The fear of nudity, part 2

From September 1997 to July 2000 (yes, that long ago) I published on the pages of this site a “Weekly Nudesletter” (which became increasingly sporadic). It contained mainly brief remarks on current news items. All that content is still online, if you care to see it. Occasionally, there were longer essays. In particular, there was a two-part essay on “the fear of nudity”. Most of this is still quite relevant, and I’ll refer to it in later posts. What follows here is the second part, which has been slightly edited. (Original page)

Some things we fear are concrete, while some are more abstract. In Part 1 we covered the concrete fears people often have when considering the possibility of trying social nudity. The list involves 16 concerns that people worry about as possible direct consequences of being naked with others. Some of these concerns are more likely to be actual problems than others, but at least they are fairly concrete. One can describe in specific terms what there is to be worried about, so it is possible to deal rationally with the concerns, to estimate their probability, and to formulate plans for dealing with them.

It’s obviously more difficult, and a different sort of problem, to deal with more abstract fears.

Before we get into that, let’s note that we didn’t deal at all with one category of fears of nudity — those which are felt by people who are not themselves interested in being naked with others, but merely in the position of confronting the idea of social nudity. Perhaps it’s because they have discovered that someone they know, a friend or relative, is interested in social nudity. Perhaps it’s because they have learned about some place such as a beach or club in their general area where social nudity occurs. Or perhaps it’s simply because the subject of social nudity has come to their attention somehow (in the news, in casual conversation, a flash of bare skin in a movie or on TV) — and they feel what seems like a sense of instinctive disgust at the idea.

However, the idea of nudity comes up, for some people it immediately arouses very distinct fears. Unfortunately, we all know people like that.

These fears, too, can be categorized as either concrete or abstract. Among the concrete fears are such things as the possibility of sexual assaults, other sorts of “deviant” behavior like drug use, or simply the imagined potency of nudity as a lure to attract an “undesirable” sort of person. In general, what we have here is a fear that people who violate one sort of social taboo — the sort involving nudity — may be more likely to violate other more important taboos as well.

There probably isn’t a lot we can say to calm such fears, because they are basically fears of the unknown. If a person does have such concerns, then usually no amount of talking will allay them. Direct experience that the imagined dangers are very exaggerated will help, but even failure to confirm the dangers doesn’t make fear of them go away completely. In any case, we aren’t going to get into this aspect now — because people who are afraid of being around others who like to be naked probably aren’t even reading this.

We’ll probably take up this topic at another time, because if you do like to be naked, the chances are you will have to deal with a variety of people who have such fears, and you naturally would like to be able to respond to them. Until we do get around to it, note that what we are going to say about fear of nudity in the abstract applies to everyone — those who are interested in social nudity as well as those who are opposed to it.

The reason is that abstract fears of nudity can be regarded as personality issues. Such fears engage our attention not only at a practical level, but at an emotional level as well. They influence how we act and how we think about ourselves and others. They are relevant to many aspects of our lives in addition to nudity — often much more relevant.

These abstract fears represent attitudes we hold about ourselves and about life in general. Since the effects of these attitudes are experienced in important parts of our lives quite unrelated to nudity, it is very much worth our while to examine them, even if we have no interest in going about without clothes. Understanding where these fearful attitudes come from and learning how to deal with them on a more mature, rational level than (say) a child’s fear of the dark or of spiders can present us with many opportunities for personal development and growth.

As you will quickly recognize, we can’t hope to offer advice in this small space on how to deal with these anxiety-producing issues. Libraries are full of books of philosophy and psychology and self-help which do that. The most we can do here is to name these issues and indicate (if it’s not immediately obvious) how they are related to the experience of nudity.

Sexuality

Obviously, what bothers more people than anything else about nudity is its connection with sexuality. This is understandable and can’t be ignored, since “nudity” in the legal sense is almost defined by lack of covering of the genitals. However, the connection is greatly reinforced by social conditioning, since in our society the main activity associated with nudity (apart from bathing or sleeping) is having (or fantasizing about having) sex. The association is a lot weaker for young children and people in cultures where nudity is more common in non-sexual contexts.

Young children usually have no problems with nudity, since they’ve been taught little or nothing about sex. Even after having some sex education that explains the genitals, they don’t grasp the full implications. Similarly, in cultures where nudity is more common so that genitals aren’t always hidden from others, the connection is weaker. However, we are profoundly shaped by our environment, so for teenagers and adults in our culture, the connection is strong. Nevertheless, learning to separate nudity from sexuality is quite possible. And then nudity can be enjoyed just for its own sake, entirely apart from its connection with sexuality.

Now, sexuality is the source of very powerful emotions. These emotions are both innate and (as a result of both positive and negative experiences throughout life) learned responses. It is the negative emotions, of course, that allows sexuality to give rise to fear. The specific details will vary somewhat from person to person. For some (especially women), there’s a legitimate concern over physical security, particularly if there have been instances of abuse as a child. For others the concern is due to emotional exploitation. There’s always the issue of performance anxiety and adequacy (see “Adequacy” below). And for many, the fear arises from doubts of our ability to control our urges in a situation that seems to invite temptation.

But whatever the sources of our sexual anxieties, it all comes back to the undeniable importance of sexuality as a part of life. It takes a good deal of experience and maturity to master sexuality, in both its positive and its negative guises. Being able to enjoy nudity as something separate from (though related to) sexuality is part of this mastery. It isn’t surprising that this is a source of fear before we gain this mastery.

Vulnerability and Adequacy

Clothing is armor. As armor, it’s more symbolic than practical, but it’s armor nevertheless. That is, we expect clothing to protect us against various threats originating in the external world. Some threats are simply physical — bugs, sunburn, excessive cold. But as many are psychological, and those are the kind that where lack of clothing engenders fear.

Clothing is armor because it is a shield against the judgment of others regarding parts of ourselves whose adequacy or acceptability we are uncertain of. Body parts that are too small or too large. Skin that is too pale or too wrinkled. Body shape that doesn’t fully conform to what we imagine is ideal by the standards of our society.

Obviously, clothing as armor actually works mostly for physical characteristics. (Though, by concealing some body language, it can protect some of our psyche as well.) Metaphorically, it is psychological armor as well. Our society puts too much emphasis on physical characteristics as indicators of our competency, worth, and value. But given that this connection is ingrained in us, lack of clothing connotes weakness and vulnerability. Fear is an obvious consequence.

What we need to learn is that physical characteristics matter only in limited realms – such as athletics, warfare, fashion modeling. Even for something like finding a mate, eventually we realize that there are far more important characteristics than the physical ones.

And so, whatever armor clothing can provide against threats to our feelings of competence and self-esteem, it has only a symbolic value as far as the majority of characteristics which really count are concerned. When we come to understand this, nudity ceases to leave us open to threats to our sense of worth. Hence fear of nudity becomes needless, and body acceptance becomes self-acceptance.

Self-disclosure

Surprising as it may seem, not everyone enjoys talking about themselves. There are various reasons. One may have scars or other physical disfigurations that aren’t apparent when clothed, and the underlying reasons may be unpleasant to discuss. Although nudity tends to promote a greater rapport between people, this can be threatening if it allows conversation to drift into areas one would prefer to avoid. Such areas exist for just about everyone, no matter how much self-confidence one has. Worries about our competency (or lack thereof — see above under “Adequacy”) probably have a lot to do with this. We don’t care to talk about our jobs, for instance, if we aren’t especially proud of our success. But it may have nothing to do with that. There may be parts of our lives we have no control over, such as death or illness in the family, that we simply don’t want to converse about.

In spite of the touted benefits of better rapport that nudity generally promotes, many people are simply not constituted to enjoy discussing personal and “private” details with near strangers, or even relatively good friends. That is partly what “shyness” is about. Nudity should not have to imply that unrestrained self-disclosure is required. It is enjoyable for itself, and doesn’t mean you have to tell everything about yourself to every naked person you meet. But it’s easy to understand how people can see physical nudity as a threat to their personal space and the buffers they think they need against the outside world. (See above under “Vulnerability”.)

Physical nakedness is a metaphor for psychological nakedness. It could well be the latter that we are more ill-prepared to handle. While this psychological nakedness, or “openness”, is often worth working for, it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve.

Mortality

Lurking behind all the fears we have regarding our physical bodies is the issue of mortality. The sags, bulges, and scars that accumulate through life remind us that it’s all going to end one of these days, and probably not painlessly. These physical tokens are not only considered unsightly — they easily cause us to think about something we want to ignore.

Clothing, of course, hides these stigmata (to an extent). Seemingly, a young person should not be too concerned with his/her nudity or that of age-mates in this regard. Yet, ironically, it is often the young who have the most anxiety about nudity. At least at present, it is people of middle age or older who gradually become more at ease with their bodies and therefore accepting of nudity. This isn’t so surprising. Young people are repelled by the age-related decline of human bodies which clothing covers. They don’t want to think about what’s in store for them.

Part of maturing gracefully is coming to terms with the inevitability of one’s eventual decline and demise. So, just as with other sorts of socially disparaged physical characteristics, those related to age gradually assume lesser importance. And in nudity there is increasingly less to fear.

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