Tag Archives: body

“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

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 or DeviantArt.

Oddly enough, man has never felt sure of himself in the nude. This in itself has made an end of the struggling cult of nudism. Men and women will never trust themselves to the opinions of their fellows, based on their unadorned bodies. People do not dress for modesty. Modesty, like many other excuses in our moral codes, serves a better reason.

Human beings wear clothes to shield their nakedness, to keep them warm, and to adorn themselves. But a woman can hide her nakedness in fifty cents’ worth of cotton cloth. She can keep herself warm in six dollars’ worth of wool. Nevertheless she spends fifty dollars for her coat and five thousand if she can afford it. This will serve as a measure of the relative importance of these three influences in feminine attire. People dress to conceal the defects of the body, to neutralize the onset of age, to hide the effects of gluttony and sloth.

Source: Men of wealth: the story of twelve significant fortunes from the renaissance to the present day by John Thomas Flynn (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1941)

Bravery By Rsms | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Bravery By Rsms | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Image: Bravery | Flickr – Photo Sharing! (under Creative Commons license)

Recently I’ve read about an experiment in nudity, which was filmed by the BBC’s Horizon programme, “to test some of the scientific theories that explain why naked bodies make us so uncomfortable“. The first thing I’ve learned from the article entitled “Can people unlearn their naked shame?” which appeared some time ago on the BBC NEWS site (BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine) is that “a naked human is just that bit more naked than other primates“.  Some anthropologists believe “that evolutionary step towards nudity had huge implications for the human race“, because it helped human ancestors to cool quicker (“our ancestors’ unique ability to sweat“) and led to development of bigger brains and than “to culture, tools, fire, and language“.

In addition to explaining a very peculiar quirk of our appearance, the scenario suggests that naked skin itself played a crucial role in the evolution of other characteristic human traits, including our large brain and dependence on language. (see Scientific American Magazine: The Naked Truth: Why Humans Have No Fur By Nina G. Jablonski)

However, it is clear that “our nudity arose out of practical need, but that doesn’t answer why we’re so ashamed by it“. After a series of experiments, researchers have discovered that “we are not born with a shame of nudity. Instead we learn it, as an important behavioural code that allows us to operate in human society“. But what are the social benefits of a shame of nudity? A psychologist explains that adult humans need to form a stable pair because of “the long immature period of a young human“. Whereas “showing off a naked body sends out sexual signals that threaten the security of mating pairs“.

Of course, it is possible to give absolutely different explanations. For instance, the nearly hairless state of the human body may be explained by the so-called aquatic phase hypothesis according to which human ancestors have lost most of body hair and gained a layer of body fat under the skin because they spent much time in water (cp. Skin: A Natural History by Nina G. Jablonski). A shame of nudity, in its turn, may origin from the fact that from the early stages of human civilizations clothes – its style and design – used to symbolize the position (ranking) of an individual within a society (in a hierarchy). So, a lack of clothes may be considered as humiliating (a naked person is a person without a rank). Here nothing can be proved, since there is no verification mechanism.

Tired by Liz_D.S on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Tired by Liz_D.S on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Terms of Use Agreements for some popular content hosting and sharing services categorically prohibit nudity alongside the racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual, excessive violence, criminal or tortious activity (quoted from Terms of Use Agreement) and anything like that. On the contrary, the more liberal photo sharing services very often seem to be overflown with tasteless close-up shots of human genitalia.

Ethology may provide a key to explanation of this state of affairs. The scientists have observed that there are species of monkeys living in groups, of whom the males act as guards practicing the specific “animal ritual”. They sit up at the outposts,  facing outside and presenting their erect genital organ. The most notable thing here, I think, is that the basic function of sexual activity is suspended for the sake of communication. Every individual approaching from the outside will notice that this group does not consist of helpless wives and children, but enjoys the full protection of masculinity (see W. Burkert, Structure and history in Greek mythology and ritual (University of California Press, 1982)).

It is the most powerful signal with respect to group hierarchy, but definitely distinct from the reproductive process. It is believed that the genital display is an important social signal by which the animals communicate and that it is ritualized and seems to acquire the meaning, “I am the Master.” (J. Mouratidis, The Origin of Nudity in Greek Athletics, Journal of Sport History, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1985)

In the case of humans, the similar behavior may occur in aggressive or threatening situations: It has been emphasized that penis-exhibition can have a purely aggressive role, and … may occur without erotic arousal, as an expression of aggression. The phallic sign may symbolize dominance and power. In ancient times it was also a gesture against the evil eye and disease.

In the early days of the human civilization, the nude body was considered as an incarnation of energy and power (K. Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art (London, 1957)). The belief that nudity acts as a screen which guarded man from many evils and at the same time provides with power and energy echoed in ancient Olympic games, but at present, for some people, it takes a form of exhibitionism. The another category of people tends to be extremely preoccupied with their “animal instincts” and still considers nudity as a form of aggression.

How close can you get? | Flickr - Photo Sharing! By vbratone

How close can you get? | Flickr - Photo Sharing! By vbratone

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!

What was the greatest threat for the civilized world in the 1930s? You would be mistaken, if you think about nazism. Actually, it was nudism, at least for someone.

Three hundred thousand men, women, and children, in America alone, are nudists,’ informs Edwin Teale in the article which appeared in the POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY, February, 1938 (pp. 70-71, 126). The author of the article, entitled Science studies the Nudists, points out that the followers of the “back-to-Eden” cult report that, during one ten-month period, members increased at the rate of 10,000 a month. And now America is facing as many as 400 camps, scattered from coast to coast maintained by the faddists for nude sun bathing.

Science studies the Nudists

Science studies the Nudists

The author presumably decided to cut the ground from under the nudist movement and asked: ‘Does nakedness really benefit health? Are the claims of the nudists justified?’ Then he slightly reformulated the question: ‘Can our bodies, if given a chance, inure themselves to cold and inclement weather?’ It was implied that the enthusiasts of the new cult, beyond all doubt, would give a positive answer.

Fortunately, two New York research workers, Dr. Eugene F. DuBois and Dr. James D. Hardy, were already able to give a real scientific answer to the question. In the 1930s they have concluded a long series of tests at the Russell Sage Institute of Pathology to determine how the body regulates its temperature. These heroic men of science spent hours, with clothes removed, sealed in the copper vault of a supersensitive, $10,000 heat-measuring chamber called a clinical calorimeter. Edwin Teale was deeply impressed by this immense apparatus running ice water and high-resistance electric wires balance heat and cold, at the will of an operator. Here is an extract from his article:

During the DuBois-Hardy tests, the scientists have tackled such problems as how the nude body reacts to different temperatures, how efficient human flesh is as an insulating medium, when shivering begins, and whether a fat man can withstand cold better than a thin one. They remained nude in the sealed chamber of the calorimeter at temperatures that ranged from ninety-six to seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit.

The experimentalists accumulated data and reported results:

1. Human flesh is as efficient as an insulating medium against cold as is paper, leather, asbestos, or cork.
2. There is only a small difference between fat and thin persons in their ability to withstand cold for long periods.
3. A quiet subject, without the protection of clothing, will begin to shiver at a surprisingly high temperature, eighty-three degrees Fahrenheit (28° Celsius), approximately ten degrees higher than the average room temperature in a furnace-heated home.

The researchers thus provided a scientific basis for judging some of the claims of nudism.

Without the protection of clothing, the motionless human system is constitutionally unfitted to cope with cold. Only in lands where the temperature never drops below eighty-three degrees, can nudists live in comfort.

For physical reasons, if for no others, man seems destined to continue as the animal that wears clothes,” concluded the author of the article from the 1930s. Nudism was doomed. And who would disagree with that?

Health and Joy

Health and Joy