The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’
That, according to Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones, was the conclusion that Freud himself had finally come to. Freud couldn’t admit this candidly in his own writing. But Jones feet obliged to report it, even though his biography of Freud is generally regarded as a bit overly complimentary.
Is there very much in social conversation that can be more fraught with peril than for men to speculate about what women do or should “want”? Probably not. However, when it comes to issues of naturism and nudity, it’s a topic that cannot be avoided. In our society nudity is generally regarded as risible, awkward, or uncomfortable, at best – and scandalous, shameful, embarrassing, or disgusting at worst. Consequently, people who hold the contrary view – that nudity is wholesome, enjoyable, and life-enhancing – have no choice but to speak up. And this includes men and women equally.
In environments that women trust as safe places for nudity, those who participate find being naked just as pleasurable as men do. This includes traditional safe havens such as naturist/nudist resorts and clubs. But the variety of such zones of safety is gradually expanding to include, for example, private homes, health spas, yoga studios, dance and theatrical performance spaces, and art classes. (The sphere of activities with an overt sexual emphasis is a separate matter, but the extent of women’s participation is probably no less now than it’s been in recent times – and participants are increasingly less bashful in talking and writing about it.)
Obviously, too, our society, as prudish as it is, has for a long time legitimized and encouraged women to wear clothes that leave uncovered a lot more skin than most men would ever consider (in similar social circumstances) – except for the taboo on complete chest exposure, of course. For the most part, women seem to accept this convention – sometimes quite willingly, sometimes more reluctantly (when there are body acceptance issues). Many women suspect that self-serving male preferences encourage this convention – but they often go along anyhow. Who, after all, really wants to wear a lot of uncomfortable clothes on a hot day if the culture says “don’t bother!”
An article that appeared in Salon last week puts this whole issue squarely in a feminist context – and the feminist attitude (in this case) is that enjoyment of nudity, free from both male preferences and harassing behavior, is a woman’s right as much as it is a man’s. In short, nudity is something feminists can affirmatively support – as long as they have a say in the matter.
Many people seem confounded by expressions of female nudity that are not sexual – because isn’t titillation the whole point of women’s nakedness? The real question about female nudity isn’t why anyone would want to show or see women’s breasts if they’re not titillating. The real question is about who has the right to say what they’re for, where and when they can be seen and by whom. That’s about power.
Soraya Chemaly goes on to offer 6 compelling, feminist answers to the question “Why is exposing the world to non-sexualized female nudity important?” Read them yourself. The conclusion, however, has to be emphasized:
We all know that the prohibitions on women’s nipples have nothing to do with women’s nipples, but everything to do with control. The threat that female toplessness and self-articulated nudity poses is culturally defined and can be culturally redefined.
In both the world of ordinary, everyday nudity and the world of nudity as social commentary, art, entertainment, and protest, one answer to Freud’s question is the same. What women want, but often don’t have, is control of their bodies – equally as much control when their bodies are partly or fully naked as when they aren’t.
For women who have discovered that they enjoy nonsexual nudity, and who want to have as much freedom as any man to live their private lives without clothing when they choose to, having control is not an abstract political issue. It’s an everyday concern.
Kate Messinger was raised in a nudist family and took nudity for granted. “At home, my parents were almost always naked. I was used to it because I was pretty much always naked, too.” That changed, of course, at puberty. “My parents’ nudie ways seemed pretty normal until I reached middle school and started seeing bodies, especially my own, as something to be embarrassed about. As I entered the inescapable body-hating stage of puberty, I took to wearing as many clothes as possible.” What is really awkward about puberty is that teenagers are beginning to have adult feelings and interests – in many things, not only in sexuality. Yet they have almost as little control over their lives as younger children.
Adult women in our society also feel a lack of control over their lives, even more so than men. (Although, under present economic conditions, both men and women are pretty stressed for lack of control of their lives, in most cases.) This is true at least as much where nudity is concerned as in most other ways. So is it any wonder that open nudity is a problem for most women, even in “safe” places like naturist/nudist clubs, or in their own homes?
Fortunately for Kate, she overcame her teenage insecurities:
The other day, my boyfriend came home with some friends and, before opening the door, he knocked loudly and yelled: ”KATE! Are you wearing pants?”
How did he know I was vacuuming in the nude? Had the stale piece of bread I used to cover the peep-hole on the front door fallen off again? As I pulled on the closest thing to clothes within reach (cat hair-covered snuggie), I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I realized how he knew I was naked, how he knew to knock: he knows me. After living together for the last year, he knows I am rarely clothed when I am at home.
So women who haven’t been socialized to fear and avoid nudity can indeed make it a normal part of their lives. Almost. We have to wonder why Kate’s boyfriend couldn’t simply have informed his friends that his girlfriend liked to be naked and asked whether this would be a problem for them. We can only speculate. Would doing that have embarrassed him? Was he afraid Kate would be embarrassed? Would his friends have been upset about Kate’s nudity? Was her boyfriend unwilling to allow her to share her nudity with anyone else? Any or all of these could have been true. But the net result was Kate had little control over whether or not to be naked in her own home.
In this case, a man would likely have had the same problem if the positions were reversed. Yet, for very obvious reasons, there are many ways in which women don’t have as much control as men do in being naked or nearly naked. Although our society encourages women to wear skimpy clothing, up to a point, it also condemns women who go “too far” in this direction. Because women who cross that invisible line are labeled “sluts”, “skanks”, or “tramps”. (There’s even a name for this problem: “slut-shaming“) And if they happen to get raped, well, they were just “asking for it”. Because, apparently, men just cannot control their own behavior; it’s not their fault.
Naturist/nudist places are different, of course. Or at least, we’d like to think so. But how is a woman who might consider trying such a place for the first time supposed to know that? Isn’t it pretty likely she’s going to have concerns about her safety? And if not so much for her physical safety, at least her safety from adverse judgments of others about the appearance of her naked body? Or safety from unwanted sexual attention? Or safety from adverse judgments of others (non-naturists) about her “morals” if it becomes known she enjoys nudity?
Concerns like these that a woman has about her safety, in a number of ways, all chip away at the amount of control a woman has in choosing to be naked, even in an environment of nonsexual social nudity. Naturists generally take great care to protect everyone’s safety in naturist environments. But these efforts can’t do much to overcome the negative attitudes and prejudices that the general society has about any form of social nudity.
It’s obvious enough without elaboration that we all value having control of the details in our lives. But having control over a situation is especially important for facilitating the satisfying experience of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied and wrote extensively about. “The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.”
A concern about how one is judged and perceived by others is important to everyone, to some extent or other. But the concern is probably more intense for women than for men, because women are socialized from an early age to be especially attuned to the impressions they make on others and how others perceive them. Unfortunately, this kind of self-consciousness can impede the experience of flow:
A person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her, who is afraid of creating the wrong impression, or of doing something inappropriate, is also condemned to permanent exclusion from enjoyment [of flow].
Shame is “a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of the improper behavior, incompetence, etc. of oneself or of someone that one is closely associated with”. So any sense of shame in connection with nudity is certain to have a negative effect on anyone’s ability to enjoy nudity – and especially so for women.
We shall need to examine this situation in more detail in future posts that deal with women’s feelings about nudity. In particular, what can be done about the strong tendency in our society to deny women (especially, but men too) a sense of control over their bodies when they are naked?
6. Csikszentmihalyi, op. cit., p. 84