The naked truth on nudity

Being naked is normal, right? I mean, we’re born naked. We shower naked. We have sex naked. We skinny dip. We visit nudist beaches. Sleep naked on hot summer nights. Do a nudie run when we lose a drunken bet. Hang out in our birthday suit when we’re home alone (don’t deny it). I think it’s fair to say that, as humans, we enjoy being naked—it’s an entirely natural thing.

But, what does it mean to be naked? There’s the obvious one—we are naked when we aren’t wearing any clothes. What about when we are wearing a t-shirt? Am I naked because my arms are bare? Am I naked if I don’t cover my face? The Oxford Dictionary (online) defines naked as ‘(of a person or part of the body) without clothes’. In that case, as I sit and type this piece in shorts and a t-shirt, I am naked!

On the other hand, is there such a thing as being not naked enough? Recently in the media, photographs emerged of police in Nice confronting a woman in a burkini and asking her to remove pieces of clothing. Associate Professor Ruth Barcan suggests that ‘being covered “too much” can, it turns out, still cause fear, outrage or affront’.

Despite the fact we’re born naked, in modern society we use clothing to define ourselves and differentiate ourselves from others. As Barcan states: ‘nudity and clothing are part of how dominant groups decide who’s fit to be considered fully human—who’s to be taken seriously and who’s to be demeaned; who is “under”-dressed (primitives, savages, sluts) and who is “over”-dressed (those with too many veils hiding too many secrets)’.

There’s also differences in what is deemed ‘acceptable’ in society for males and females when it comes to nudity. Breastfeeding, for example, is a type of nudity that attracts social punishments. Too often a picture of a woman breastfeeding in public appears online along with tirades of abuse on how ‘disgusting’ it is—despite the fact it’s a totally natural, damn amazing thing that women, and only women, have been doing for thousands and thousands of years.

Social media also contributes significantly to opinions on what it means to be naked. Recently, Facebook removed the following picture of two Aboriginal women performing a traditional ceremony in the Northern Territory.

Facebook received significant criticism globally for removing the image. This photograph, and the controversy it caused, demonstrates the way humans are too often defined by their physical self. This picture should’ve been celebrated, and the focus should’ve been on ceremony, culture and tradition; instead, the focus was on the women’s breasts, their nudity. As Barcan suggests: ‘… [there is a] modern tendency to reduce the many possible meanings, significance and experiences of nakedness to only one possible meaning—the erotic’. Nakedness and sexuality are undoubtedly associated, but too often the naked human form is sexualised without consideration or thought.

Art is often a catalyst for discussion on nakedness and sexuality. In 2008, art photographer Bill Henson held an exhibition incorporating images of naked teenagers. Henson’s images raised numerous questions: ‘Was the nakedness of Henson’s models to be interpreted as an aesthetic symbol of vulnerability, transition or aloneness; or, was its meaning unequivocally and inevitably sexual or erotic?’. Philosopher Mario Perniola suggests there is a duality to nakedness—‘nakedness as a sign of sin and degradation versus nakedness as a sign of innocence, authenticity and truth’—and Henson’s images certainly demonstrate this idea.

The question ‘what does it mean to be naked?’ is a complex and confusing one—especially when you really start to think about it. Everyone’s opinion will be different and dependent on circumstances such as their upbringing, values and religion. Nakedness isn’t something we should fear; it’s something we should question, understand and embrace.






Abbey Brandenburg