I recently read with some amazement a couple of articles that reflect our society’s near-puritanical attitudes to nudity. The first was story of a 70-year-old man questioned on Balmoral beach after letting his six-year-old granddaughter swim naked. Following an anonymous phone call reporting an ‘elderly man sitting with a naked child’, the bewildered man and his granddaughter were then confronted by police. The second story centred on police objections to a proposed mass nude swim in Tasmania, citing potential breaches of public indecency laws. In light of this, and many other stories of this type in the news lately, it seems to me that we’re in danger of reverting back to a Victorian mindset, where concern over the naked body reaches near-ridiculous levels of overreaction.
I was lucky enough to be born in a time where the naked form didn’t always represent sex or ‘sin’. Instead, nudity stood for freedom, rebellion and unselfconsciousness. In years gone by, I remember regularly seeing topless women and speedo-clad men on beaches – but in today’s beach culture, they’ve commonly been replaced by bikinis and board shorts. Similarly, gone are the days when mothers could confidently whip out a breast in public to feed their child without risking disapproving glances or ‘tut-tutting’ forms of moral indignation. It’s clear that a lot of people now find it impossible to separate the sexual from the natural, the breast as a sexual object as opposed to the breast as a part of the body designed to feed our offspring.
There’s no doubt that we’ve become more and more prudish about the naked body. Yet, we’re clearly not opposed to nudity absolutely everywhere. If the naked form is used to sell products (as in so much of our advertising), it seems for the most part to be widely accepted. Yet while no one really blinks an eyelid at a boob peeking from the pages of a magazine, just ask Janet Jackson (in that infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during the halftime show at the US Superbowl) about the perils of wilfully exposing a nipple in public (hey folks, it was painted and decorated to be shown off, making it far from ‘accidental’). So, nudity as a form of pleasure for the beholder is fine – but nudity that is wilful, self-possessed and designed for oneself is something we’re altogether more uncomfortable with.
Similarly, it bothers me when we become so overprotective of our children that we overreact to the slightest thing, calling the police at the faintest suspicion, as in the story of the elderly man and his granddaughter on the beach. Our hysteria around child nudity reached new heights recently, with the censorship of figures of naked children in various photographic exhibitions. Look, I totally get it that nudity in the past was much more transitory, and in today’s age of camera phones and the internet, a naked moment can quickly become both public and permanent. But in breeding this puritanical culture of fear of the naked body in our children, we run the risk of making them feel ashamed and afraid instead of confident and free.
It worries me that we seem to be locked in a spiral of censorship and repression. As nudity becomes less commonplace in its pure celebration of the naked form, and more and more strange or taboo, it prompts people to cover up more and more, making nudity even stranger still. In my view, we need to start celebrating the beauty and power of the naked form as a representation of freedom and joy and liberation. And we also need to protect our children from ALL forms of sexual harm – including the harm done when we send messages telling them it’s wrong to be themselves, in their natural state, as nature intended.
In love and light,