Additional thoughts on the fear of nudity

In reading this post on the topic, which I originally wrote almost 19 years ago, I was astonished to have left out what may be the most significant type of fear of nudity based on abstract feelings. (See the original article for “abstract” vs. “concrete” fears.)

What I neglected to write about is this: Fear of nudity, social nudity in particular, is likely in large part due to the fact that social nudity violates a cluster of norms and customs of the society in which one lives. It’s a factor not just in North America and Western Europe, but also in most “advanced” societies whose lifestyles are far removed from those of people who value clothing mainly for warmth, instead of for a variety of unrelated social considerations, such as religion.

Consider the word “norm”. Social behavior is considered to be within the “norm” if it’s behavior that is consistent with what “most” people in a given society consider “proper”. This is a numerical type of standard. Behavior by people in a minority that “deviates” from what most people in the majority find acceptable is “not normal”. It is “abnormal”, and that’s not considered a good thing. Such behavior is, at least, suspicious. (This applies to any sort of behavior, not just nudity. Another example is styles of dress that are regarded as “foreign” and not typical in a given society. Of course, nudity really is just another style of dress.)

But “norm” has a slightly different meaning too, roughly what is meant by “custom”. Customs in a particular society aren’t necessarily related to either numerical measures or morality-related issues. Examples of such customs include times of day that meals are eaten, types of food that’s served for specific occasions, activities engaged in on particular holidays, and types of clothing worn in specific places. Nevertheless, failure to observe the customs of a society is also “suspicious” and a cause for disapproval of the “uncustomary” behavior itself.

Regardless of the fine differences between “norm” and “custom”, nudity is almost always considered both “abnormal” and “uncustomary”, and is therefore a source of mistrust, disapproval – and even fear. (Except when nudity is “normal” for activities like bathing or (perhaps) sleeping.) A further sanction against uncustomary nudity is often to make it illegal.

So the question that must be asked is this: Exactly why is “abnormal” or “uncustomary” behavior – of which social nudity is just one example – a source of fear?

There are very good evolutionary psychological reasons that answer the “why” question. All human societies depend on cooperation among society members. Cooperation takes various forms. It may be working “cooperatively” with others in a group on activities that benefit the group. The activities could be as diverse as those of social clubs, businesses, and extended families. But there are often opportunities for individuals within a group to act in ways that benefit only themselves, while harming the group as a whole. For example, embezzlement of money or disclosure of information the group wants to keep secret. Lying or cheating in transactions between individuals in a society provide even more obvious examples.

If such harmful behavior is too common in a group, the group itself is at risk of failure. If cheating between individuals is too common, people cannot trust each other, and so they lose out on the benefits they might enjoy from honest trading and cooperation.

Societies and groups usually can function well enough if there are only a few cheaters. So there is always the possibility that any given member may be tempted to cheat. And consequently, honest people need to learn how to detect potential cheaters in order to avoid them.

How is that usually done? It’s done by monitoring whether other people observe group norms and customs. There are beneficial norms and customs, such as honestly cooperating with others and not cheating. Other norms and customs aren’t as consequential, but whether or not they’re respected may be used to judge how well the beneficial ones are respected.

The problem is that the “honesty”, or lack thereof, of other people is not easy to judge when the others are not well-known. Typically, judgments of honesty are done by considering a person’s “reputation”. If the person is known to have cheated previously in some way or other, the person is more likely to be distrusted. Unfortunately, the reputations of most people one has to deal with are often unknown, because little or nothing is known about the person himself or herself.

However, one type of information about an otherwise unknown person is behavior that can be observed directly. Most importantly, is anything known about the person’s behavior in violation of social norms or customs? If so, the person is more likely to be mistrusted and avoided.

Here’s a simple but very common example. People in management jobs at a company or in certain other kinds of jobs (e. g. salespeople) are expected to dress in a certain way: suit and tie for a man, “professional” clothing for a woman. Failure to dress in the “normal” or “customary” way is a source of immediate distrust. Why should a person be trusted who violates well-known social norms?

It’s a fact that people who are known to be “nudists” or to engage in social nudity are often distrusted or disrespected – precisely because nudity violates typical norms and customs. Such people are stigmatized as “nonconformists”.

Obviously, too, there are whole professions – such as teaching or any other kind of work with children – where being known to participate in social nudity can be used as an excuse for exclusion from the profession.

While it’s quite true that many people in a particular society do not have this negative attitude towards nudity, the negative attitude is still so widespread that anyone who has a favorable attitude towards nudity – and whose behavior is suspected of reflecting that attitude – must be cautious about letting that attitude be known. Or more to the point, people are more likely to think of nudity as something to be fearful of – because they know of the risk that others may disapprove. The existence of the risk is known – and the result is fear. We fear, rationally, what could cause us harm, especially if it’s difficult to estimate the risk – just as we fear spiders that could actually be harmless.

Here’s the reasoning in a nutshell: Social nudity violates a cultural norm. Therefore there’s a risk that others may see this violation as a reason for distrusting people who have positive attitudes towards nudity. Therefore it’s prudent to be fearful of holding positive attitudes towards nudity in order to reduce the risk.

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