Tag Archives: shame

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

Sometimes, it is difficult to find a source of a particular delusion. For example, when did nakedness become a source of embarrassment? It was not always that way.

In 1939 Norbert Elias [1], a German sociologist, has published ‘The Civilizing Process’ [2]. The book “remained largely unknown and unread among both the German and English speaking public for thirty years”. The goal of the author was to explore “the civilizing of manners and personality in Western Europe since the late Middle Ages”, and to show “how that was related to the formation of states and monopolization of power within them” [3]. “Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette” [4].

“Elias has argued that the development of civil society in Europe was predicated on codes of etiquette as the basis of social intercourse. One component of the new etiquette was the emergence of the ‘shame frontier’. Until the sixteenth century, ‘the sight of total nakedness was the everyday rule’ for bathing and for sleeping <…> Moral conduct and codes of etiquette were not attached to the sight of the naked body” [5,6].

“In the ‘manners books’ or guides to conduct that appeared especially in the period between the 1300s and the 1700s, Elias identified changing emotional attitudes to the basic physical realities of human existence. <…> For example, being discovered naked became a source of embarrassment. What had once been permissible became forbidden” [7].

It seems to have been common practice, at least in the towns, to undress at home before going to the bathhouse. “How often,” says an observer, “the father wearing nothing but his breeches, with his naked wife and children runs through the streets from his house to the baths … (N. Elias)

[1] Norbert Elias – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[2] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners, Oxford: Blackwell, 1969.
[3] Stephen Mennell, Norbert Elias (1897-1990), A Biographical Sketch
[4] The Civilizing Process – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
[5] Jennifer Craik, The face of fashion, London: Routledge, 1993.
[6] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
[7] Andrew Linklater, Norbert Elias, Process Sociology and International Relations

In 1925 a society called “Down with Shame” was organised and legally registered. The members of the society undertook not to wear any clothes, and by way of propaganda some of them were sent on tour. One of the groups was proceeding via Moscow, Kharkov, Rostov, Mineral Waters. I saw them with my own eyes, when they were in Rostov-on-Don. I was passing near the Pokrovsky Market at the corner of Friedrich Engels Street and Bogatianovsky Street when I saw a man and a woman absolutely naked standing near a stationary tram. Even the savages of the Polynesian Archipelago wear some kind of cache sex, but this couple only wore a kind of sash, and that across their shoulders! It was a red ribbon with the slogan: “Down with the bourgeois superstition – shame.” In justice to the woman I must add that she also carried a kind of handbag in her hand! While I was looking at them, overcome by astonishment, a crowd assembled, and also a few militiamen to protect the naked couple.The crowd, among which were many people from the market, market girls, etc., were pelting them with tomatoes, eggs, and stones. But when the tram got moving the naked couple triumphantly entered it. In a second the disgusted passengers began to pour out. Once more the tram got under way in a hail of apples, stones, eggs, and similar missiles, empty now except for the naked man and woman and the unfortunate victim of duty, the conductor. About an hour later, when passing the General Post Office, I saw a huge crowd demanding the extradition of the representatives of the “Down with Shame” society. It appears that, fleeing from the wrath of the crowd, they took refuge in the post office. The Communist “cell” of the post office gave them some clothes and let them out by a back door. Such was the effect they produced in the city of Rostov. They produced a much greater disturbance and scandal in other cities. The Soviet powers, seeing that this kind of propaganda was not only abortive but threatened the “people without shame” with lynching, quietly liquidated the society after about a month, and abandoned the attempt.

SourceMoscow unmasked: a record of nine years’ work and observation in soviet Russia by Joseph Douillet. Translated from the Russian by A. W. King. Published 1930 by The Pilot press in London.

Comment: Joseph Douillet (1878-1954) was a Belgian diplomat to the USSR known as the author of Moscou sans Voiles: Neuf ans de travail au pays des Soviets (Moscow Unmasked: A Record of Nine Years Work in Soviet Russia) published in 1928. He lived in Russia from 1891 to 1926. He served as the Belgian consul in Rostov-on-Don. It has been said that he “had spent so long in the country that he was almost more Russian than Belgian.” In 1925 he was arrested in the USSR and was imprisoned for nine months before being expelled from the country. (Joseph Douillet – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Joseph Douillet could hardly be suspected of any sympathy for communist Russia. I’ve heard from an eyewitness that the reaction of the public wasn’t so extreme. Town folks were rather surprised than angry, at least in Ukraine. What is without any doubt is that the normal development of naturist movement was voluntarily interrupted by the communist authorities.

Boris Kustodiev's painting "Bathing" (1921) - Wikimedia Commons

Boris Kustodiev's painting "Bathing" (1921) - Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays it begins to recover, even in Siberia.

Unofficial nude beach at the Novosibirsk Reservoir, near Akademgorodok by Obakeneko - Wikimedia Commons

Unofficial nude beach at the Novosibirsk Reservoir, near Akademgorodok by Obakeneko - Wikimedia Commons

ImagesBoris Kustodiev’s painting “Bathing” (1921) – Wikimedia Commons
Unofficial nude beach at the Novosibirsk Reservoir, near Akademgorodok by Obakeneko – Wikimedia Commons
(This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported 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!

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