art, body, modesty, nakedness

Frank Answers About Nakedness and Modesty

You’ve written many articles on your blog with the theme of nakedness. You’re bold to tackle some of the issues you write about, especially your articles on sexual practices. You also include many images in these these articles that display nudity, which is even bolder since you are a respected pastor and scholar. What compels you to push the theme of nakedness? What do you think about the role of modesty from a Christian perspective?

Thank you for asking these questions. I admit that because I am a pastor (retired) and a theologian (still working) some Christians may be scandalized by the issues I have discussed in my blog articles — especially articles dealing with sexual practices and several articles dealing explicitly with nakedness — and maybe even more so by the images of nude bodies I have included in the articles.

When I started this blog I offered to answer questions that people sent to me, if I was able and willing to take up the topic. I was no longer writing on a parish website. Hanging out on the world wide web attracts readers (potentially) from all over the world, and the questions asked by people out in the world are not necessarily what parishioners might ask their pastor. Questions from internet readers tend to be bolder and more blunt than the questions asked by church people. Maybe as a result of some of the topics I address I have attracted a different kind of readership. Some articles are answers to my own queries about topics of interest to me, such as my yoga and cosmology articles.

Many of my articles concern the body. I became interested in the body (particularly mine) while going through chemotherapy for colon cancer in 2006-2007. My interest in the body has grown during my retirement since 2013 because I’ve had time to read, write, and teach about embodiment, especially in the areas of liturgy and spirituality. You can’t focus on the body, paying attention to its biological reality as well as its role in society and culture, and ignore sexuality, as many theologians and philosophers have done.

Veronese, Holy Family with Saint Barbara and Saint John the Baptist, 1560s.
The baby Jesus, truly human as well as truly God, plays with himself. Renaissance artists made no distinction between divinity and sexuality.

I actually wrote Frank Answers about the body already in my earliest posts, such as the Resurrection Body and Tattoos, More About the Resurrection Body, The Body–God’s and Ours. Then I received and answered a question about pornography and that led to a student (high school, I think) asking me about masturbation. I believe that because I answered those questions in a non-judgmental manner (but not without raising some questions to ponder), other readers felt free to ask further questions along these lines . On issues like masturbation, anal and oral sex, and homosexuality I tried to sort out what the Bible says and what it doesn’t say (as I will also do in this article about nakedness and modesty).

Blog writers like to break up their paragraphs with images and after some initial timidity I began to choose pictures that dealt more explicitly with the topics about the body I was addressing. It’s not always easy to find just the right image to illustrate a point I’m making. If, in a search for images for another article, I come upon one that I think is appropriate for a previous article, I add it or change images. Blog articles, unlike print articles and books, are living documents, always subject to growth and change.

I wrote about swimming naked back in the days of my youth, prompted by a disparaging remark about the practice as “barbaric” by a retired teacher who was leading a class reunion tour of the old school, and I posted vintage photos of the practice in my article. This elicited hundreds of comments. The comments became so voluminous that I posted one and then two curated anthologies of the comments, with more vintage photos, which elicited more comments. Much of the discussion was about whether some of the photos had been photo shopped. Indeed, I found that some of them had been. But incredulity also had to do with the horror some readers expressed that teen age boys might have swam naked in front of women, whether physical education teachers or spectators. The issue of protecting the boys’ modesty was raised. Girls’ modesty was taken for granted in that they usually wore swimming suits even though the American Association of Public Health had recommended nude showering and swimming in pools because of bacteria on the old woolen suits. (This guidance, first given in 1926, was not reiterated at 1962.)

Has this vintage photo of boys swimming naked with women physical education teachers assisting as competition monitors been photo shopped, or did it happen sometimes?

Part of my witness in using nude images is that I believe there is nothing inherently sinful about the body. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation — all of our body. There’s nothing sinful about breasts and penises or even sex. I do not display hard core pornography, although some readers might think that showing a breast or a penis or images suggesting a sex act is already pornographic.

Many people in American society have difficulty accepting their bodily selves. There are many reasons for this. Many of us were raised with teachings about modesty that were inculcated by religion and society. In America, we have lived with puritanical laws about “public indecency,” which includes even such natural practices as breast feeding infants. Our consumer culture, on the other hand, makes use of nudity and sexuality in advertising to sell products. This includes the projection of the ideal bodies of models that few of us can replicate in our own bodies.

Cover from Made in Brazil magazine.

Some people obsess about their body shape and size, even down to their feet. (In practicing foot washing, I’ve been amazed by how many people are ashamed of their feet.) The body is a perennial concern of adolescents whose body is still growing. They naturally compare their bodies with their peers and are anxious about their growth. To have their body criticized in any way by others can be devastating to their fragile egos. I would like to help liberate attitudes about the human body in general so that people are more accepting of their own bodies, and therefore of themselves, and therefore more confident in their human relationships.

In the Beginning

Christian discussion of nakedness and modesty has to go back to the story of creation and fall in Genesis 2-3 (the so-called Yahwist or J-narrative). This narrative seems to begin with the affirmation of nakedness and ends with the Lord God clothing the naked bodies of Adam and Eve. This has been taken by Jewish and Christian teachers as an endorsement of the need for modesty in a fallen world.

In this account the Lord God formed the man (Adam) from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The Lord placed the man in a beautiful garden (Eden) to till it and take care of it. He was given permission to eat freely of every tree in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Then the Lord God formed all the animals of the earth and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, so that the man would not be alone. The man became a scientist and gave names to all the animals. “But for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” Since the Priestly creation story in Genesis 1 gives humankind the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” being a “helper” could mean providing the partner for procreation as well as Adam’s assistance in tending the garden. So from Adam’s rib the Lord God created a woman (Eve) whom Adam declares to be “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” They would cling to each other and “become one flesh.” The Genesis narrator says that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Being naked is the natural state of humankind.

Adam and Eve by Antonio M olinari (1701-1704)

I won’t rehearse here the story of the temptation by the serpent to get Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But she also gave a piece of the forbidden fruit to Adam and he ate it. It’s a fascinating account since seduction and rationalization for giving into it is a constant human situation. But the first result of disobeying God’s command is that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths for themselves.” Eating the forbidden fruit made them aware of things they had not been aware of before. In a sense by making loin cloths, specifically coverings for their genitals, they were intentionally hiding their most intimate parts from God and from each other. This was not because they suddenly discovered modesty. It was because their relationship with God and with each other was impaired by their knowing act of disobeying God. Intimate relationships had been damaged and so they covered their intimate parts by which, as the Bible says, they “know” (i.e. have sex with) others.

Secondly, they hid themselves from the Lord when they heard the sound of him walking in the garden. When the Lord called them out from hiding, Adam’s excuse was “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” God knew immediately they had eaten of the tree, because otherwise how would they have known they were naked. The word translated “naked” here actually means “exposed.” The Lord questions Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” With that the blaming game began: Adam blamed Eve for giving him the fruit and Eve blamed the serpent for causing her to disbelieve God’s word.

Each character received punishment. The couple was expelled from the garden, lest they take also from the tree of life and live forever. But in an act of grace, “the Lord God made garments of skin for the man and his wife, and clothed them.” The text gives no reason for the Lord God making clothing. A logical guess would be for protection from the elements, which perhaps had not been an issue in the paradise garden. But nothing is said about the need for modesty or that human nakedness is wrong , if not sinful.

Adam and Eve Ashamed by James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

My Personal Experiences of Nakedness

Nakedness is not inherently sinful. We are born naked. Children in many societies in warmer climes may often be in a state of undress up to a certain age. Little children delight to run run naked in the house when getting ready for a bath. Up to what age this is allowed depends on the family and the social context and cultural setting. Usually by the time puberty sets in children are expected to be dressed when they interact with the family or others in the house.

Our dad used to our family to visit a family naked Sherman he knew during the Great Depression in the 1930s when he worked on their farm. In the 1950s the family was resettled in a large house in Perry, NY. Their older children were married adults but they had a youngest son nicknamed Buster who was about a year or two older than me. Buster, being a country boy, introduced me to the joys and pleasures of nakedness. One afternoon when the whole household had gone out shopping Buster proposed that we get naked and run around the house with wild abandon, which we did. I may have been twelve at the time.

One morning Buster and I were dispatched to a nearby field to pick berries. While out in the field Buster proposed that we get naked and run through the field, which was secluded from the highway by a grove of trees. This was my first experience of being totally naked outdoors.

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“Boy in the Woods” by Vittorio Carvelli. Dark hair, like Buster had, not Buster was a little chunkier.

When we were visiting the Shermans I slept with Buster in his bedroom in the back of the second floor of the their large house. On the first night of our last yearly visit when I was 13 and he was 14 or 15, Buster proposed that we get naked because the room was hot. We did. But we increased the heat in our bodies by jumping up and down on the beds and from his bed to mine and throwing pillows at each other until Mr. Sherman’s stern voice from downstairs issued a warning about coming up to tan some hides. (The rest of the adults had gone out to a movie.) By then we were really hot. So we just laid naked on the beds with the old rotation fan blowing on our bare bodies. Buster told me that he slept naked in the summer and invited me to try it. It was my first experience of sleeping naked. I liked it and have done it often since then.

This boy looks like Buster, as I remember him.

On our way back to Buffalo that year on a Sunday afternoon we visited a family that lived in the country. They had a son who was about sixteen since he had a job after school. I think his name was Roy. He invited me to go swimming in the nearby creek. We had no swim suits with us and his old suit was way too big on me. He told me that if the girls didn’t go with us we could swim naked. We did. It was my first experience of skinny-dipping outside, although I think by then I had had an experience of swimming naked at the YMCA on Scout Swim night.

These boys look only slightly older than me and Roy at ages 13 and 16.

I relate further youthful experiences of being naked with friends in Frank Answers About Swimming Naked and Frank Answers About Returning to Nature. I spent many hours showering and swimming naked with other boys in high school freshman PE Swimming Class. I had a wonderful experience of being naked on a Scout camping trip in the summer of my fifteenth year (1958) with three other Scouts. Hiking up the South Branch Cattaraugus Creek we discovered a swimming hole to which we returned each day, even being bold enough to walk around naked because nobody else was around.

Boys Swimming on the Patapsco River, photo by A. Aubrey Bodine ca. 1950. These boys look a bit younger than we four Scouts were at ages 15 and 16. But the same fun of swimming naked in a wilderness stream.

The summer before I began high school our family began taking our summer vacation in the Adirondacks in northeastern New York State. We stayed on the property of a Scouting family we knew in Buffalo. They had a son named Tom who was my age and we were able to do a lot together — boating, hiking, mountain climbing. I was also able to go off on my own canoeing or hiking. I enjoyed an opportunity to undress and be one with nature in a secluded area and allow my body to feel the sensuousness of the warm sun, the breeze on my skin, and the earth under my feet.

College dorm life involved a lot of nudity in the early 1960s. You pretty quickly got used to undressing with your room mate in the room. In our dormitory there was an open shower on each floor and a row of sinks in the bathroom where we shaved and groomed ourselves. We young men walked around the hallways and bathroom areas with a towel wrapped around our waists (sometimes). I think most of us took in stride being naked in our communal living, even when our German dorm mother was on the floor. She seemed to take our nudity in stride.

For several reasons naked communal showering came to an end by the 1980s. In suburban homes with several bathrooms boys and girls became more used to privacy once they reached puberty. They stopped showering after gym classes and learned to dress and undress without completing exposing their bodies. Homophobia became an issue. Boys either became afraid of being hit on my gay boys and gay boys became afraid of being exposed by their erections. Colleges followed the trend by providing individual shower stalls for the sake of modesty. Dorm suites began to replace individual rooms. It became possible for room mates to never see each other naked. I think a lot was lost in terms of male camaraderie with the loss of natural nakedness. Was the experience being naked with one another homoerotic? Yes, But, but eros is about more than sex.

I’m grateful for the many experiences in my youth and young adulthood when I could be naked and unafraid with friends and buddies. Visiting a friend in Roanoke, Virginia in the late summer of 1963 when I was 20, we went for a walk along the Shenandoah River on a warm evening and he proposed we swim in the river. In such situations boys usually just got undressed and went “skinny dipping,” as it was called. I don’t recall even a second of hesitation on my part.

Boys skinny dipping

On the other hand, being naked with a girl was a different matter because my experiences of nudity was not co-ed. Two years later in late spring I invited a girl friend to join me on a post-college graduation canoe trip in the Adirondacks. We had an opportunity to get naked on the shore of a lake dipping in the cold water and enjoying the warmth of the early June sun on our bodies. It was actually my first time being naked in front of a woman, but this was the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. There was no sex, just conversation.

Scene from East German film Sieben Sommarsprossen (Seven Freckles) (1978)

Revival of Public Nudity in the Age of Aquarius

The decade of the 1960s marked the beginnings of the sexual revolution. The magazine most associated with this movement in America was Playboy, founded by Hugh Hefner in 1960. It projected a seemingly free sexual life style of scantily clad “bunnies” running around Hugh Hefner’s mansion while he worked in his silk bathrobe. American boys (and men) sneaked copies of Playboy home and stashed them in his closet where his Mom (or wife) wouldn’t find them (but usually did). While college students said they bought it for its literate articles, the nude centerfolds were the great marketing ploy.

Astrud Schultz, Playboy centerfold September 1964

In 1973 Playgirl magazine debuted under the editorship of Marin Scott Milan. It was billed as “a sex-positive, fun-oriented feminist response to Hugh Hefner’s empire.” It featured hunks on the cover and throughout and a full frontal nude centerfold photo. It’s content was a bit more sex-oriented than Playboy.

The Hippie culture embraced nudity as a way of raising questions about American attitudes toward the body left over from Victorian Era puritanism. The Rock Musical Hair became the manifesto of the Hippie culture. It was revolutionary in its featuring of on-stage nudity. The play was first present in off-Broadway theaters in New York in 1967 and went on Broadway in April 1968.

Rock musical Hair on Broadway in 1968

While nudity was confined to the stage in Hair, the Hippies provided provocative examples of public nudity at the mass gathering in Woodstock, NY for the Music Festival in held August 15–18, 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. As thousands of young people camped out on the farm property they availed themselves of the lake for bathing.

Hippie camps and gatherings were clothing optional. They used nudity as a form of protest against prevalent attitudes about decency and pressed the question, “Why is nudity considered obscene?” They portrayed it as a natural state and disconnected it from sex (although not excluding sex).

Taylor Camp, on undeveloped property owned by Howard Taylor, brother of actress Elizabeth Taylor, on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, became a Hippie commune in the 1970s which mostly lived off the land.

In contrast to Playboy magazine, the Hippies modeled a new aesthetic of the raw beauty of the naked human body. The consumer culture began to tap into this new aesthetic in the early 1970s. Soon models in more main steam publications were photographed wearing less makeup and were often pictured in naturalistic surroundings.

Woman photographed from theTaylor Camp tree house in the 1970s

Examples of Nakedness In Europe

In the summer of 1968 I traveled in Europe for the first time. I went back again several times in the early 1970s, I learned than Europeans were more open to public nudity than Americans. The Germans especially felt it was healthy to be naked in nature. This idea emerged in the late nineteenth century in the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) as a response to life in an urban-industrial society, although it was suppressed during the Nazi Era because it was seen as espousing Marxist ideas and promoting homosexuality. After World War II Germans, especially in East Germany, undressed for sun bathing in public parks and on clothing optional beaches, perhaps as a way of expressing a sense of freedom in a Communist society.

In Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Estonia family saunas are popular in which families or groups of friends gather for health, spirituality, business, and camaraderie.

Young Russian men in a sauna

The people who sit in the sauna to allow the heat to bring toxins out of their bodies will eventually run out and jump in a cold lake or pond, like this Estonian family emerging from their country sauna.

Cover
New York Times Magazine
June 28, 2018

As in Germany, Danes and Swedes sunbathed on Baltic beaches and swam naked in lakes by their summer homes. When I was in Sweden for Midsommardag in 1975, which often included lakeside gatherings with a bonfire, some of the young people went for swims in the dusk of the midnight sun.

Swedish boys swimming naked in a lake ignoring people on the other side

The naturist movement began in Europe in the early twentieth century and gained momentum again after World War II beginning in the 1970s. It is committed to living in harmony with nature and practicing non-sexual social nudity and has different organizations in different countries. In Europe and North America naturist clubs provide outdoor nudist camping experiences for whole families. Surprisingly, many Christians participate in the naturist movement.

Naturist seaside campsite in Corsica

Nakedness in the Bible

From the Christian point of view there’s nothing sinful about being naked. As we saw, according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were “naked and unafraid” before their situation changed with the forbidden fruit incident. Wearing clothing was a concession to their fallen state and expulsion from the garden. No reason was given for the Lord making clothing for the man and the woman. I think the gift of clothing can be seen as protection in the hard world outside of paradise they were entering. But If the gift of clothing was the basis of the need modesty in human society, as some have argued, then modesty must be regarded as a concession to human sin. We need protection from one another. But that doesn’t make nakedness wrong. This distinction has eluded many Christians.

A new self-published book by Baptist teacher Aaron Frost comments on all the passages in the Bible that deal with nakedness and modesty and gives examples of nudity and clothing in various cultures. He concludes that Christians today are actually more beholding to Victorian Era social mores and contemporary cultural expectations than to what the Bible actually says about being naked. I recommend it to those Christians who have difficulty with nudity, although I find his predictions about increasing nakedness in American society overly optimistic. Nor do I endorse his enthusiasm for naked group worship. Frost does correctly point out that many Christians have been in the forefront of the naturist movement.

The Bible makes many matter-of-fact references to nakedness (which can even be a spiritual state) but actually says very little about modesty in our modern understanding of covering the body, especially the “private parts.” The only detailed specifications of clothing in the Bible concern the high priest’s vestments, even down to the details of his underwear, in the Book of Exodus. When he serves before the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle and Temple. As usual, the Torah gives no explanation for this. It has been proposed that the high priest could not allow his manhood to show before Israel’s alpha male, Yahweh.

Our current American understandings of modesty and attitudes toward nudity are not the Bible’s understandings and attitudes.  They are a product of our own puritan culture, especially as modesty was exaggerated in the Victorian Era during the second half of the 19th century. Nakedness was a fact of life in the biblical world.  Fishermen hauling in their nets, farmers hoeing their fields, hunters tracking prey, athletes competing in the games, men and women in the public baths were all naked (as is evident in ancient drawings and mosaics).

Fishing Scene, by unknown artist, 3rd Century A.D., mosaic. Tunisia, Tunisi, Bardo Museum. Detail. A naked, mighty fisherman, with an astonishing muscular form.

Early Christian mosaics portray Jesus naked when being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. This probably reflected the fact, attested in texts from the church fathers, that Christian baptism was performed on naked bodies, both male and female.

Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist

Naked/Clothed

Naked/enclothed was a prominent part of what Christ did “for us and for our salvation.” He was born as a naked infant and wrapped in swaddling cloths. He was stripped naked to “suffer under Pontius Pilate” in his flogging and then clothed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns on his head. He was stripped again to be crucified. Romans didn’t allow loin cloths for their victims; this was an act of public humiliation. He died, was taken down from the cross, wrapped in burial linens and laid in a borrowed tomb. On the third day he rose from the dead and Peter and John found the burial linens laid aside. We have no idea what he wore when he left the tomb, if anything. Christian artists like Michelangelo expected that we will all be naked in the resurrection of the dead, although we may put on festal garments for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Mural of the resurrection of the dead when Christ comes again as judge above the altar in the Sistine Chapel.

Christ’s own body shows the contradictory aspects of nakedness in the contrast between the degradation of his body in his flogging and crucifixion and his glorified body in the resurrection (which still bore of the marks of the nails and the spear). Likewise, the ancient Greeks glorified the male body yet Achilles dragged the naked dead body of Hector through the Greek camp at Troy as an act of degradation. The Roman nobility proudly displayed their naked bodies in the baths, yet humiliated the bodies of slaves by stripping them naked on the auction block.

“The Baths of Rome” by George Quaintance. The Roman men are naked and unashamed.
“Slave Market in Rome” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The naked slave woman and her naked children are expressing shame in their gestures and postures.

Vietnamese theologian Dan Le published his dissertation on The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), in which he proposes the totally naked (no loin cloth) crucified Christ as a redemptive answer to a culture of fitness obsession and body shame. By his atoning sacrifice Jesus has absorbed all our sin. He has also absorbed all of our shame. He was stripped and exposed, so that even until the end his atoning sacrifice would be seen as victorious over our sin and shame as well as, in his resurrection, victory over death.

“Crucifixion” by Vittorio Carvelli

Those who were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection were stripped naked for a full body anointing and immersion in a pool of water, not unlike the rituals of the Roman bath. Their nakedness suggested not only the identification with the crucified Savior but a return to the innocence of the paradise garden (Cyril of Jerusalem). When they emerged from the font they were clothed in a white robe. The dialectic of naked/enclothed is prominent in rites of initiation in many traditional societies and in religions.

In Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body I discuss this dialectic of being naked/enclothed and how it relates to the several meanings of the body discussed by Mark Johnson in The Meaning of the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) as simultaneously biological, environmental, phenomenological, social, and cultural. Our natural state is nakedness, but our nakedness is covered against the elements for protection since humans lack fur. We experience the sensations of being both naked and clothed. The degree to which we are naked or clothed depends on social regulations and cultural expectations.

Our contemporary American problem with social nudity is that it is strictly confined in our society to places like gym locker rooms and clothing optional beaches. Apart from being naked in our households, we we don’t usually experience nakedness except in films and advertisements. We associate nudity with sex. In our experience and expectation, getting naked is what people do when they’re getting undressed in the expectation of having sex. Helping your partner get undressed in order to reveal by removal of items what is under the clothing is a very erotic activity and usually a part of foreplay.

Young adult couple undressing each other during sexual foreplay

The Consumer Body

We are an enclothed society. Modesty is good for business because clothing is one of our biggest consumer items. The clothes we buy and wear are called “fashion statements.” We’re careful about what we put on our bodies because our clothing choices are part of our self-identity and the identity we want to project in society. “Clothing makes the man,” says one classic advertisement.

Ironically, while clothing provides the modesty we think we need in a fallen world, covering especially our “private” body parts, advertisers get us to buy clothing by modeling it a way that draws attention precisely to those “forbidden” body parts. Over the years the forbidden body parts have changed as more and more has been revealed. First it was the calf or shoulder. Then the skirts got shorter and the belt lines came down. Soon the navel was exposed. Now, in fashionable women’s evening gowns, much of the breast can be shown as long as the nipple is covered. Now men wear low hanging, tight-fitting jeans that call attention to the crotch. In our clothing we are becoming more nude. But we are not yet naked. That could be because nude is sexy; naked is not.

Hilda Haddad at Cannes 2016.
No shirt and low hanging jeans to sell the leather jacket

Part of our obsession about our body is that we want to be confident that our naked form will be as appealing as our clothed state. Our clothing selection is seldom our own choice. Clothing designers decide what styles will appeal to people and push those. Usually they are styles that appeal to younger men and women. The younger set are attracted now to tight-fitting clothing rather than the baggy look. But to look attractive in those tight pants and shirts and jackets you have to have a thin and trim body, otherwise you’re bulging at the seems. This sends people to gyms and onto running paths to tone up. Fitness for the young is really about fitting into those tight clothes, which in turn reveal the fine form of the body under them.

Young woman doing abdominal crunches for core strengthening

Nude versus Naked

Why is nude more sexy than naked? Art critic John Berger once said, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” Science writer Dorion Sagan wrote in his little book, Sex (White River Junction, VT: Chelsee Green, 2009), “Nakedness is pretty straightforward. It is exposure. What you see is what you get. The allure of nudity is subtler. What is still concealed is equal to or greater than what is revealed. What you see is not what you get. Partial revelation triggers temptation, seduction, the dance of desire” (p. 7). Nakedness is our natural state. We were born naked. When our nakedness is covered, the eye wants to see what’s under the covering, especially in those areas considered to be forbidden to display in public, such as breasts and genitalia.

A way of distinguishing between the concepts of “naked” and “nude” is the practice of providing a live body in an art class for the art students to draw according to their perspective, often from different vantage points. They are drawing a three-dimensional naked body but on paper it becomes a nude because the entire body cannot be seen. There is more to be revealed that the artist does not show.

December 1987, Paris, France — Drawing teacher Ouanes Amor teaching a drawing class at the National Superior school. — Image by © Bernard Annebicque/CORBIS SYGMA

Here is a live naked model being transformed into a nude on canvas.

Edgar Saillen Paris Art Studio. Note that in this photograph the model’s penis has been censored out but it is OK to view the artist’s rendering of it. But the composition of the scene makes the photo also a work of art in which the naked body of the model is also a nude.

Appreciating the Nude

The nude figure has been the subject of countless paintings and sculptures. There are a number of reasons for this. The most basic reason is that the human form is beautiful to look at and varied in its shapes. Our bodies are full of curves, cones, cylinders, spheres, and other shapes, which can be drawn on paper or shaped in clay or stone. Artists play with skin tone colors, light and shadows, expressions of emotion, anatomical realism, or abstract impressions. All the meanings of the body are incorporated in the artistic nude body. Through art we come to appreciate the body — all bodies — as they are, imperfections and all, in relation to their environment, within their society, and against their cultural background. Here are two famous nudes from the early Romantic Era.

Nude Maja (1800) by Francisco Goya (Spain)
Male Nude (1823) by Manuel Ignacio Vazquez (Mexico)

Christian artists in the Renaissance explored the naked body as no artists had done since the time of ancient Greece. They were interested in the anatomical body, the body’s proportions, as well as its social position. Michelangelo festooned the walls and ceilings of the Sistine Chapel with nude bodies. He fashioned sculptures of the naked bodies of David and the risen Christ. When it came to Christ, except as an infant, some discreet veiling of the genitals was required. But the 19 year old Michelangelo also presented a monastery with a crucifix that featured the naked body of Christ on the cross. Lucas Cranach the Elder of Wittenberg, friend and supporter of Martin Luther, who painted famous portraits of the reformers, and provided illustrations for Luther’s German Bible, also painted the naked bodies of the ladies of the Saxon court, including portraying them as nude mythological figures.

Venus with Cupid by Lucas Cranach the Elder

In fact, Renaissance artist found that it was easier to paint nude bodies representing pagan or classical themes than Biblical persons, in terms of avoiding church censorship. Even Adam and Eve had to be covered with a fig leaf (although Michelangelo painted a totally nude Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). The classical subjects also appealed to the Renaissance interest in the revival of classical culture.

Apollo and Marsyas by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523)

The contemporary Italian gay artist, Vittorio Carvelli, whose nude Crucifixion is featured above, has tried to convey the homoeroticism in Italian Renaissance art in his canvas paintings and photography as he evokes the sensuality of ancient Greek and Roman life, as in this torso study.

Nude study by Vittorio Carvelli

And since I brought up photographs as art, we should recognize that with the iphone’s camera feature (and maybe the help of a mirror), millions of people around the world are taking and sending nude selfies ranging from below the belt line sexting to attempts at more artistic posing. In spite of the fact that nude selfies stored on icloud or other caches get hacked and nude selfies get posted online, people take the risk. They want to be naked. They’re limited in the number of public places where nudity can be practiced, but in the private venues of their bathroom, bedroom, or living room they take photos of themselves in a state of undress that are sometimes shared with “friends.”

This young woman emerging from the shower appeared several times under Google Images “artistic nude selfies.” I thought she did pretty well at hiding her iphone camera and not looking directly into the mirror.

Historically the nude form in art suggested power in men (like Vasquez’s “Male Nude” up above ) and sexuality in women (like Goya’s “La Maja Desnuda up above). Nude self-photographs attempt to imbue the subject (themselves) with both. Hence male nude selfies tend to display erections, as do self-photographed portraits like the following.

From Pinterest

Male portraits of nude women (like Goya’s) place women on a bed in a pose suggesting availability. This self-photograph by a woman conveys lack of availability. She seems wrapped up in her own “issues,” as we say.

From Wikimedia Commons

So What About Modesty?

Modesty is covering the body that God pronounced as “very good.” Objectively considered, from a Biblical perspective we have nothing to be ashamed of.  If we have transgressed the limits and have something to hide, we express that (as Adam and Eve did) by covering up. Ironically, therefore, clothing is more an expression of our shame than nakedness is.

It is noteworthy that in some parts of the world, especially among indigenous people, there is less body shame than in Western societies, such as among these San Bushmen in Namibia who are naked by choice in the modern world. Comparing the modern world with traditional societies shows that what is covered or left uncovered varies among societies. Shame associated with nakedness is obviously not a factor in societies that practice almost complete nakedness, just as in our society the amount of covering varies with age, sex, climate location, and other factors.

In this Bushman society men’s penises are covered with a cup, but its OK for women (especially nursing mothers) to bare their breasts. Even covering the penis, like an athletic jock strap, may be for practical purposes rather than for modesty.

I don’t expect that our modern societies will change from being enclothed to being naked. For those who don’t live in the tropics, the climate is not conducive to it. The changes in Western fashion down through the ages have shown the body more covered or less covered. The Bible makes no pronouncement about how much covering the body should have. But it gives plenty of examples of ordinary and intentional nakedness (such as David’s dance before the Ark, Isaiah’s nakedness as a form of proclamation, and acts of penitence). The Christ himself accomplished his most important acts of salvation for us in a state of nakedness, but artists have not usually been at liberty to show it except for the naked Christ child (although there have been exceptions; Michelangelo sculpted a nude Christ on a crucifix and as the risen Lord).

See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, second edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1996), in which he demonstrates with many images the portrayal of Christ in the fullness of his manhood by Renaissance artists, often with the barest minimum of modesty.

I reported above experiences of social nakedness that I enjoyed as a youth. These occasions for naked fun obviously diminished as I grew older and had family and professional responsiblities. Some opportunities to experience the naked state anew are available in such venues as the Korean Spa near my home. There are more clothing optional beaches throughout the world that tourists visit. There are events like a naked swim for charity in Sydney, Australia, World Naked Bike Riding Day in cities throughout the world to protest global warming and expose the car culture, and naked hikes through forests on the summer solstice to call attention to environmental concerns. Americans may not be aware that it is not illegal to hike naked in our national parks.

These naked hikers are exploring the Blue Mountains not far from Sydney, Australia

I believe that a sacrality accrues to nakedness simply because it is the body’s natural state as God created it and pronounced it good. I don’t think we all need to be naturists. But it would be well if more people of all ages experienced the goodness of the body’s naked state and came to appreciate their body in its relationship to the natural world, of which it is a part. There are clothing optional beaches in many parts of the world in which people could experiment with the sensation of being naked outdoors and in public. As for the male fear of getting an erection, cold water is nearby to take care of that issue. In any event, this is my modest proposal.

Pastor Frank Senn

Travelers from the age of Aquarius looking for Paradise.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    A

    Interesting post. It’s funny you say:

    “Nakedness in itself is not inherently sinful. We are born naked. Children in many societies may often be in a state of undress up to a certain age and in certain situations.”

    When I was younger my parents said I used to rip off my clothes randomly and run around naked and they didn’t care. They thought it was natural and fine. But as I got older I became very apprehensive about being naked in public. I’m now in my late 20’s trying to get used to being comfortable naked again.

  2. Avatar

    Hunter

    I worked as a nude model for figure drawing classes for a while. Once I got over the initial butterflies, I really enjoyed the experience. It made me a lot more comfortable with my body than I’d been previously. (Growing up, I used to hate changing for gym class or even being seen in swim trunks at the pool or beach). The sad part is that the most common reaction people had to hearing that I was a model were statements like “that’s crazy!” or “I could never do that.”

    I don’t think anyone should be forced to be naked against their will, but I do think society would be much healthier if things like being a figure model for an art class or going to a clothing-optional beach were thought of as “normal” rather than deviant or taboo.

  3. Avatar

    Anders

    Your comment about Christ overcoming body shame along with sin on the cross is well-taken. Growing up, my church used shame as a form of instilling obedience and passivity, but in my humble opinion, Jesus’ teachings are about vitality.

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    Adam

    As a boy in the 1950’s I swam nude a the Y. Nothing strange about that. But I’ll tell you something that was strange. Once a year we had an Intercity swim meet that was held not at the YMCA but in the indoor watersports facility at UC Berkeley. This was an actual Olympic class venue and it seated about 4000 fans and spectators.

    The YMCA boys came from all over the bay area but we weren’t the main attraction. We were simply the preliminary event before the Berkeley swim team squared off against arch rival Stanford University. Of course the college swimmers wore swimsuits.

    The early arrivals to root for UC or Stanford would enter the viewing area to see about 100 boys ages 9 to 14 on and around the pool deck and all of us totally naked. The unbelievable thing is no one seemed shocked or scandalized by the boy nudity. They acted like it was normal.

    I was proud to be competing in an actual University pool. But it was sort of weird to be naked before so many strangers.

    • Avatar

      Rick

      Not as dramatic a story, but similar. I like every boy in the 50’s and 60’s swam nude in school and at the Y. We thought nothing of it. But at the end of every year we would have a coed swim party with the girls classes and still swam fully nude. If you even thought of covering yourself, the other boys would make fun of you.

  5. Avatar

    Jeff

    Competiting in a swim meet was embarrassing as a boy. It was sort of like being on a little league team that took to the field naked.

    But at the same time it was exciting. When else did you ever have the opportunity to show the community that you had a penis? Never that’s when. Swimming nude may have been off by today’s standards but it didn’t kill anyone that I know of.

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