? I’ve started from the theory of law.

In 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote the classical essay On Liberty. The object was “to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control”. Mill has come to conclusion that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” [1]. This point of view is known as so-called harm principle. In contrast to Mill, paternalists (from the Latin pater – father) want to “protect people from themselves, as if their safety were more important than their liberty”, having in mind not only to prevent doing harm to other people, but also to prevent self-harm [2].

In both approaches, the main issue remains unsolved: What is harm? In our context, is nudity to be restricted on grounds of harm [3]? Is public nudity harmful? Or does it represent an act “often criminally prohibited”, but, in fact, victimless and harmless?

Whilst it may be questioned whether “violations of good manners” (such as going nude in public place) are genuine harms, Mill “appears to take the view of some contemporary writers that they may be banned because they cause avoidable distress or embarrassment” [4]. In some sense, Mill contradicts his own statement that “we cannot expect to be protected against things which offend us but do us no actual harm”. You may dislike someone’s habits, political beliefs, or clothes he or she wears (or does not wear), but the problem is with you and not him or her. You have no right to insist that someone change lifestyle to make your life more comfortable.

This is not just a theoretical problem about good and bad manners. “For decades, the US courts have struggled with how the law should treat materials that may be offensive to the general public” [5]. According to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, “nudity alone is not enough to make material legally obscene”. The Court’s 1973 guidelines for defining obscenity, laid out in the case of Miller v. California, are still being used today as the basic test to determine if something is obscene [5,6]:

  • the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
  • the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law
  • the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Law experts explain that “in simple terms, it’s not obscenity unless is shows “hard core” sexual conduct that’s clearly and plainly offensive. There’s no national standard or rule about what’s obscene and what’s not. It’s up to you and other members of your community to determine that. What you and your neighbors consider obscene may not be so to people in another state or city” [5].

Since, on the one hand, “nudity alone is not enough”, while, on the other hand, the only more or less unbiased criteria of obscenity is “patently offensive” sexual conduct, we can propose our very simple principle that may be helpful in solving the problem. Imagine you observe nude people on the beach, or that you see a photo or video depicting people in the nude. Then, in your mind, cover the nudity with some clothes. If, after that mental procedure, you decide that you are observing a conduct which is definitely non-sexual, it was non-sexual even before the addition of that imaginary clothes.

A few words in conclusion. “The Netherlands instituted a policy in 2006 of showing prospective immigrants an official educational video on Dutch culture that includes scenes of the country’s nude beaches” [3]. Maybe educational videos that include scenes of nudist living should be shown to a wider audience.

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, London: Longman, Roberts, & Green Co. 4th edition, 1869.
[2] Christopher B. Gray, The Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, Taylor & Francis, 1999.
[3] Anita Allen, Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide? Oxford University Press, 2011.
[4] Geoffrey Scarre, Mill’s ‘On Liberty’: A Reader’s Guide, A&C Black, 2007.
[5] Pornography, Obscenity and the Law BY LAWYERS.COM
[6] Art on Trial: Obscenity and Art

Since several previous posts were dedicated to the attitude towards nudity in ancient Greeks, a few words should be said about the evolution of these ideas. Ruth Barcan writes in “Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy” that the Greek ideal of nudity developed gradually, and was only ever a mainland phenomenon. She quotes Larissa Bonfante (“Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art”) who claims that the Greek word for sexual organs, aidoia (“shameful things”), and the Latin pudenda (“shameful”) indicate that nudity was not always accepted. In the ancient Near East, nakedness was a sign of wretchedness, shame and defeat, as it was in the Old Testament, while the first indications of respectable relation to nudity came in Athenian Geometric art and with Homer.

Shame is an emotion inherent in human beings. The archetypal feeling of shame is often associated with the unveiling of physical nakedness. It was mentioned that in many societies, naked exposure was used to punish adulterers. Punishment of adultery with shaming exposure of the “aidoia” is based on an ancient tradition of humiliating and disgracing the opponent through the exposure. At the same time, psychologists admit that each individual has a unique developmental history of shame. And nudity in the light of the day and heat of the sun is usually far less erotic than, for example, a striptease show with the lights turned low. (“Shame and the origins of self-esteem: a Jungian approach” by Mario Jacoby)

Ruth Barcan uses the two very broad groupings of symbolic meanings of nakedness: those associated with presence (authenticity, truth, origins, nature, simplicity) and those with absence (deprivation, degradation, vulnerability, exposure, punishment). One may conclude that, depending on the context,

nudity can symbolize many different things – including quite precisely opposing terms (e.g. innocence and the lack of innocence; order or the threat of disorder), or similar qualities, valued differently according to context (e.g. nakedness as both naturalness and savagery).

It’s trivial to say that many human motivations are rooted in cultural and historic stereotypes. Greek society was able to pass the gap between the abject admission of “shameful things” and the celebration of the inherent aesthetic beauty of the human form. Is modern globalized society vigorous enough to achieve something similar?

Shame by Joseph Orsillo on Flickr

Shame by Joseph Orsillo on Flickr

Traditionally it was believed that the Ghent Altarpiece was begun by Hubert van Eyck, who died in 1426 whilst work was underway, and completed by his younger brother Jan van Eyck, but some modern researchers distinguished the hand of only one artist, namely Jan van Eyck, in this painting.

This altarpiece is one of the few large fifteenth-century polyptychs that can be seen today in its original location at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium (The Visual Arts: A History, Revised Edition by Hugh Honour, John F. Fleming). It was a fundamentally innovative work in its depiction of naturalism. (Blurring the boundaries between art and life: Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (1425-32) by Diane G. Scillia)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve) by Jan van Eyck

Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606) wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece could serve as proof of Jan van Eyck’s  scholarship, because of

the fig that Eve holds in her hand; for St Augustine prefers to believe that it was a fig that Adam ate rather than an apple; the reason is that literally the text speaks of a fruit, and does not distinguish which fruit; but they clothed themselves with fig-leaves <…> and not with the leaves of apple. (The Lives of the illustrious Netherlandish and German painters by Karel van Mander)

It was, of course, a great discovery by Augustine of Hippo and a sigh of real scholarship. So I thought I should make a note of it, to remember in the future. Concerning the altarpiece, one may say that its naturalism didn’t stand it in good stead. In the 19th century, the naked representations of Adam and Eve were considered unacceptable in a church and the panels were replaced by dressed reproductions.

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

The Ghent Altarpiece (Adam and Eve dressed)

Only in the 20th century Jan’s Adam and Eve returned to their original positions. (see Adam and Eve: Shameless First Couple of the Ghent Altarpiece by Linda Seidel).

The Ancient Greeks considered their custom of athletic nudity as a marker of their own civilization – one that distinguished them from their own ancestors and from the “barbarians” (Ruth Barcan). The Greeks came to understand the practice of athletic nudity as a “civilized” one:

For among the Lydians, and indeed among the barbarians generally, it is reckoned a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked. (The History of Herodotus, Book 1).

But it is wrong to idealize the Greek relation to nudity. Ruth Barcan (her Nudity : a cultural anatomy is my main source today) quotes Margaret Walters (The Male Nude: A New Perspective) who points out that “it is simply that their taboos [around nudity] differ from ours and are therefore harder for us to recognize.” Namely, the Greek ideal was not open to all bodies.

First of allfemale nakedness, in everyday life, but also in representation, was able to shock. In Greek art only Aphrodite appears naked and it was rare before the fourth century BC. The total nakedness of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was considered a scandalous innovation (Marina Warner,  Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form):

The Cyprian said when she saw the Cyprian of Cnidus, “Alas where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
(Greek Anthology. Book I Chapter IV Part IV. On the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles. From J. W. Mackail)

However, in Book Five of Plato’s Republic, in the section on the status of women, Socrates argues that women should be trained like men, and hence should exercise naked in the gymnasium:

Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking

A fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; –for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.

Very true.

Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.

No doubt.

But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.
(The Republic By Plato. Book V)

And secondly, the Greeks were “acutely anxious about the aging bodies of either sex” (Margaret Walters). The expression of these ideas can be found in Plato’s Republic as well:

the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Nevertheless, the importance of Greek attitudes towards nakedness for modern culture can scarcely be overestimated.

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr

Recently I’ve discovered a volume devoted to exploring the development and experience of life in East Germany. Katherine Pence and Paul Betts, Editors of the volume entitled East German everyday culture and politics (University of Michigan Press, 2008), write in the Introduction that

The reunification of Germany in 1989 may have put an end to the experiment in East German communism, but its historical assessment is far from over.

East German everyday culture and politics

East German everyday culture and politics

They indicate that most of the literature over the past two decades has been driven by the desire to uncover the relationship between power and resistance, but now the study of the everyday history of East German citizens advances to the forefront.

One of the articles in the book is written by Dagmar Herzog and entitled ‘East Germany’s Sexual Revolution’ (p. 71). The issue of FKK (Freikörperkultur), an important part of GDR culture, is touched upon as well. I’d like to give a few quotes from the article that may shed some light on the place nudism occupied in the life of East German people.

Starting in the middle of the 1960s nude bathing became acceptable for growing numbers of GDR citizens, and by the 1970s full nudity was clearly the norm at GDR beaches, lakeside or oceanside. Early attempts by municipal authorities to prevent this practice were simply overridden by the adamant masses, who stripped and would not move.

I found out a wonderful formulation dating back to 1956 (?): “… Nudism is a threat to public safety and it harms our workers. It is a life style of intellectuals and artists, not of workers.”

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0708-021, Berlin, Strandfest am Müggelsee

Berlin, Strandfest am Müggelsee

Nakedness for the whole family also within the home became increasingly standard practice as well, especially for that generation that had grown up together with the GDR…

The researcher writes that from the point of view of West Germans, the East German habit of naked display at the beach was variously interpreted as quaint and odd, as a trifle disturbing, or as (misplaced) compensation for East Germans’ lack of political independence.

After the reunification of Germany, the West Germans achieved what the GDR police had failed to do decades earlier.

The flood of Western pornography effectively demolished the Eastern culture of nakedness. … Many East German women no longer felt safe going naked now that they were viewed with Western men’s “pornographically schooled gaze” (pornographisch geschulter Blick). And they did begin to cover themselves.

I’ve chosen only a few quotes from the article and hope that this citation will not deprive the whole article of interest. The article is informative and allows to see the issue from the wider perspective.

Medieval theologians had a mania to classify everything according to strangely invented rules. Nudity defined as ‘the lack of clothes‘ was also an object of their intent look. In general,  four types of nudity were invented. In the fourteenth century Pierre Bercheur who was a monk of the Benedictine order codified the types of nudity in his dictionary of moral theology. Since I didn’t succeeded in finding a primary source, in the following I’ll quote mainly Mary Magdalen: myth and metaphor by Susan Haskins and Monuments & maidens: the allegory of the female form by Marina Warner.

First of all, theologians distinguished nuditas naturalis, the human condition of animal nakedness. Example: the nakedness in which man is both born and dies.

The second was nuditas temporalis. That is metaphorical leaving all wordly goods and wealth, both voluntary (Christ and his apostles, for instance) and involuntary (poverty).

The third was defined as nuditas virtualis. It symbolised sinless innocence, but could also represent innocence regained through confession, the soul in the blessed company of the redeemed in heaven. Example: the nakedness of Adam and Eve ‘before the Fall’.

The fourth and last was nuditas criminalis, the nakedness of the sinner. The naked men and women damned to the torments and fires of hell can be seen in Giotto’s Last Judgement. Pierre Bercheur mentioned naked Ethiopian men in this connection.

For me this classification definitely looks pathological. A famous quote from Francisco de Goya is appropriate.

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.

Nude Study, France, c1870

Nude Study, c1870

N.B. Some people believe that Adam and Eve were clothed in heaven with a covering of light and glory, such as the angels wear, while fig leaves are described as the first miniskirts and shorts.