Why feminists should embrace public nudity
On Saturday, August 26, people will observe it as the day women got voting rights.
Now, fast forward close to 97 years and women still are not even close to having equality in the United States.
We all know about the War On Women currently being waged by anti-choice extremists. But, this goes far beyond abortion. Nudity rights are in peril by conservatives in cities as well.
While public nudity is legal in 43 states, female toplessness in 48, and breastfeeding in all 50 – only 19 states actually give women the right to breastfeed anywhere she has a right to be (49 protect breastfeeding on paper, but most of them allow towns and cities to ban breastfeeding in public places).
This means that in the more conservative places where more stringent ordinances are allowed (e.g. Georgia and Subsection E), all three (nudity, breastfeeding and female toplessness) are banned in public. Brunswick, Ga. and Orem, Utah are examples of this.
Taking a position against public nudity without knowledge of who is peddling guilt is a massive disservice to feminism and reproductive justice, and we now know that being opposed to public nudity harms people’s body image and endangers the public and their health.
These reasons are why it is extremely important for feminists, womanists and others who support reproductive justice to support public nudity. Nudity and feminism are connected to one another in that in a society with true equality, law-abiding citizens will not be turned into criminals by gymnophobes during the day (or overnight, for that matter) – and we can do whatever makes us comfy without penalty.
I’d like now to transition to an issue that is not commonly regarded as a moral infraction, but which I think most certainly is. As a naturist, I hold that it is morally wrong to disrespect the bodies of any person. I hold that in an ideal world, all persons should be afforded perfect bodily autonomy (short of hurting others or themselves), including the right to determine for themselves how much clothing they want to wear in a given situation.
I argue that textilism (which is the common cultural practice of insisting that all persons must be clothed at all times unless justified by medical or hygienic necessity, or by limited sexual and artistic circumstances) inevitably contributes to cultural gymnophobia (which is the common phenomenon of fear, anxiety, scorn, mockery, or suppression of the natural, nude human body), and that these two mutually-reinforcing phenomena result in a whole host of negative consequences which cumulatively result in what I call a Body Shame Culture.
Body Shame Culture refers to every way in which society fosters an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with the body.
The manifestations of Body Shame Culture range from social stratification and prejudice based on clothing, race, sex, or disability, to sexual repression and homophobia and transphobia, to rigid gender norms, sexual objectification and assault, unhealthy eating and fitness habits, and general shame, self-loathing, and violence directed at the body.
Many of the manifestations of Body Shame Culture are commonly recognized as problems in our society, especially by feminists, and most especially by those who call themselves Body Positive Activists or Fat Acceptance activists and so on.
As a naturist, as well as a male supporter of feminism, I support most of the work done by these activists. However, I am deeply disconcerted by the lack of recognition of the specific problems of textilism and gymnophobia. It should be obvious to all feminists and Body Positivity activists, that the continued suppression of the human body in our daily lives directly contributes to so many of the problems they are concerned about.
For examples, feminists have long recognized that the fashion and entertainment industries do irreparable harm on female psyches by constantly presenting women of a very specific and rare body type, namely, young thin white women. We live in a culture so inundated with images of these pretty white girls that these images become fixed in the minds of everyone as the ideal of perfection and beauty. The vast majority of women who cannot match this ideal spend countless hours and dollars striving to achieve an ideal that they simple will never approximate. Even the few who possess such beauty in youth, will lose it as they age. It is a competition that can never be won, yet one in which nearly all are pressured into competing in.
For the last decade or more, there has been a major movement on the internet and elsewhere to produce images that show greater diversity and realism. Most of us have seen such campaigns, and I imagine that if you are still reading this, you probably support these efforts (as do I).
However the problem with these campaigns is that they seem to entirely miss the point. The major problem isn’t that the media shows us a few scantily clad white girls and says “these are the ideal.”
The problem is that we are collectively so ignorant of what human bodies actually look like that we have no well-established basis for comparison. The power of these images lies not in some magical forces wielded by the advertising industry, but in the fact that they are exploiting a massive gap in our knowledge. That gap: Most of us don’t really know what human beings actually look like. Out of the many thousands (or millions?) of times we see a human being, we see them naked only in a tiny fraction of cases. Then, when we look at ourselves or our lovers, we lack an accurate standard by which to judge the aesthetics of what we’re seeing. The suffering this seems to cause is incalculable.
An analogy I’d like you to consider:
Imagine you lined in a sinister alternate universe where you and everyone else ate a McDonald’s hamburger for every meal of every day, but the burger was always consumed in the dark. When it was meal time, you went into a dark room, the food was delivered to you there and you ate it without ever seeing it. Not let’s also imagine that outside of those dark restaurants you were constantly exposed to McDonald’s television commercials — and no other food was commonly advertised to you.
Growing up in such an environment you would develop a very specific mental image of what a McDonald’s hamburger looked like. In your mind these hamburgers are hot, juicy, with perfect fluffy buns and crisp green lettuce, red ripe juicy tomatoes…perfect. Delicious.
Since all meals are eaten in the dark, the residents of this dystopia don’t know what you actually know: that in reality, McDonald’s hamburgers actually look like squished, disfigured, stale, microwaved, pale, almost gelatinous blobs that resemble their advertisements not at all. In the real world, we know that a McDonald’s advertisement hamburger is not what the average McDonald’s hamburger actually looks like. Some hamburgers somewhere probably look like those in the commercials, but not the ones I’m gonna find at my local restaurant.
Going back to the issue of beauty advertising:
If the hamburger analogy is not yet clear enough, we live now in that dystopia when it comes to our understanding of what a human actually looks like. We see idealized images of photo-shopped artificially enhanced pretty white girls everywhere, but the real-world equivalent is rarely seen in the light. Our knowledge of real human bodies is not exactly entirely unknown to us, but the real thing is so nearly perfectly covered in darkness (or clothing) that the images shown us take on an over-sized space in that part of the brain where we might otherwise be storing the combined memories of thousands of naked bodies.
We must destroy the mystique of the human body which gives sexualized advertising its great power. We must get naked, be seen naked, see others naked, encourage nakedness, celebrate nakedness. We must identify textilist attitudes wherever they exist and challenge them with pro-nudity attitudes wherever reasonable. We must identify expressions of gymnophobia wherever they manifest themselves and contradict themselves with message of body positivity and respect for the nude, natural, nonsexual human body.
Finally I return to the topic of the morality of teaching children and the point I made earlier about the moral obligation to teach children positive and righteous habits and beliefs, even when those beliefs contradict even our own deep-seated irrational prejudices.
You may never be able to overcome your own gymnophobia and textilism. The indoctrination may be too strong in you. The habits too well-established. You might simply fail to see how you can ever remove your clothing in public.
But wouldn’t you agree, that the teaching of body shame is an immoral act? Regardless of your own feelings on the matter, you have an obligation to refrain from indoctrinating your children with those same body-hating views.
Teach them that they are responsible for their bodies, and no one else. Teach them that clothing is a tool, and not a cage. You use a tool when you need it, but you do should keep animals permanently in cages. Allow your children to develop their own sense of modesty untainted by your own gymnophobic scarring.
It occurs to me that this principle applies also to a matter of some recent controversy and that this the practice of the wearing of headscarves and niqabs other other coverings by some Muslim woman. As a naturist and one who believes that clothing is irrelevant to modesty and respect, I find it challenging to respect a tradition which goes to such extremes in covering the body. I believe that all women ought to determine for themselves how much or how little clothing they wish to wear. To me, hijab is simply not my concern. So long as it is not mandatory, I don’t see how it ever needs to be the concern of anyone but the wearer.
That said, there is an aspect to this that we should recognize as very relevant to the topic at hand: that is the teaching of children that the body is something shameful and that they ought to be ashamed of some parts of their bodies. As I have made clear, I regard this to be the intentional infliction of suffering on children. I regard it therefore as entirely immoral to teach children that they or other women ought to be wearing hijab in order to be respected.
The principle is summed up thusly: I respect the right of any person to wear (or not wear) whatever they wish, including the hijab and niqab. But teaching children that the display of their body is shameful or sinful is an immoral violation of their rights to live with as little suffering as possible. The indoctrination of “modesty”-based suffering is immoral, regardless of whether we are talking about the entire body, or just a part of it.
Certainly there are real-world concerns about the safety of children and their potential exploitation. They do need to be taught the practical realities of living in the gymnophobic and textilist world. There are many times and places where practical or real physical safety becomes a concern, and where compromises must be made to accommodate our body-shaming society. They can’t go to school naked how much they want to.
Regardless of the challenges of overcoming these prejudices and superstitions, we as a society need to discover a path to transition away from Body Shame Culture, and discover a new way of life in which all bodies are respected, and all persons are respected, and no one is indoctrinated into a self-image designed to inflict suffering on the innocent.
As a parent you have an obligation not to simply pass your prejudices on to your offspring. You must teach them to know better, even if it is very challenging for yourself.
As Reform Naturism said in the piece, teaching kids to be ashamed of the naked body is a form of – dare I say – child abuse.
Men and women alike must wake up and realize that our toxic culture against public nudity is an epidemic that is literally killing people left and right. It is on us to declare that we should be comfortable with ourselves naked no matter where we go, no matter how uncomfortable anyone else may get. Nudity harms no one, and anyone who says otherwise is a bald faced liar.