Consider the (quite obviously staged) photo here. There are six people clothed “normally” – and one naked person, who is much like the others except for her nudity. Those who are clothed are looking down on the naked person with obvious displeasure and disapproval. Not only that, but those who aren’t naked are clothed almost exactly alike – even down to their bare feet.
What’s the reason for the very negative judgmental attitude of the majority? Is it because of the nonconformist’s nudity? Or is it actually because of how a nonconformist is regarded by the (very conformist) majority? I’d argue that the real reason is precisely the nonconformity with the majority, rather than the nudity, which is merely the particular way that the nonconformist differs from the others.
But that just raises the question of why there is disapproval of some types of nonconformity, but not of other types. Nonconformity isn’t always met with disapproval. After all, everyone is a unique individual in various respects. This is true even if the way an individual differs from most others is a matter of personal choice rather than innate characteristics. For instance, the vast majority of people are not lumberjacks, court judges, or circus clowns. Yet people who’ve chosen those occupations are not disapproved of. Certainly not because of the way they’re different from most others. They aren’t even considered “nonconformists”.
It’s interesting how being “different” in a nonconformist way seems to matter often in matters of clothing. Anyone who doesn’t wear “appropriate” clothes in various situations, such as at work, is asking for trouble. It’s even more true for people who deliberately dress in certain “controversial” ways, perhaps associated with a minority lifestyle or ethnic identity. Most of all it’s true for people who don’t wear any clothes. There’s just something about variant styles of clothing – or none at all – that’s triggering for many people.
Nevertheless, not all sorts of nonconformity are disapproved of by majorities. Nonconformity is generally considered OK as long as it’s “harmlessly” different. The meaning of “harmlessly” is the key here. It’s not as simple or obvious as one might hope, so we’ll get back to it later.
First, let’s change terminology a little. Since the question is whether or not nudity can be considered “normal”, let’s discuss the meaning of terms like “normal”, “abnormal”, and so on. Informally, a belief, type of behavior, or other personal characteristic is considered “normal” if it is common, usual, ordinary, or typical. In other words, the criterion is a numerical one. That is, something is “normal” if it’s associated with a numerical majority of the relevant population, while “not normal” is associated with numerical minorities.
Right away, we see there’s a problem, because, for example, many occupational choices are made by rather small numbers of people – yet they’re not considered “abnormal” in a pejorative sense. The situation is similar with personal characteristics that can be either quantitative (such as height) or qualitative (such as skin color). It is no longer considered acceptable in many cases – and for good reasons – to be prejudiced or discriminatory towards people who have characteristics different from those of the majority. Although relatively few people enjoy nudity, that’s not a sufficient reason, by itself, why going naked couldn’t be considered every bit as “normal” as enjoying opera or spelunking.
There’s an important distinction to be made between differences that are a result of someone’s personal choices and differences that aren’t. In the first category are differences involving such things as occupation, hairstyle, or food or music preferences. Obviously, choices about clothing styles are also in this category.
The second category comprises differences not due to personal choices, such as height and skin color. Differences in natural abilities are also in this category and may affect a person’s role in society. For instance, very short people shouldn’t expect to be great basketball players. But on the whole, we can probably agree that differences where personal choice isn’t involved just do not and should not matter for how an individual is judged. So we’ll exclude differences like that from further consideration.
So that leaves us to consider differences based on personal choices. As already noted, sometimes those differences aren’t important, such as most things involving personal taste. But other times the differences can be important, because there clearly are differences of behavior or beliefs that do matter in a civilized society. So, what criteria distinguish differences that matter from those that don’t?
This is exactly where whether or not a difference is considered “harmless” comes in. All societies have “norms” that distinguish kinds of behavior or thoughts that are not harmful from kinds that are. “Norms” like this should have little to do with how common or typical something is. Instead, the “norms” should distinguish behavior or thoughts that don’t cause harm from those that do. Most things that don’t violate reasonable norms can be considered “normal”.
Behavior that is reasonably considered “harmful” – and therefore “abnormal” – may be described as anything from simply rude, thoughtless, or inconsiderate all the way up to selfish, antisocial, immoral, or criminal. The problem is that different societies have different ideas of what “harm” is. Often there are good, clear reasons to consider that certain behaviors actually are harmful. But sometimes the “reasons” are nothing more than merely customs and traditions.
It is a big problem that people often believe that violation of a norm is “wrong” in itself – instead of whether there are good, clear reasons for the norm to exist because behavior outside the norm is actually harmful rather than merely uncommon or atypical. This often explains the disapproval of many types of nonconformist behavior – such as naturism.
Obviously, this affects naturism adversely because the norm in almost all societies is to wear clothes most of the time. But the norm isn’t relevant, since the important issue is whether not wearing clothes actually causes harm by itself. It doesn’t especially bother naturists that few others share their enthusiasm for being naked. Naturists realize there are many misconceptions about naturism, which lead to incorrect assumptions that violating the norm for wearing clothes is harmful. So it’s a major exasperation that so many people believe a preference for not wearing clothes must be “abnormal”. Since this may be based only on the violation of a norm, there’s little examination of what “harm” could be involved.
Naturists have no intention of causing harm, so they, as well as many others who simply enjoy wearing nothing, feel that their nonconformist preference for being naked isn’t a valid reason for disapproval. Importantly, they can give persuasive explanations for why going naked is not a type of bad or harmful behavior. If given the chance, they can satisfy most people they know that their reasons for enjoying nudity are good.
OK, so we’ve handled the objection that naturist nudity is unacceptable around people who aren’t in your immediate family – and sometimes even within your family – because it violates a traditional norm of social behavior. However, there remain many more objections to nudity based on prevalent misconceptions about possible “harm” associated with naturist nudity.
Since there are a large number of misconceptions of nudity, it’s no small task for naturists to explain why such ideas are usually wrong. Separate essays could be written about many of them to provide adequate refutations. So we’ll try to give at least an overview of the misconceptions – and why they’re wrong – in another post.