Social nudity and authenticity

Playwrights don’t produce a large number of works that contain explicit nudity or even deal with the subject of nudity – or at least not works that are commonly performed. Obviously, that’s because of the formidable taboos against nudity in most modern societies.

However, since the best playwrights tend to be exceptionally intelligent and exceptionally acute observers of human nature, many probably have much more realistic and positive attitudes towards nudity than is apparent from their public works. We’ve already dealt with Shakespeare. Here’s what George Bernhard Shaw has to say:

We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.[1]

Now, that’s not direct praise of nudity. But the implication is clear: Humans are surprisingly often ashamed of aspects of themselves that are most real, most authentic. And that is not a good thing about human nature. It’s a serious problem. Suppose we think that authenticity is good, that we should attempt to become more authentic, and that being ashamed of ourselves, our relatives, our incomes – or our naked skins – is often inauthentic. Then we should try to overcome that kind of shame. So we have to examine when shame is not authentic – in particular when the shame is about nudity.

Let’s think about what shame is, or at least what it “should” be. Shame should be a feeling we have, under certain circumstances, towards aspects of ourselves or something in our social environment that we can’t authentically approve of. Everyone has, at some time or other, felt shame about harmful or unkind behavior – one’s own or that of other people with whom one feels some association. We can even feel shame about things our pets have done. We can feel shame about actions of the country of which we are citizens – even if those things happened long before we were born or we had no ability to deter them. We can also feel shame about failure to fulfill completely some aspiration we have for ourselves, such as obtaining a good job or writing a popular, successful play. The list of things we might authentically feel shame about could go on and on.

So, what sorts of things should we not, if we are being authentic, feel shame about? That can be a long list too. In general, we shouldn’t be ashamed about the misbehavior of our neighbor’s pets or children, as long as we haven’t had any personal involvement in that misbehavior. Likewise, we shouldn’t be ashamed about the behavior of relatives outside our immediate family, if they are people we have essentially no influence on. We may be ashamed about the behavior of some in our immediate family, because we are involved with them and have some influence over their behavior. But in this case, we (possibly) have an example of some degree personal failure, so some amount of shame may be warranted. As for personal characteristics, we should not be ashamed if we are uncommonly tall or short or if we have some genetic disease. However, there are other personal characteristics that are more borderline cases. Being very overweight could be an example, because it is unhealthy (so it affects others besides ourselves), and we usually have at least some degree of control here. Having a disease that results from unfortunate lifestyle choices, such as excessive drinking, smoking, or drug abuse, would be another example.

Possible examples are endless. But it seems that there are just a few kinds of factors that determine whether or not shame is appropriate. One is the degree of our personal responsibility, whether it’s for our health, our achievements, or the behavior of ourselves and people around us. But there’s another factor: how much we authentically approve of certain things even if we have no influence at all over them. Should we be ashamed of past actions of the country we’re citizens of? The answer is probably yes, as least a little bit – if, and only if, we do not authentically approve of them. Why might we properly be ashamed about things we disapprove of but had no control over? Perhaps because not to be ashamed would suggest that our disapproval is not authentic.

There’s no clear answer here for all situations. Humans have done horrible, terrible things to each other as long as there have been humans. That is an aspect of human nature that cannot be authentically denied. At some point, however, to be ashamed of all terrible things humans have ever done is probably not authentic, because such shame would essentially negate our own existence. Some religions promote the idea that humans are essentially “sinful” and should therefore feel ashamed of being human. Unless, of course, one chooses to follow the teachings of that religion. Then the shame and guilt can be erased. But that’s self-serving religious bullshit.

Let’s bring the discussion back to nudity now. What can we say about feelings of shame or embarrassment regarding one’s naked skin, one’s naked body, or certain parts of one’s body, such as the genitals? In most cases, that shame would be inauthentic, at least when one has little or no control over the appearance or ability to function of one’s body or parts of it. Why would anyone be ashamed or embarrassed because of the size or shape of their ears or feet, for example? Since we lack control of such things (if we haven’t through negligence or otherwise adversely affected them), the only alternative reason for shame is not “approving” of the existence or purpose of the body or body part. But that doesn’t make sense either. And this includes the genitals – or the state of nudity, which is defined by exposure of genitals. Feelings of shame or embarrassment about any of these things have no sensible basis, so to have such feelings is to be inauthentic.

OK, but so far we’ve just considered the appearance of the body and its parts. As far as nudity is concerned there are also plenty of issues about our actions and behavior when we are naked. How is authenticity related to feelings of shame or embarrassment we might feel about our behavior when naked? There are a number of different questions that could be asked in this regard.

Let’s consider the issue of simply being naked in a social situation. Nudity is not simply, as some naturists tend to assert, a “state” of being. It is a deliberate choice of behavior, because we might authentically choose not to be naked in various situations. But assume here that this is a nudist or naturist situation, where everyone present is generally tolerant and accepting – or even quite approving – of nudity. (What’s appropriate and “authentic” about nudity in the presence of people who disapprove of it is a very separate issue, and we’re not going into that now.)

In a social situation where it is possible, comfortable, and acceptable to be naked, and if one believes that nudity is inherently good, healthy, and pleasurable, then being naked is pretty clearly the authentic way to go. Except for a few unusual circumstances, not to be naked in such as situation is inauthentic. So, given the appropriate social situation, nudity is usually necessary for authenticity.

If you feel generally positive about nudity and also value authenticity, but still have qualms about social nudity, naturists and nudists can list any number of ways you can benefit from socializing naked. For example, if you’re naked, then you won’t use clothes to project an inauthentic image of yourself, in terms of “coolness”, “hipness”, sophistication, affluence (or for some, its opposite), etc. When you’re naked you can’t use costumes to appear to be someone you aren’t. Or even to be who you actually are, if your main motivation is to conceal personal weaknesses or simply to impress others for ego gratification. (Say you’re a pretty good poet, but are tempted to dress as you think a good poet would instead of relying on your actual poetry to communicate your aptitude.)

Another good reason for being naked when possible is that one can learn to overcome unreasonable feelings or inadequacy or vulnerability. Sure, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable when naked among people one doesn’t know well, especially if many of them are not naked even though they are very tolerant of nudity. But it’s arguably inauthentic not to be naked when one could by being naked venture a little outside one’s comfort zone, and thereby in small steps diminish feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability.

There are plenty of other reasons for how being naked in a suitable social situation promotes authenticity. But one final reason that can be suggested now is that being naked demonstrates to oneself and others an acceptance of one’s naked human body, and hence one’s humanness. And so also acceptance of some unavoidable imperfection, the fact of sexuality, and the fact of eventual mortality. Those are all scary things, but authenticity requires coming to terms with them. Not coming to terms with them is called “denial”.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that nudity is necessary for simply attaining greater authenticity. But it may very well be necessary for going beyond the state of authenticity one has attained by other means. However, it’s probably true that going naked is not sufficient for greater authenticity. Nudity could even at times be a hindrance to authenticity.

For one thing, wearing clothes need not project only an inaccurate image of oneself. Clothes, if used honestly and creatively, can also amplify accurate images of oneself. So being naked diminishes one’s repertoire of means for understanding and communicating authentically about oneself.

Another possible problem, especially for people who are relatively new to social nudity, is that they can behave inauthentically in order to prematurely overcome fears about being naked with others. Also people may act in ways that are not authentic in the hope of more easily “fitting in with” and being accepted by a group of others that they don’t know well. Here’s one particular example, not involving nudity: the song I Whistle a Happy Tune from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I:

You may be as brave
As you make believe you are

While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows I’m afraid

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well

That may well be good advice, but it’s also a deception, at least initially. It’s certainly true that it’s possible to become what you pretend to be. But since it starts out as a deception, it can easily veer into inauthenticity. Your choices define what you are if you do become what you pretend to be. That can be either good or bad. If you get into social nudity, you can become a happy naturist. But if you aren’t prepared for the necessary self-disclosures that go along with nudity, you can also make yourself pretty unhappy.

It’s necessary to do a certain amount of acting (in the theatrical sense) when one takes up social nudity, because there are definite expectations that go along with playing that role. The role playing is unavoidable, because “all the world’s a stage”. We’ll go into more detail about the social psychology that’s involved in another post.

Footnotes:

1. Man and Superman, Act 1 – via PoemHunter.com

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