Nudity and authenticity

Does social nudity promote authenticity? The general assumption of naturists and nudists is that it does. So that’s what we’re going to examine. But let’s start by looking at why authenticity is important in the first place. It’s about being honest with oneself.

There’s no difficulty understanding why we want other people we have to deal with to be honest with us. Most social interactions depend on being able to predict some aspects of what the people we deal with will do in the future. If we lend money, tools, vehicles, or whatever to others, we generally expect the things to be returned at some point. As part of the transaction the person lent to will generally make some promise about when or how the things will be returned. We need to be able to predict how likely it is that the promises will be kept before proceeding with the transaction.

In business dealings we can spell out the details of what is promised in a written contract. But even then all the details hardly ever can be specified completely. There’s usually much that has to be left to trust in the other party. And there hardly ever is an explicit contract involved in our dealing with family, friends, or romantic partners. We still need to be able to predict many aspects of what these others will do in the future, at least when their actions affect us. About all we can rely on for making accurate predictions is trust in the other person. And in order to do that, we need to form reliable opinions about the honesty of the other person.

The situation really is hardly different at all in predicting what we ourselves will do in the future. If we can’t trust ourselves, we can’t predict reliably. And usually that matters. We all make resolutions to improve ourselves in the future, but often fail to fulfill such resolutions. Reliable prediction matters, since before we invest significant amounts of time, effort, or resources in a new project, we want to have some assurance that we’ll follow through to a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe we think we really want to learn to ski, to become adapt in the practice of yoga, to hike the Appalachian Trail, or to take on a new business venture. But if we’re prudent, we need to be able to assure ourselves that we are willing and able to do what’s necessary to accomplish what we want.

Being able to do that honestly is what authenticity is all about. We don’t want to waste time, effort, or resources unless we honestly believe we have the ability and motivation to reach at least part of the goal. And if the goal also involves others whom we care about, we need to be especially sure of ourselves. This is the ideal, anyhow. In real life, we aren’t always so careful. It’s all too easy to deceive ourselves about our abilities and motivation.

In discussing how scientists evaluate their experiments the physicist Richard Feynman commented “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” That applies in most aspects of life, not just scientific research. He also wrote, and this also applies in most aspects of life:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain.

So authenticity is more than just being honest about what we believe about ourselves. It’s also being able to admit that we don’t always know as much about ourselves as we may think we do. Our self-knowledge is often significantly incomplete.

Inauthenticity can have very tragic consequences. It’s exactly what got King Lear in so much trouble. He correctly perceived that his own powers were failing and therefore wisely planned to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But his inauthentic craving for pledges of the love of his children went badly awry when he demanded each daughter to say who loved him the most:

Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

The eldest two, Goneril and Regan, didn’t merely lie in professing how much they loved Dad, they outdid each other in hyperbole. Goneril:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

However, the third daughter, Cordelia, is apparently the only one in the family with self-knowledge and authenticity.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Lear’s response is basically, “OK, fuck you, then. I hope you’re satisfied with your honesty, ’cause you ain’t getting anything from me.” We all know how well that turned out.

So, now, what exactly does nudity have to do with authenticity? Let’s get down to specifics. Obviously, in order to participate in social nudity one has to have acquired a fair amount of authenticity about the appearance of one’s naked body. Seeing is believing. When you’re socially naked you’ve chosen to stop using clothes to conceal truths about yourself – truths you may not want to admit even to yourself. You allow anyone who can see to observe your whole body, the good and the not-so-good equally. In addition to that, since being naked means, by definition, that your sexual parts are also on display, you tacitly and honestly acknowledge your sexuality. (Of course, in a naturist context, there’s no implication that any more than that is offered.)

Making these two acts of authentic honesty – about the appearance of your whole body and the fact of your sexuality – is generally the most daunting challenge most people face in order to participate in social nudity, or even to be naked when at home alone.

We’ll deal with sexuality at another time – the appearance issues are convoluted enough for now. Unless, miraculously, you’ve already overcome all concerns about the appearance of your naked body, there are basically three things you might do about these concerns.

You can simply decide that appearance really doesn’t matter all that much. It’s certainly true that our society tends to have a distorted and unreasonable idea of what is the “ideal” physical appearance. But it’s not entirely clear that appearance doesn’t matter at all. What is genuine and authentic in this regard depends on a number of things. Are you seriously overweight? Then perhaps appearance does matter, because you conclude that your weight problem is bad for you health. The authentic thing to do, then, is to work on the problem, for the sake of your health, and only secondarily for the sake of your appearance. Being socially naked might even provide you with the necessary motivation.

Do you know that people who are important to you and with whom you’ll be socializing naked are concerned about physical appearance, even though you think they shouldn’t be? Then, again, the pragmatic thing to do may be to admit that appearance does matter, at least under the existing circumstances. In this case, there are healthy steps you can take to “improve” your appearance. You can go on a sensible diet. You can get more exercise. You can start going to a gym. The authentic course of action may be to admit that those are good things to do anyhow.

There’s a third alternative: artificial steps to “improve” your physical appearance – liposuction, boob jobs, labiaplasty, etc. It can be astonishing to see how many varieties of cosmetic surgery are available now. In the context of social nudity, the issue is generally about parts of the body that “normally” are covered by clothing. So this sort of thing is more often considered by women than by men, but there are guys who go in for penis enhancements. If you happen to be female and you’re really, really bothered about how your pussy lips look, labiaplasty is an option. Disapproval of that seems to be the prevailing naturist opinion. Getting those lips trimmed doesn’t seem like a very authentic thing to do. But if it seems really essential for your self-esteem to have everything neat and tidy in that area, it’s really up to you. Who’s going to object, or even know?

Technology is opening up the possibility of even more drastic body modifications in the future. There have been plenty of cultures in human history where body mods were very much the rule rather than the exception. If you regard something along those lines as a legitimate form of personal expression, then go for it. In our culture things like tattoos and piercings have been far out of the mainstream, but that’s obviously changing. Nudist and naturist opinion has been, if anything, even more dubious of such things, on the grounds that, like clothing, they are used to disguise what you look like as a “natural” human being. On the other hand, if you choose to use tattoos, piercings, or cosmetic surgery to express your “real” self, then such things could be perfectly authentic. If you have an artistic flair, go ahead and make your body an art project if that’s what you honestly want. Just be authentic about it.

Now, with all of the above said, there are still many issues involved in the relation between nudity and authenticity. So far, we’ve only considered the physical appearance of your (naked) body. It’s certainly not true that naturists and nudists are automatically a lot more “authentic” just by being naked. Sometimes clothing, like body modifications, can reasonably be used to express you authentic self, rather than to offer a false image of yourself. But beyond physical appearance, there’s the whole matter of how you “present” yourself by your deliberate actions. And there are many ways in which actions can be either authentic or deceptive – in social nudity or much more generally. We’ll go into that in the next post.

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