Tag Archives: athlete

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., 2011.
[7] Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.
[8] The naked truth about Victorians – Telegraph

Livia, in the opinion of the wise, spoke like a great and sufficient Lady, such as she was, in saying that to a chaste woman a naked man is just a statue. (Essays of Michel de Montaigne)

Livia Drusilla was the wife of Octavian Augustus. The ancient sources generally portray her as a woman of proud and queenly attributes. In the quote above, Montaigne means the story recorded by Cassius Dio, a Roman consul and a historian:

Once, when some naked men met her (Livia) and were to be put to death in consequence, she saved their lives by saying that to chaste women such men are no whit different from statues.
(Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVIII)

I don’t know whether historians are aware of the details of that case and why that men staked their lives and appeared naked in the presence of the wife of the Emperor.

This historic anecdote illustrates the sharp distinction Romans made between nudity in life, and nudity in art. What was sometimes possible in art was utterly unacceptable in life. Here are two examples. In honour of the victory at Naulochus in 36 BC Octavian permitted himself to be represented nude (‘portrait in heroic costume’, according to researchers who consider nudity as a costume) in a colossal statue in the very centre of Rome. The ideal nude body of his gilded portrait shows Octavian as a superman, godlike, and invulnerable. However, when Octavian instituted the Actian Games in 27 BC to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, he forbade women from attending them, apparently on account of the nudity of the athletes. (see The Roman nude: heroic portrait statuary 200 B.C.-A.D. 300 by Christopher H. Hallett)

Tusculum Octavian

Tusculum Octavian

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

In my previous post on the subject I’ve already mentioned that the traditional dating of the origin of nudity in Greek athletics to the 8th century B.C. is questioned by some historians. John Mouratidis from the University of Thrace, Komotini, Greece believes that nudity in Greek athletics has a much longer history. It had “its roots in prehistoric Greece and was connected with the warrior-athlete whose training and competition in the games was at the same time his preparation for war“. From this point of view an attempt made in Athens at the close of the 6th century B.C. to introduce loincloths into athletic competitions “was not an attempt to “reintroduce” but rather to introduce loincloths in the games because … there is nothing in Greek art to indicate the existence of loincloths in athletics“.

According to the widespread point of view “the early Greeks believed that there was in nudity something heroic and sacred. The Greek warrior-athletes … used their nudity to either inspire fear or horrify their adversaries. Apparently the Greeks believed that the naked body of the warrior-athlete was an object upon which the adversary looked with fear and panic.” Larissa Bonfante (Etruscan Dress. Updated edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) writes that

Greek reaction to nudity in art and language is unique … The Greeks felt so strongly about nudity that it was thought to have a magical effect …. Their athletes were thought to be protected in some way by their nudity.

J. Mouratidis points out that “the importance of the human body and its symbolism as an incarnation of energy and power has been emphasized by many writers” and quotes Kenneth Clark (The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art. London, 1957) who notes that

it was the Greeks, by their idealization of man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy….
The Greeks discovered in the nude two embodiments of energy, which lived on throughout European art almost until our own day. They are the athlete and the hero; and from the beginning they were closely connected with one another.

J. Mouratidis concludes that “it is probable that the early Greek warrior-athlete or hero-athlete believed that his nudity acted as a screen which guarded him from many evils and at the same time provided him with power and energy for his duties“.

The nude warrior-athlete was symbolized by Heracles, the most popular hero of the Greeks, “who alone comes nude into the presence of Zeus and the other gods” (see Evelyn Harrison, “Athena and Athens in East Pediment of Parthenon” (1967)). One may assume that “since Heracles was the hero in whose honour the Olympic Games were possibly held, then his protégées, the athletes, were trying to imitate the nudity as well as some other characteristics of their patron“.

Nudity survived in Greek athletics because it was supported by heroic tradition and religion“.

Nude Warrior with Spear by Théodore Géricault (1816)

Nude Warrior with Spear by Théodore Géricault (1816)