In a recent post we found that the concept of “freedom” is quite important in thinking about naturism and nudity. This is rather uncontroversial (among naturists, anyhow). “Freedom” (from clothes) is often cited by naturists as one of the most important aspects of naturism. Freedom from clothes is often viewed more generally as the “freedom to be oneself” – to be able to enjoy life the way we want to, and to not be constrained by conventional social stereotypes that specific types of clothing imply. By not wearing clothes, we avoid having to accept a stereotype that any choice might imply. And further, that by choosing not to wear clothes, we reject stereotypes such as “exhibitionist” or “loose moral character”.
This is going to be a long post. If you just want to see the conclusions without the reasoning behind them, you can skip to the end. But you may not quite understand the argument.
In order to understand this relationship between nudity and freedom, we need to analyze the meaning of “freedom” in more detail. It turns out that there’s a lot more to this relationship than simply being “free” from clothes – “clothes-free”. As before, we’re going to discuss this following the ideas of “embodied cognition”. This will be based on Mark Johnson’s book, The Body in the Mind, Chapter 3, in particular.
At first this discussion will be fairly abstract, but please be patient. We’ll look at two important (and controversial) naturist examples eventually. To offer you some motivation for reading on, here are the issues we’ll consider. First, if freedom of choice about whether or not to wear clothes is so important to naturists, should naturists respect the freedom of others to wear clothes in places such as clubs and resorts that cater to naturists? Second, if naturists are serious about their enjoyment of nudity, should they hesitate to be naked in places where nudity is permitted or accepted, but nobody else chooses to be naked?
What applying the idea of embodied cognition means is that we look at common experiences we feel through our body and how these feelings affect the way we think. In particular, Johnson examines our experience of “forces”. Now, “force” has a very specific meaning in the science of physics. But in our daily lives we experience “forces” that may be, but aren’t necessarily, physical in nature. Examples of physical forces include the forces of wind, water (in a heavy rain, or if we’re swimming), and falling objects, such as tree branches.
Nonphysical forces are understood by metaphorical reference to physical forces. But this understanding is so natural that we can usually ignore the distinction. Nonphysical forces often have their origins in social interactions, such as uncoerced tendencies to “go along” with the crowd, peer pressure, or demands from authority figures (bosses, parents, police, etc.). There are even more abstract forces, such as “moral” and religious rules, laws, and social norms. Not all forces are external to ourselves. Some of the most powerful – and diverse – forces are internal feelings, such as hunger, anger, fear, love, cravings, addictions, ambition, vanity – to mention just a few.
In our everyday experiences, forces can affect us in various ways. Johnson lists seven ways, but we can limit this discussion to just two ways forces affect us. One effect of a force is to make us do something we might not otherwise do, or to do things differently than we would otherwise do, or to cause us to make choices we wouldn’t otherwise make. For example, a physical force such as heavy rain might cause us to drive to the store instead of walk, as well as to slow us down whichever way we choose to go. A moral force might cause us to donate to charities. An internal force might cause us to work harder in order to achieve “success”. Johnson terms this effect of forces as “compulsion”.
Notice that the forces just mentioned may have either beneficial or detrimental effects, depending on the circumstances. To take a naturist example, we might decide to get involved in naturism because a friend persuades us (good), because we want to enhance a personal relationship that’s important to us (good), or because we have voyeuristic or exhibitionistic tendencies (not so good). But whether the ultimate effect is positive or negative, most forces we experience tend to limit our freedom, because they push us in certain directions instead of others, or narrow the range of options we can choose from. Only if most forces that can act on us are eliminated or avoided can we maximize our “freedom”. But such maximizing isn’t necessarily a good thing. If we could avoid all forces we’d be like a becalmed, powerless boat at sea, unable to go anywhere at all. As Isaac Newton observed, a body at rest remains at rest, unless acted on by a force.
The second way that forces can affect us is to act against something we want to do or some direction we want to go. In this case, we feel the force as pushing against us from in front instead of from behind us. Johnson calls this effect of a force a “blockage”. However, a force acting against us from in front doesn’t necessarily stop us entirely. It may only slow us down or make progress more difficult. A physical example is a wall. If the wall is high enough and strong enough, it may block us completely, but if it’s not too high, we may be able to climb over it. In either case, the force will at least slow us down. Again, the effect may be either negative or positive. A blocking or restraining force can be a positive if it makes it more difficult to do something that’s ultimately not in our best interest. Laws, moral sentiments, and social demands are nonphysical forces that are often in this category. Internal feelings such as fear and shame can also have, ultimately, either positive or negative effects.
To summarize, in most cases these two sorts of effect of a force (whether it’s physical, social, or internal) can tend to limit our “freedom”. However, that’s not necessarily either good or bad. The point is that “freedom” itself is not unconditionally a good thing. It is necessary to look more deeply to decide between “good” and “not so good”.
We’ll get to two specific naturist examples in a moment, but first we need to say a little about some language that’s commonly used in this context. Specifically, we need to consider the modal words “must”, “may”, and “can”.
To say that a person “must” do something is to say that there is a force that largely compels a particular action. If you’re hit by a speeding car, you almost certainly must go to the hospital (or the morgue). You usually have very little choice in the matter. However, a “must” isn’t necessarily absolute. There are a variety of subtly different senses of “must”, and some are more absolute than others. You “must” obey most laws, unless you think you won’t be caught or punished, or unless you just don’t care about the consequences. You “must” not eat too much high-calorie food, unless you don’t mind putting on weight. And so on. There are various other subtle distinctions in the use of “must”. (E. g. “You simply must go see this fantastic new movie.”) But we won’t get into that. What’s important is, on the whole, if there happens to be a force that makes certain actions into things you “must do”, your freedom is probably going to be somewhat limited.
To say that a person “may” do something is to say that there is no reason the person “must not” do it. In other words, there is no significant force opposing some action. Instead, there may be “permission”, either explicit or implicit, to take the action. For example, at a nudist club, by definition, you may go naked – most of the time or in most circumstances, but not always. (For example, you could be expected to wear something or other in the dining room or (horrors) at a “lingerie dance”.) Again, there are subtle variations of “may” we don’t have to look at now.
Finally, to say that a person “can” do something is to say that the person actually has the ability to do it. Perhaps the something could be something the person “may” not do (doesn’t have permission). But usually implicit or explicit permission for an action is assumed as well as the ability to do it. Only Superman “can” leap tall buildings (unassisted) at a single bound, even though there are usually no rules against it. Depending on the rules at a specific nudist club, some people never “can” get naked (for a variety of personal reasons) even though there is full permission to do so. If you both “may” and “can” do something, then you have maximal freedom to actually do it – if you choose to. If that something is “go around without any clothes on”, and you’re somewhere that is accepted or at least tolerated, and if you don’t feel inhibited about being naked then congratulations – you’re all set to enjoy social nudity.
Now, at last, we’re ready to apply these abstract philosophical ideas to the two issues noted above.
If you’ve been to more than one or two naturist parks or resorts, you probably realize that some are truly “clothing optional” – that is not only is nudity generally permitted, but also anyone who doesn’t want to be fully naked is not required to be (except, usually, at or near pools and spas). On the other hand, at other places nudity is required most of the time, except for limited, specific reasons (e. g. outdoor temperature, protection from sunburn, etc.) Many naturists/nudists tend to have strong feelings about which alternative is the “right” way.
We’re not going to go into all the pros and cons of either approach. But let’s look at the situation just from the point of view of what’s best as far as “freedom” is concerned. We have noted than any force that a person feels, whether physical or social or internal tends to limit a person’s freedom. This limitation of freedom also exists whether the force “pushes” a person in a certain direction (“compulsion”), or whether (alternatively) the force blocks or hinders a person from pursuing a desired course of action. More succinctly, a person’s freedom is compromised when the person is in a situation where certain things must be done or must not be done. Sometimes there are good reasons for such requirements. But those reasons have to be weighed against the downside of restrictions on freedom.
Naturists/nudists are all too aware of the ubiquitous restrictions on being naked in most social situations. So they cherish the freedom in the rather limited available circumstances where restrictions against nudity are absent. Naturists and nudists rightly feel it is not fair for these restrictions to be applied in a large number of circumstances where they are imposed. So isn’t it equally unfair to impose restrictions, in nudist/naturist places, on a person’s preference not to be fully naked? Especially if there are understandable reasons not to be naked. For instance, in the case of a naturist’s friend/partner/spouse who wants to accompany the naturist to places where nudity is permitted. Some people simply don’t enjoy nudity – even if they “may” be naked, they “can” not be naked for personal reasons of their own.
The second issue to examine is what kind of forces, if any, exist to limit the freedom of a person who enjoys being naked in circumstances where nudity is permitted, but few if any other people take advantage of this freedom. This is not unrelated to the previous issue. The connection is that nudist/naturist places that require nudity often contend that without this rule, a majority of people may choose not to be naked even if nudity is fully allowed. And consequently, people who are naked will feel a force against being naked simply because of being in the presence of others, perhaps a majority, who aren’t naked. Wouldn’t a force exerted somehow by the presence of people who aren’t naked constitute a limitation on the freedom to be naked?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. A large part of the problem is deciding exactly what sort of force might inhibit a person who enjoys nudity from actually being naked (where’s it’s allowed) in case many or most other people present aren’t naked. Even, perhaps, if nobody else is naked. As long as nudity it accepted without overt opposition, assuming others do nothing to discourage a person’s nudity, isn’t that sufficient freedom to be able to enjoy nudity?
Consider, for example, a specific but extreme situation. Let’s say you have a definite preference to be naked whenever factors like temperature and adequate shade make that practical. The reasons for your preference don’t especially matter. Perhaps you enjoy the absence of obstruction to sensory perception through your largest sense organ, your skin; perhaps you believe there are health benefits to nudity, e. g. stress reduction; or perhaps you want to make a statement about the inanity of excluding bare skin as a legitimate choice of attire. Assume further that all of the people you live with and your best friends have no objection to your nudity and seem to sincerely accept it, even if they don’t want to be naked and are not naked themselves, and that there’s enough privacy so that people who object to nudity would not encounter you.
In this situation, will there remain any sort of “force” that would curtail your freedom to be naked while carrying on normal social interactions with close friends and people you live with? By assumption, such a force would not be external to you. There’s enough privacy that social laws and customs don’t apply, and anyone you interact with doesn’t object to nudity.
Perhaps you would feel a subtle peer pressure not to be naked, even though nobody you interact with gives an overt indication of objection to nudity (including subtle signs of discomfort or displeasure). This might be because you think that others might have a lowered opinion of you because you like to be naked or because you choose not to conform to the choices that everyone else makes. Even without specific evidence, you might still have concerns about this simply because humans are social animals and it is “human nature” to worry about what others think of them.
Another source of a force internal to you that inhibits being naked could be vestiges of anti-nudity beliefs you still hold. These might be things like religious or moral beliefs, a feeling that nudity has inappropriate sexual implications, concerns that others might find your naked physical appearance to be unattractive, or that being naked marks you as being “undignified” or of lower social status. (As well, of course, as fears, whether realistic or not, that your employment might be jeopardized if you were known to enjoy social nudity.) This list obviously could be extended. (But, because of the assumption that you are among people you live happily with and good friends, it would generally not include fear of physical danger or unwanted sexual attention.)
In the situation described, if you have learned a little psychology, you’ll recognize that what’s being discussed is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. In short, there is conflict and inconsistency in your beliefs, ideas, and values related to nudity. The result is that you feel mental stress and discomfort when you choose to be naked among others who are all or mostly not naked. You may feel stress and discomfort even when you are naked and a majority of others are also. The net result is that your freedom to enjoy being naked is diminished if not mostly eliminated.
It’s important to understand that the same considerations apply to people who have no particular objection to nudity yet don’t want to be fully naked themselves when all or most others around them are naked. People, for instance, like partners or good friends who might otherwise be happy to accompany you to places where most people are enjoying social nudity. This is, in particular, a strong argument that dedicated naturist/nudist facilities should not exclude people who want to continue wearing at least a little clothing. As long as considerations of fairness, tolerance, and open-mindedness are important, people should learn to interact cordially with others who have differing feelings about being naked. And people whose preference is to be naked should realize that the best path, in the long run, to maximizing their own freedom is to be considerate of people with the opposite preference.
So, what has this lengthy discussion possibly accomplished? If anything, it would be to suggest a major reason that social nudity has had such a difficult time gaining acceptance in our society. The reason is that naturist/nudist organizations have not thought at all deeply enough about the underlying psychology – specifically, what psychologists have learned about cognitive dissonance. It will be necessary to become explicitly conscious of and to analyze seriously as many beliefs, ideas, and values as possible that conflict with the reasons for enjoying social nudity. That is the first, essential step to neutralizing the negatives.
Strategies that simply disregard the negatives cannot deal with cognitive dissonance at all. So, for instance, simply trying to promote positives about nudity (“nakations”, for example), is ignoring half (the more stubborn half) of the problem, and will never work by itself – for the vast majority of the population.
Further, simplistic strategies that address only one or two anti-nudity attitude systems have not and will not work either. Examples include trying to counter body shame by promoting “body acceptance” and denying any connection between nudity and sexuality. Advocates of social nudity are going to have to address effectively a lot of prevalent ideas – such as that any depiction of nudity is “pornography” or “not safe for work”; that seeing adult nudity is “harmful to children”, that human genitals are ugly or “junk” or “disgusting”; that even private social nudity is a violation of “public morals”.
Just consider the problem of the public’s strong tendency to associate nudity with sexuality. Some people argue that this is simply the result of the efforts of advertizing and marketing operations to use nudity (hence sex) as a sales tool in our society. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the story, probably not the main part. We can’t escape the fact that being naked means our genitals are exposed, and so, as embodied creatures, our brains receive sex-related messages. There’s no honest way to deny that. Instead, we need to argue that humans are also capable of channeling their sexual feelings in socially acceptable ways. Naturists/nudists do this now for the most part. So do the few remaining indigenous people living in warm climates. Others can learn to do it as well.
We have our work cut out for us.