Authenticity, again

We’ve used the terms “authentic” and “authenticity” a lot, and given various examples, but not really offered a definition. Here are some basic dictionary definitions:

au·then·tic, adj:
1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief
2. Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied.

au·then·tic·i·ty, noun:
The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.[1]

Not very enlightening. If one searches references on academic philosophy, the results are confusing and still not very enlightening, since the terms have been used in a variety of ways. So we’ll settle for the more direct Wikipedia entry:

Authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existentialist philosophy and aesthetics. In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.[2]

This is certainly not the place to get into philosophical technicalities, but the highlighted part describes pretty clearly what we’re talking about.

Notice the emphasis on the role of “external pressures”. Obviously, in most contemporary societies there are powerful pressures applied against a person being naked in the presence of others (with a very few obvious exceptions). Just about everyone, except the very young, is quite familiar with this pressure. Naturists especially.

The phrase “naked truth” is a (very irritating) cliché, but in spite of prevailing attitudes, there is also a strong traditional association between the words “naked” and “truth”. However, the association generally carries a connotation of unpleasantness of the authentic truth – it’s something people are believed to fear and avoid thinking about. And indeed, that’s how people do often feel.

However, in general it’s not wise, and certainly not prudent, in fact to ignore or deny to oneself actual truth. There really isn’t much more than that to explain why, philosophically, authenticity is strongly favored over inauthenticity. And that remains a sound policy even in the face of external pressures.

As far as clothing vs. nudity is concerned, to be naked is to admit and accept what our bodies actually are, while to wear clothes is basically to reject various realities about our bodies and to present a contrived image of ourselves to the world. An understanding of this is essentially what defines a naturist. People gradually come to understand this in the process of becoming naturists, though the understanding doesn’t usually come all at once.

Unfortunately, sometimes we must give in to social pressures simply because most of us can’t be hermits, so we have to compromise much of the time in order to live in society. Even when this compromise is necessary, in order to be authentic we have to acknowledge how unsatisfactory it is.

All this naturists understand pretty well. However, there is one problem. It is especially acute for people who have recognized they have an interest in social nudity, but haven’t yet become fully fledged naturists. Unfortunately, the problem can even affect naturists too. It is that we may have a hard time seeing all the ways that social pressures against nudity are exerted on us. And thus we are deterred from engaging in social nudity without fully understanding what is deterring us.

People who are actively hostile or disparaging towards nudity feel nothing but the negative attitudes that have been conditioned in them by their society. They may subjectively experience this conditioning in the form of feelings such as disgust, embarrassment, or shame. For such people, these feelings entirely control their attitudes towards nudity, and their thinking about the subject never goes any farther than that.

On the other hand, some people are able to counteract their conditioning when they start to perceive some value in nudity, such as the positive feelings of pleasure and well-being when naked, and the philosophical merits of authenticity. But the problem is that the socially conditioned feelings of embarrassment or shame persist, especially if they don’t enter conscious awareness or do so only partially. This problem can persist even in people who become actively involved in social nudity, and there it manifests itself in unwillingness to participate as fully as possible or to shrink from advocating for the benefits of nakedness to others who are open-minded enough to listen.

People who are gradually becoming involved in social nudity can still hesitate to be naked when in fact it is possible to dispense with clothing, partially or fully. This happens in situations existing at the edge or beyond their present comfort zone. It may occur, for example, with friends or relatives, even if they’ve indicated tolerant attitudes about nudity. Perhaps a person worries what would happen if these others start expecting one to be naked often, even when one isn’t in the mood for it. Should one feel obliged to strip off specifically so as not to “disappoint” anyone, or to suggest one lacks conviction about being naked? After all, doesn’t being authentic mean living in accord with one’s true feelings, not necessarily the expectations of others.

There is one reason, though it isn’t the only one, that such invisible boundaries of our comfort zones exist. The reason is that to defend nudity simply on the grounds that it “feels good” is labeled as “hedonism” by a society where “hedonism” is considered self-indulgent or at most only vaguely distinguished from sexual feelings. And any suggestion of sexual feelings inevitably triggers the submerged sense of shame and embarrassment that society attaches to sexuality.

But there is a way to get around this problem. That way is to understand the essential connection between nakedness and authenticity – and to use that understanding to assertively justify nudity, when defending it, based on the importance of authenticity. (This can also justify not being naked, if one isn’t in the mood for it.)

This approach has been advocated, in a somewhat weaker form, as “body acceptance”. But the weakness there is that “acceptance” is something passive. It’s all well and good to say that naked bodies are “acceptable”, one’s own in particular, but that isn’t an especially robust defense. It can seem hesitant, timid, even wishy-washy. Many naturists will go a lot farther and assert that “all human bodies are beautiful”. But that’s an assertion about aesthetics that can seem like a bit of a stretch or an exaggeration to many people, and it could be tough to defend convincingly – especially in a society where “beauty” is defined by the mass media, while most naked bodies are regarded with shame or embarrassment.

A stronger, more active stance in support of nudity, one that doesn’t risk exaggeration, is the assertion that nakedness is a sincere manifestation of authenticity. This is a stance, furthermore, that should include a condemnation of shame and embarrassment about the body because of the inauthenticity of those feelings. Our bodies simply are what they are, and in so being do nothing to justify shame or embarrassment.

At the same time we shouldn’t be afraid to admit personal weaknesses if there are aspects of our bodies we aren’t proud of. That, too, is authenticity. Our bodies aren’t to blame if there are things we could do to “improve” them but don’t. If that causes us not to be at ease with nudity, perhaps we should admit where the problem lies – and motivate ourselves to work on it, in order to enjoy nudity more.

Footnotes:

1. The Free Online Dictionary
2. Authenticity (philosophy)

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2 Responses to Authenticity, again

  1. Will Forest says:

    Strong and sensible argument! I’m very much enjoying catching up on your work here, and I’ve added your blog to the roll on my page. Looking forward to reading much more.

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