Monday, March 22, 2010

What is it about the naked body that freaks people out so much?

Can someone please tell me what it is about the naked human body that freaks people out so much?  I'm serious.  I really don't get it.

A couple of months ago I volunteered to lead a workshop for some inner city youth about women's body image.  I was thinking I would show some slides of my work and prompt a conversation based on that about bodies and body image.  I would also show slides from art history like the ones I've had on this blog before - you know, Rembrandt, Manet, Picasso - people who get paid big bucks for their work so are presumably acceptable to society.

The first response I got from the coordinators is that they were going to have to think about it because the workshops would be held in a church.

Excuse me?  Is there something in the Bible which forbids nakedness?  Maybe there is and I don't know about it, because that does seem to be a strong force against nudity.

I wonder what it is that makes people try to keep their children from seeing naked bodies with the force they'd use to keep them from being run over by a speeding train.  It's as if breasts or penises or bellies could corrupt them and turn them into sex workers.  Or an image could rape them.  I really don't understand.

One of my tutoring students who is 18 and reads my blog all the time (you know who you are!) talked to me about this the other day.  She said, "Ms. Singer, you just don't understand.  Maybe you lived in Europe too long.  People just don't want to see naked people."  I told her I'm aware of that, but I want to know why.  What is it that makes nudity so threatening?


We all have bodies.  We generally keep them covered up.  Some of that has to do with trying to stay warm if we live in a cool or cold climate.  But it seems to me that as soon as it's possible to do so, people (especially teenagers) strip down to as little clothing as possible.  Just look at these two pictures of girls on the beach.  To me, these girls are sexier than the models I paint.  They are out to attract attention (or so it looks to me), especially the one girl, as opposed to the two who just seem to be walking.  It occurs to me that wearing just a little bit of clothing, in just the right places, is more provocative than seeing everything.

People I know who have been to nude beaches say there is a certain fascination at first - you have to gawk because you're getting to see what you've never been allowed to look at before - but pretty soon you realize that it's not really all that interesting.  There are people of all sizes and shapes there, hanging out all over the place (pun intended!).  The image I have here from a nude beach in France is not very much more revealing than the one of the two girls walking down the beach.  What is it about the butt cracks that make people get so freaked out?

In Europe, people worry about their children watching movies repleat with violence - they're worried that all that killing might give the kids the wrong impression of how to be in the world.  They don't get uptight about the kids seeing bodies.  After all, what could a naked body do to harm them?  How is nudity a bad message?

The reason I'm so up in arms about this today is that a different coordinator for the same youth conference contacted me today to ask what I was thinking about doing for my workshop.  She is familiar with my work and my values and beliefs.  She said that the conference is being held in a church and that they would risk losing their right to hold the conference there if I were to show my work as part of my workshop.  And the organization might lose their grant funding if anyone complained and the word got back to the funders.  Has it now become against people's ethics to discuss the human body in all its beauty?  Or to show authentic flesh?

My intention in volunteering to do the workshop was to work with girls who may not have had a chance to think much about this topic - loving their bodies.  They, like all of us, are most likely bombarded by images of women who have attained an ideal set by the media but unattainable by the vast majority of females on this planet - 6 feet tall, 130 pounds, ribs showing, long straight hair, caucasian features, small breasts, slender hips, no butt.  So these girls, most of whom are African American, have to contend with images of beauty which they can NEVER hope to attain. No way, no how, not in this lifetime.

So what if I were to show them pictures of real women?  What if they were to see naked women with real hips and breasts and rolls of belly and scars?  And what if those women were also beautiful?  Not in the conventional sense perhaps, but fundamentally gorgeous because they feel that way.  Where else will I be able to find images of beautiful women who don't conform to media's standards?  How else can I show them examples of beauty that differs from the norm?  (I found the image above when I googled heavy black woman - she hardly looks black - her skin is so light, and her hair is so straight - what message are these girls getting?)

Sure, I can have them go through magazines and find pictures of things they find beautiful and put them on one board, then pictures of people that are ugly (if there are any other than the "before" ads for losing weight in your belly), then talk about their perceptions and where they may have come from.

But this restriction to not show them my work or any nude bodies keeps me from being able to do the most important part of the workshop.  I need to show them what beauty CAN BE besides all these frail rail-thin creatures.  I want to show them what a real body looks like.  How many of these girls have ever even seen a naked body other than their own (if they've even had the courage to look at that?) or maybe their mother's.  And what are the chances that they have the message that those are beautiful?  I don't have any paintings of African Americans, unfortunately.  I need some models so I can expand away from beautiful caucasian (and one gorgeous Indian) bodies so I can have more examples in many skin colors.  But I believe that seeing women's bodies as they really are is powerful.  Even if I were just to show breasts and hips and butts, divorced from the bodies.  Girls need to see REAL bodies, not unflawed airbrushed plastic! 

So I'm up in arms today.  I'm confused.  I'm perplexed.  I'm energized.  I want things to be different. 

And I really need someone to explain to me what it is about the human body that makes people so damn uncomfortable.  Because I no longer get it.  I just can't see the other side of this issue anymore.


  1. Well i just don't know what to say exactly. Maybe someday things will be different, but right now I think the biggest issue is that nudity is associated with sex...Many many people cannot disassociate the two...Most of the men I know cannot...I do not associate the two unless that is the purpose, but do not have the comfort with myself that I wish I had and am working to attain...Where I am with it is a long way from how I was raised...We were not even allowed to see either of my parents in their underwear...if I happened to be in the room when they were going to change clothes I had to sit with my back to them, close my eyes and cover my eyes with my hands...When my parents came home from Europe and had photos of the great art works in Italy the photos were passed over quickly and there was not discussion about those naked works of art...I don't think that was really unusual for the time...I have tried hard not to be that way with my children and hopefully they will be more open with their children and things will change...I have also heard people make comments like "those art people" when it comes to nudes." it's ok for artsy people to paint nudes, but it's not for the general public and certainly not for children of any age" I have a friend that has been an artist all her life and understands the importance of nudes, but when she took a digital art class she put some type of veiled clothing on them all...she is very open, but doesn't like complete nudity...I do think some feel that bodies are private and not for sharing with the world...home nudity is ok, just not public nudity...We are complex critters, we humans and you are way ahead on the learning curve...and most are way behind...

    My short answer is...I just think most people in our society cannot disassociate nudity and sex......
    denise : )
    i posted this as anonymous cause i didn't do an account first and was afraid i'd lose all i wrote : ) : ) : )

  2. i think there is a difference in people's minds between 'naked' and 'nude'. at least there is in my mind. 'naked' implies something more sinister and shameful than 'nude' does. the shame is implied in the name already. i personally prefer to use 'nude', for that very reason. 'naked' is a somewhat loaded word, i think.

    but beyond that, the usa is really the only place that nudity is worse than depictions of extreme violence. i believe it has to do with our puritan forefathers...honestly.