So far the topics being discussed here have mostly not dealt in much depth with what could be accurately described as “philosophy”. Some of the psychological discussions come close, but that’s not quite the same.
Of course, systematic philosophical thinking doesn’t come easily to a lot of people. However, it can be argued that just that kind of thinking can help understand why it is so difficult to explain to most people what social nudity is really about. This post is going to make that argument.
It’s worth suggesting, too, that a lack of some coherent philosophical base in contemporary naturism – especially as compared to earlier incarnations of naturism from the 1920s and 1930s – is a serious weakness. For instance, this comment from a generally positive outside observer:
[T]he new nudism, apart from its obvious demographic differences, diverges from that of decades past in that it’s not nearly as philosophically or politically motivated. Yes, mass naked parties and gatherings constitute a basic rebellion against societal norms, but so far, it’s a rebellion without a unified ideologic cause or M.O. … If the new nudism is oriented around event planning rather than intellectual conversations, the discussion and debate required to change the very entrenched—and outdated—elements of the culture may not be taking place.
The philosophical basis for the following discussion is known as embodied cognition:
[T]he embodied mind thesis holds that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. Philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and artificial intelligence researchers who study embodied cognition and the embodied mind argue that all aspects of cognition are shaped by aspects of the body.
Trying to explain this philosophy in detail would take us way too far afield. Most of what’s here is based on Chapter 2 of Mark Johnson's book The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. (Johnson is one of the leaders in this school of philosophy.)
In a nutshell, the idea is that bodily experiences, feelings, emotions, and perceptions have a very large influence on how people think and understand concepts and meaning. The emphasis placed on the body’s role in cognition should suggest to naturists – for whom the naked body is such a central issue – that this philosophy ought to be especially relevant to their concerns. Rather than try to explain it further here, you should be able to get an idea of what it’s about from the concrete examples we’re about to discuss.
A central concept of embodied cognition is that of the “schema”. (A similar concept, used for example by Johnson’s collaborator George Lakoff, is “frame”) Johnson cites several other writers to explain the concept. For instance, from David Rumelhart, a schema is “generalized knowledge about a sequence of events”. Johnson says that a schema is a structured framework “that includes characters, settings, sequences of events, causal connections, and so forth, that are the means by which we organize our knowledge of the world”. Note that this formulation applies especially to human social interactions.
So a schema is not a single concept but rather a structured bundle of knowledge and beliefs. Johnson explains that
[T]hese structures are not rigid or fixed, however, but are altered in their application to particular situations. Furthermore, they are not just templates for conceptualizing past experience; some schemata [plural of schema] are plans of a sort for interacting with objects and persons. They give expectations and anticipations that influence our interactions with our environment.
So much for generalities. Let’s look at a (very important) specific example. Johnson goes into detail about related schemata associated with the concepts of “containment and boundedness”. He says “Our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience. … We move in and out of rooms, clothes [emphasis added], vehicles, and numerous kinds of bounded spaces.”
A very important aspect of containment and boundedness is a sense of orientation and directionality – in particular the “in-out” direction. Johnson notes that “the experiential basis for in-out orientation is that of spatial boundedness.” That is, one is able to go into or out of a house or clothes (for example), because there is a physical boundary. “Physical in-out orientation involves separation, differentiation, and enclosure, which implies restriction and limitation.” Johnson cites several associated consequences of the experience of in-out orientation. One is “The experience of containment typically involves protection from, or resistance to, external forces.” Another is “This relative fixing of location within the container means that the contained object becomes either accessible or inaccessible to the view of some observer.”
Since the definition of nudity is to be outside of any clothing, the relevance of in-out orientation to naturist concerns should be completely apparent. Johnson himself does not take note of this relevance. It’s our interpretation, but he would probably agree.
We now have the conceptual elements necessary to state an answer to the question posed in the title of this note. Social nudity is difficult for most people to understand because they have not, from personal experience, developed an appropriate schema in which to comprehend it. Instead, most people are able to comprehend nudity in general, or social nudity in particular, with the only schema they have developed related to nudity, namely the schema for sexual encounters. This schema, of course, is not appropriate for naturist social nudity.
Obviously, the mistake and misunderstanding is explained by the fact that most people have no personal experience with naturist social nudity. So, ideally, in order to help people to comprehend social nudity properly, the best way would be for them to experience it under the guidance of individuals who have some degree of personal experience with it. Sadly, the misunderstanding of social nudity that most people have prevents them (in most cases) from gaining personal experience, either on their own or with the guidance of more experienced others.
A family would be an ideal place for children and young people to gain experience with social nudity. Unfortunately, of course, even that is often not sufficient, as children raised in families that practice social nudity often drop out due to various social pressures (from people who misunderstand it), rather than lack of personal understanding.
In any case, there are few families that practice social nudity or even allow casual nudity in their own homes because nonsexual nudity is so poorly understood in our society. One alternative is to try to educate people about social nudity by means such as stories, pictures, online videos, narrative descriptions, etc. The reason that such efforts usually fail is that they do not provide a person with direct experience in his/her own body of what social nudity is actually like. And so a conceptual schema that is appropriate for social nudity is never formed.
We can rephrase this discussion in the language of metaphors and analogies. (Mark Johnson is also co-author, with George Lakoff, of an earlier book on metaphor: Metaphors We Live By. One can think of a metaphor as a greatly-simplified schema, or a component of a schema, that encapsulates the meaning of one thing by reference to a (generally more familiar) other thing. We can then say that people don’t understand social nudity because they tacitly invoke the inappropriate metaphor of sexual encounters.
If our goal is to achieve a much more widespread accurate understanding of social nudity, in the absence of personal bodily experience, some way must be found to substitute a better metaphor. The problem is that most people have no experience or knowledge of social activities that sufficiently resemble social nudity to serve as metaphors. Social nudity is certainly not especially “like” an ordinary dinner party, for example, since that mostly lacks the same suite of embodied perceptual feelings and experiences that are characteristic of social nudity.
Consider a very different situation where public understanding – and acceptance – has recently grown much more rapidly than understanding and acceptance of social nudity, namely gay marriage. The reason that gay marriage has become socially (and legally) acceptable so rapidly in the past few years is that most (adult) people have a lot of physical experience (both good and not so good) with being “married” to another person. There are all sorts of emotions and feelings everyone recognizes as being associated with marriage. So it’s not difficult at all for most non-gay people to understand why gay people would want to have the same experience. (Another reason gay marriage has become acceptable so quickly is that marriage is a schema people are very familiar with, and as Johnson points out, schemata are flexible, not rigid and fixed, so it’s a simple step to extend marriage to include same-sex partners.)
Unfortunately, the emotions and feelings associated with social nudity are not at all as generally recognized as are those associated with marriage. And so most people who haven’t experienced those emotions and feelings can’t understand what social nudity is about. If they think about the subject at all, they have nothing but inappropriate metaphors and analogies to work with. Both marriage and social nudity can be adequately understood only in terms of emotions and feelings. Purely intellectual descriptions, or pictures, videos, etc., do not suffice for proper understanding. And so outsiders (“textiles”) are always asking naturists, “But why do you want to be naked with other people?” Any suitable answer – unlike, for instance, voyeurism or exhibitionism – is just not comprehensible to most people, because they haven’t experienced the kinds of emotions and feelings that are unique to social nudity.
However, it turns out, that the experience of perception itself offers a good metaphor for nudity in general. Nudity can be understood as a state of the body that enables perceptual modalities – through the body’s largest sense organ, the skin – that are obstructed when clothing is worn. Clothes are a container, a barrier, that significantly inhibits this sensual modality. Clothes block perceptual stimuli through the skin just like a blindfold blocks visual stimuli through the eyes. Conversely, the absence of clothes or blindfolds allows for perception of useful and pleasant stimuli. People who want to enjoy perceiving stimuli obstructed by blindfolds or clothes simply need to remove those barriers.
There is a metaphor for clothes that helps explain why most people strongly prefer not to be out(side) of clothes. Namely, clothes are like body armor that protects, to some extent or other, people from unwanted or feared actions by agents that exist on the outside of clothes (armor). That which is feared or unwanted in the case of clothes, of course, is the gaze or physical contact from other people upon one’s skin. Clothes are the barrier, the armor, against that. Many situations, in fact, are considered to require a particular type of clothes/armor, e. g. business suits for high-status office workers. Most people, of course, feel “naked”, exposed, and vulnerable if they are not wearing “appropriate” clothes/armor.
Not everyone, however.
Unfortunately, for people where the metaphor of clothing as armor is salient, even if unconsciously, the idea of nudity (absence of clothes/armor) is quite unsettling because of the (supposedly) inevitable vulnerability. We’ve already discussed vulnerability elsewhere, and how the fear of it makes enjoyment of social nudity almost impossible. This fear of vulnerability makes even the understanding of social nudity very difficult. Armor is the metaphor many or most people use for clothing, consciously or not. So advocates of social nudity need to find and promote a different metaphor for clothing that emphasizes negative rather than positive aspects of clothing.
When discussing social nudity with others who don’t understand it, advocates of social nudity should point out the unconscious metaphor of clothing as a type of armor that “protects” the skin and body from visual or physical contact by others, so that people at least realize they are influenced by this metaphor. If nothing else, that reduces the problem to persuading people that this “protection” is not necessary in a genuine social nudity situation.
Instead of armor, a different metaphor that suggests benefits to offset a person’s discomfort with nudity should be offered. The metaphor would be to think of clothing not as armor, but instead as a container or barrier that isolates a person from positive sensory experiences. For example, clothing is like a blindfold that obstructs visual perception. Alternatively, clothing can be thought of like a tent that blocks one from enjoyable visual and tactile experiences such as the sight of stars overhead at night or gentle breezes. (Everyone knows this joke, right?) Indeed, unnecessarily wearing clothes in a benign environment isolates a person from one whole sensory channel (the skin) to reality itself.
In fact, naturist organizations should think seriously about reworking the arguments they use in advocating in favor of social nudity. As long as most of the public is using inappropriate metaphors to understand social nudity, efforts to try to present the benefits and wholesomeness of social nudity will be ineffective – like trying to put lipstick on a pig. The old way just “does not compute” given the bad metaphors that shape the public’s concept of social nudity. New and much more appropriate metaphors have to be developed and promoted.
But changing the metaphors that are familiar to the public will be very difficult. Just note how maddeningly persistent is the metaphor of “colony” for private places where social nudity is practiced. The implied analogy is “leper colony” – and that’s positively deadly. The first step is to get the public to become aware that their thinking about social nudity is badly distorted by inappropriate metaphors. The next step is to convince people that in order to properly understand social nudity it is necessary to consciously think in terms of new metaphors, new “frames” that give an accurate intuitive sense of what social nudity is all about.
The history of nudism and naturism in the past shows just how difficult promoting new metaphors is. In 1937 U. S. naturist pioneer Ilsley Boone tried to introduce the “sunbathing” metaphor by renaming his nudist organization The American Sunbathing Association. That notion lasted until 1995 when the organization became The American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR). As a metaphor “sunbathing” was benign, but a flop because it was much too narrow. (And it was obviously a euphemism besides.) Likewise, “nude recreation” is inadequate because it is also too narrow. AANR has persisted slouching into derpitude with its current “nakation” metaphor. (Even if “nakation” didn’t sound so inane, the vacation metaphor is again too narrow.)
The term “naturism” offers a somewhat better metaphor and has been in use since at least the 1920s. It is good because it hints at how being outside of clothing facilitates being in closer contact with nature, and is also more “natural” for humans. (Notice the popularity of “natural” these days as a metaphor for certain types of food.) But “naturist” also has many shortcomings, not the least of which is how often it is confused with “naturalist”. But the big problem with “naturism” is that it totally fails to incorporate the social aspect.
The social aspect of social nudity is critically important, because what makes social nudity so distinct from simple private nudity is the emphasis placed on denying the necessity or even desirability of clothing in nonsexual human interactions with one another. Private nudity is fine, of course, in recreational activities and everyday life. But it is mostly uncontroversial, and it is not really close to what people who enjoy socializing with others in the absence of clothing are trying to legitimize.
Incorporating “social” somehow into the preferred metaphor needs to be the objective. It reminds people of the pleasure that is possible from friendly interactions with others. And also, most importantly, being included inside, instead of outside, a social group, which just happens to be defined by eliminating an obligation to wear clothes. Group membership triggers positive emotional associations – and the importance of emotions in human thinking is one of the main points of the philosophy of embodied cognition, also known as “philosophy in the flesh“.
However, “social nudity” is a literal, descriptive term, not a metaphor. As such, it does not connect with personal experiences that most people actually have (other than in the bedroom). And so it doesn’t promote comprehension because it does not sufficiently communicate to people at an intuitive, visceral level. People who already understand and enjoy social nudity need to figure out some more potent and effective metaphors.
Since elimination of an obligation (to wear clothes) amounts to an increase of freedom, it may well be a good thing to find metaphors that emphasize freedom. Freedom is something that people can feel viscerally, when boundaries and constraints are removed. Freedom means liberation from things that are unpleasant and/or burdensome, like debts, duties – and clothes. People want things that they need to be “free” of other things with negative associations. For example, pesticide-free food is more desirable than ordinary food. Playing with this metaphor could make a clothes-free lifestyle seem more appealing.
The following remarks aren’t essential to the main point of this note. However, they provide a couple of additional examples of how the in-out concept underlies some more complex ideas.
There’s another aspect to the in-out orientation perspective of the container schema. This is represented by the idea of “getting into a relationship” with another person. The relationship might be simply mutual understanding or friendship with someone else, or perhaps something a bit deeper. But one thing that may inhibit the ability to do this is the existence of a physical barrier, such as clothing. In case this is somewhat hard to understand, it may be easier to understand the converse: the absence of physical barriers (clothing) can be helpful to making a better connection with others, even if it’s (obviously) not sufficient. (One might add that just because a person is naked (out of his/her clothes), doesn’t mean the person is out of his/her mind – unless it’s assumed there’s no difference between one’s mind and one’s clothes.)
We should also consider one more in-out metaphor: the idea of “coming out”. Specifically “coming out as a naturist”. You can probably fill in the details by now. Mark Johnson touches on this as well, though not in the context of naturism:
[T]he out movement involves a metaphorical bringing into prominence or making public. That which is bounded-in may be hidden, unknown, unavailable, or unnoticed, so that being out constitutes being public, known, available for use, or noticed.
In other words, being seen, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Naturists understand that this need not make them feel vulnerable in a social nudity situation.