Clothing and metaclothing

Photography by Darrin Henry,

Photography by Darrin Henry,

Why on earth would a person who likes to be naked choose to have her body painted to offer a very convincing appearance of wearing clothes? Does that make any sense at all?

Yes, it absolutely does make sense. If a person is not wearing any of what’s generally considered to be “clothing”, then the person in the picture can think of herself as naked, in spite of the bodypaint. Don’t believe it? Then you must not think the person in the picture would be arrested almost anywhere in the U. S. if she went out in public “dressed” the way she is in the picture.

And yet, in a very real sense, bodypaint is also a type of “clothing”, as much as clothing that is made out of fabric (or rubber, plastic, etc.) That’s not the most commonly recognized sense, of course, nor is it the legal sense of the moronic laws of most places in the world, where there is an assumption, often implicit, that clothing is something made out of fabric or similar material, as opposed to something that is tightly bonded to skin or embedded in skin (like a tattoo). Further, most laws also require, often explicitly, that “clothing” must be opaque, at least to the extent of blocking from view specific parts of the body, such as pubic areas or female breasts. (Often much more than that in highly religious countries.)

Many naturists might tend to agree that trompe l’oeil clothing, as in the picture above, really is clothing, because unlike “real” nudity, it is something other than a person’s unadorned “natural” skin. There are even some who think one can’t be a “real” nudist or naturist while wearing anything at all, like jewelry. And maybe there’s a middle ground that would considers bodypaint that covers most of the body to be “clothing”, while bodypaint or tattoos on just small areas aren’t “clothing”.

But in truth, trying to make arbitrary distinctions between what is and what isn’t “clothing” is an exercise in futility. It can be argued, as it will be here, that even absolute nudity is also a form of clothing. And Herman Melville would agree. In Typee he describes the Polynesian maiden Fayaway thus (referring at first to tattoos):

The females are very little embellished in this way, and Fayaway, and all the other young girls of her age, were even less so than those of their sex more advanced in years. The reason of this peculiarity will be alluded to hereafter. All the tattooing that the nymph in question exhibited upon her person may be easily described. Three minute dots, no bigger than pin-heads, decorated each lip, and at a little distance were not at all discernible. Just upon the fall of the shoulder were drawn two parallel lines half an inch apart, and perhaps three inches in length, the interval being filled with delicately executed figures. These narrow bands of tattooing, thus placed, always reminded me of those stripes of gold lace worn by officers in undress, and which are in lieu of epaulettes to denote their rank.

Thus much was Fayaway tattooed. The audacious hand which had gone so far in its desecrating work stopping short, apparently wanting the heart to proceed.

But I have omitted to describe the dress worn by this nymph of the valley.

Fayaway—I must avow the fact—for the most part clung to the primitive and summer garb of Eden. But how becoming the costume!

It showed her fine figure to the best possible advantage; and nothing could have been better adapted to her peculiar style of beauty.[1]

Melville clearly didn’t care for tattoos – as he found nudity far preferable.

But in what sense is total nudity a type of “garb”? The sense that nudity shares with any other type of clothing is that they all are visible features of an individual that are capable of expressing some feeling or message specific to the individual. This expressive communication might or might not be conscious and deliberate. But the communication is quite real in either case. The communication might also be sincere and truthful, or it might be deceptive, but it is still actual communication. To an observer, especially a casual observer, what you wear says a lot about you, even if you’re wearing nothing. All of these things are simply costumes that we might “wear” in our social performances. (“All the world’s a stage.“)

Bodypainting is often pursued as an art form, and like other arts it has aesthetic qualities and has a significant effect on others who experience it. For example:


The people in that picture are certainly expressing something, whether or not you find it aesthetically pleasing or agree with the message (whatever it is). This is so, even though their bodypaint neither remotely resembles ordinary “clothing” nor would fail to be considered as (illegal) nudity in most legal contexts. All of the foregoing could just as well be said if the individuals were totally naked, without bodypaint.

Some people might think that there’s some logical problem of treating nothing on an equal footing as something, or even as instances of the same sort of thing. But that is precisely the same objection as many people had to the idea of zero being a number just like any other number – before the invention of zero. “The concept of zero as a number and not merely a symbol or an empty space for separation is attributed to India, where, by the 9th century AD, practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number.”[2]

If you have reservations about thinking of nudity, or nudity together with a little bodypainting or tattoos, as a type of clothing, then you may feel free to use the term “metaclothing” instead to encompass such things.

As far as logic is concerned, mathematicians are quite used not only to treat zero just like any other number (well, almost), but in other ways to treat “nothing” as “something”. For instance, mathematicians use the symbol ∅ for the empty set. ∅ is a set on an equal footing with any other (mathematical) set. (They are “ontologically” the same sort of thing, in philosopher-speak.)

Most of the properties of ∅ are exactly the same as the properties of any other set. However, it is “distinquished” with a few unique properties of its own. For instance, in the case of the operation of set union, A∪∅ = A for any set A – just as A+0 = A if A is an ordinary number.

Complete nudity, as a form of clothing, is like the empty set. If A is a person, then A+nudity is exactly equal to A, at least physically. We can say truthfully that A+nudity is what we “really” are, while A+(normal clothing) is something distinctly different from A itself. So nudity is still a form of “clothing”, even though nudity is the absence of clothing (in the narrow sense).

We will elaborate on this idea of nudity, nudity with bodypainting, and so forth as forms of clothing in future posts.


1. Typee, Chaper 11

2. 0 (number)

This entry was posted in Naturist philosophy, Nudity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Clothing and metaclothing

  1. Pingback: Clothing and metaclothing | simplenaturist

  2. Reblogged this on home clothes free and commented:
    Post well worth reading on body painting and clothes free living

  3. Happy Bare says:

    So I guess then that a naked person would just as dressed up as a clothed person, and nudity would be a costume worn just as any other costume. I prefer nudity, since my wife takes a real long time to get dressed for any occasion.

  4. Ivan Akirov says:

    This view you use and give us here is also the way we in biological sciences treat characters or features, for instance, for any given measurable/quantifiable morphological feature, discrete or continuous, let’s say, a leaf petiole, its lenght could be any number, even zero, in such a case, the leaf is said to be sessile, but it got a petiole of lenght=0. Thus I’ve always thought of nudity as clothing=0.

    • Yes, indeed, Ivan. Measuring and quantifying is the scientific way of thinking, and from one point of view, nudity is clothing=0. That is, if what we are measuring is an addition to what the human body is biologically.

      But nudity could be measured in a different way – in terms of information content. In information theory, the information content of a message is the amount of “surprise” the message carries. For instance, if you wear the same type of clothing every day – same style and color, for example – there is no surprise, and hence essentially no information contained in what you are wearing. But if one day you don’t wear any clothes there will be a great deal of surprise for anyone who doesn’t know you like being naked.

      By the same token, if you live somewhere you can be naked every day, then nobody who knows you will be surprised if you’re also naked tomorrow. Then the information content of your nudity will be zero. But if you wear clothes tomorrow, the information content will be high. Perhaps it means you’re going somewhere clothing will be required. So the amount of information contained in either clothing or nudity can be any (nonnegative) number, depending on circumstances.

      This leads to a further thought: since an information content of zero can be rather boring, being naked all the time, without additions of any kind (like jewelry or bodypaint), if one doesn’t want to be considered a boring person, it may be necessary to find ways to vary one’s appearance from total nudity. Or if one always wears clothes, perhaps going naked will add a bit of pizzazz to one’s social profile. Something to think about.

  5. Pingback: The information content of nudity | Naturist Philosopher

  6. Proudly As God Made Me says:

    One of the things I studied in college was the social and psychological aspects of clothing. As a nudist, I had a vested interest in doing so. Social scientists who study clothing talk about “dress,” which is “the total arrangement of all outwardly detectable modifications of the body itself and all material objects added to it” (Roach and Musa, 1980). There are three different types of “dress”:

    1. Body Modification, which includes any temporary or permanent changing or redesigning of the body itself (e.g., color [dyeing or lightening the hair, tattooing, powdering, painting, tanning or lightening the skin, using makeup or nail polish], texture [curling or straightening the hair, smoothing the skin through plastic surgery, using creams or lotions to soften the skin], or shape [styling hair, trimming beard or mustache, reshaping the body through the use of undergarments, reshaping the body through dieting, exercising, weight lifting, or plastic surgery]).

    2. Body Enclosures, which includes the envelopment and covering of the body or some part of the body, with the item being wrapped around the body, suspended from a part of the body, preshaped to fit a part of the body (e.g., gold ring, rubber boots, parts of garments designed to be formed around the contours of parts of the body), or any combination thereof.

    3. Attachments to the Body, the covering of small areas of the body or the body enclosures to which they are fixed—insertions (e.g., earrings for pierced ears, barrettes or ribbons interlaced in the hair), clips (earrings attached to the body or clip-on ties which are attached to a body enclosure in the shirt), adherends (e.g., false eyelashes, artificial fingernails), and items hung from the shoulder or hand-held (e.g., a shoulder-bag, purse, umbrella, walking stick).

    As can be seen from this, the Western conception of clothing falls into the second category of body enclosures. People who are considered “clothed” have their bodies both covered and enveloped. Body paint actually falls within the first category of body modification. People who paint their bodies are temporarily changing the color of their bodies with paint. So while someone isn’t considered to be “clothed” if he or she is wearing only body paint, they are, in fact, dressed.

    A social scientist who studies clothing would consider bodypaint as a type of dress. A tattoo is also dress, also in the first category along with body paint. The only difference being that tattoos permanently modify the body, whereas body paint is temporary and can simply be washed off, while tattoo removal would require surgery. Piercings fit into the third category, in the subcategory of insertions. They’re pieces of metal inserted through a part of the body, that covers a very small part of it. Leather bands fit into the second category of body enclosures, as they enclose a small part of the body.

    Every culture dresses themselves in some way, regardless whether or not they would be considered “clothed” by the standards of our society. One can be nude (i.e., not wearing body enclosures) yet dressed.

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