Review of A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm

Philip Carr-Gomm’s book, A Brief History of Nakedness, published in 2010, is impressive on several accounts. It is well-researched, well-written (though the organization of topics could be better), and illustrated with many color and black-and-white photos that are quite relevant but must have required much diligence to locate. Some of its conclusions are prescient. But there are important questions about the selection of topics it discusses.

A vast range of relevant topics are mentioned or discussed, as this quote suggests:

You can skydive, bungee-jump, get married, perform stand-up comedy, or karaoke, take yoga classes, join magic rituals, visit public swimming pools on “nude nights”, go to the cinema, bask in spas, or be body-painted in the nude. You can risk a holiday in “Naked City” at Cap d’Agde in the South of France, bathe naked in a private club or dine out in the nude in New York or Edinburgh, sunbathe in parks in the center of Berlin or Munich, go clubbing at the “Starkers” disco in London, work out in the nude in a Dutch gym, go on a naked cruise or hike in New Zealand or fly to your holiday in the nude on a German airline. [pp. 16ff]

Some of the discussions touch on sensitive topics, such as “The Genital Liberation Movement”. This appears to be mainly the author’s term. It doesn’t mean the flaunting of one’s genitals, but simply the waning of taboos related to genitals, which is implicit in tolerance for non-sexual activities engaged in when one is fully naked. In short, exposure of genitals in such activities is increasingly unaccompanied by feelings of shame or embarrassment, on the part of naked people, or feelings of shock or alarm, on the part of others who happen to see someone naked. Genitals are considered simply body parts that everyone has and that aren’t at all objectionable in themselves. (Clearly, though, there are still many publications and online sites (like Facebook) that try to “protect” closed-minded members of the general public from ever seeing or thinking about genitals, so such progress is merely relative.) Related to this is the trend to make shaving of pubic hair a matter of personal preference, like the choice whether to shave any other body hair.

A topic that should have been covered in more detail involves other psychological issues related to nakedness, in particular the relationship between nakedness (and the degree of comfort associated with it) and body acceptance, both of one’s own naked body and the body of others. This has been a hot topic for some time among people who are favorable towards nudity. The omission is especially surprising, since the author is (among other things) a psychologist who has “trained and practised as a psychotherapist”. Perhaps he may someday devote an entire new book to relevant psychological issues. Or perhaps he never intended to do more than describe many diverse aspects of nakedness in historical and contemporary culture, instead of delving into the psychology of it.

One would, however, think that a relatively recent book of such scope would devote many pages to details of the ups and downs of organized nudism/naturism (or just “naturism”, for short) in the 20th century, no? If so, one would be wrong. This book covers the topic in only about 10 pages in the middle of a chapter on political issues related to nudity. “Nudism” isn’t included in the index (along with a number of other things that should be there too but aren’t). The brief discussion doesn’t get into anything related to organized naturism after the mid-1930s. And this neglect exists even though the book reflects sometimes awesomely thorough and well-referenced research on the history of nakedness over a period of more than 2000 years. Of course, 100 years out of 2000 isn’t much – but far, far more is known about nakedness in the past century than in the rest of the previous two millennia.

The observation of this neglect isn’t necessarily a criticism of the book. Instead, it might be an indication that naturism is only a small, perhaps not very important part of the overall history of human nakedness. But before examining that thought, one point should be noted. In a brief postscript to the book the author reveals that it was only a little less than a decade before the book’s publication that he “had discovered the simple pleasures of baring all”. This, he explains, came about during a “chance visit” to Britain’s storied Spielplatz while doing “research for a biography”. In other words, the author had no long personal experience with naturism. Yet it’s obvious from the profusion of relatively obscure details about other aspects of nakedness, and the research effort required to uncover such, that the author must have spent most of his research time during that decade on almost any relevant topic but naturism.

Does this circumstance indicate the author didn’t care all that much about organized naturism or that he considered it of little importance? We don’t really know, since he never actually discusses this point. There are also several other topics that might seem relevant, but that receive almost no comment in the book. One is the efflorescence of displays of full nudity in cinema (in the U. S. and internationally) beginning in the 1960s. Such displays have been almost always brief, even though they usually earned the movies in which they occurred at least an “adults-only” rating, or even a XXX porn rating. Currently, brief scenes of both female and male nudity in movies dealing with romantic or other adult themes are almost de rigueur.

That’s just as it should be, since humans really do get naked a lot in romantic and various other circumstances. Oddly, however, movies in which one or more characters are naked in most scenes throughout the movie are quite rare. That’s somewhat to be expected – yet many people, who don’t necessarily consider themselves naturists, do actually spend many hours of their time naked in the privacy of their own homes or with friends. This is especially true of wealthy elites, especially popular celebrities, who (fictionally or not), are often leading characters in movies. Why are there almost no movies in which one or more characters are casually naked in anything but sexual scenes? Carr-Gomm, however, has almost nothing to say about such issues, or nudity in cinema more generally. (Except for two movies where nudity is the main subject – Calendar Girls and The Full Monty. And in those two cases, full-frontal nudity is avoided.)

There’s one other relevant topic, which the author avoids altogether – namely the profusion of erotic nudity in publications like Playboy and its imitators since the 1950s. That phenomenon, of course, is only tangentially, at most, related to naturism, though it arose in the same time period. What it does indicate is that nudity (of an erotic flavor) is of significant interest to large segments of the population (albeit mainly among males). In addition, during the past 60 years such nudity has become increasingly explicit, especially after the near disappearance of a taboo on depictions of pubic hair or penises in both sexual and non-sexual contexts of nudity.

Other topics Carr-Gomm doesn’t examine could also be mentioned. One is the increasing acceptance of nudity in Western painting and sculpture since the Renaissance – in the tradition of artists like Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens, and many others. This trend has only increased, with nude sculptures often featured in many public places. In photography, the popularity of artistic nudity (both erotic and otherwise) has grown rapidly. Many “ordinary” people often display in their homes without embarrassment artistic paintings, sculptures, and photography that feature nudity. The author has nothing to say about any of this.

Why spend so much time discussing what topics are omitted by the author, as opposed to what is included? Not only are the omissions curious, but they have a few things in common, especially when compared with topics that are covered. There is a wide variety of the latter. It includes many instances that are hardly if ever mentioned in other histories of nudity. This includes many examples of religions or religious practices that have featured nudity. Some of the these are well-known, with examples as diverse as Wicca and Druidism (in which the author has some interest) and Jainism. Others, less well-known, include the Kashmiri woman known as Lalla, who was influenced by both Hinduism and Sufism, and various Christian and Jewish sects. Another broad category includes the use of nudity in social or political protest. This includes very diverse examples such as (the legendary) Lady Godiva, the persecuted Russian Doukhobors who emigrated to Canada, and much more recent examples such as WNBR bike riders and nudity of the PETA animal-rights group.

There’s also a lot about nudity in live artistic performances such as theater, music (even opera), dance, and “installations”, including Spencer Tunick’s, which often feature a cast of hundreds or thousands of completely naked volunteers. And there are many other diverse examples of open, public nudity – rock concert attendees, hippies, streakers, (some) Burning Man attendees, fashion show models (ironically), artistic life models, and so on and so forth.

What can we generalize about the topics that are treated in the book, and other relevant topics that are (mostly) ignored? One thing that stands out is that the author favors topics where the nudity involves live participants and is fairly open and visible to observers, even sometimes to the general public. In contrast, depictions of nudity in painting, sculpture, cinema, and photography are rather little discussed – even though they have become increasingly more common in recent years.

So, where do naturists and naturist activities fit in all of this? As far as Carr-Gomm is concerned, apparently they don’t. This seems like a striking anomaly, since naturists – especially those who favor skinny-dipping at clothing-optional beaches and similar places – receive hardly any mention, in spite of openly enjoying their nudity, at least in groups of like-minded others.

How could we explain this anomaly? There are various possibilities. It would seem that the author is partial to nudity involving people who are open about full or partial nudity in “real-life” situations where others, who aren’t naked themselves but are tolerant of nudity, are present. Additionally, it helps if there is some understandable and worthy “purpose” to the nudity – such as entertainment of an audience, being a subject of artistic visions, political or social protest, religious observance, demonstration of body acceptance, efforts to improve mental and/or physical health, etc.

Although the author doesn’t explicitly state such a preference, and may not have been consciously aware of it, there is a fairly clear bias evidenced by his choice of topics. Could it be that many other people, who don’t necessarily identify as naturists but who have devoted at least some time to serious thought about nudity and nakedness also have a similar bias, whether consciously or not? If so, what would the implications be for naturists?

Organized nudism/naturism seems to be facing lots of problems, such as the declining popularity of nudist/naturist clubs, resorts, and grass-roots organizations (YNA just decided to fold, for example), the loss of clothing-optional beaches, the waning influence and membership of and the internal political strife within regional, national, and international nudist/naturist organizations. Perhaps anyone who laments such trends should think about the questions raised in the previous paragraph.

In defense of the book, it should be said that there are important issues about nakedness that are difficult to research, because they involve private behavior that is hardly ever studied and then well documented in public sources. Such questions include:

  • Just how common is it for individuals and families in a particular culture to be naked at home or when socializing with others who also enjoy nudity?
  • How many people who haven’t (yet) developed an enjoyment of nudity are at least tolerant and accepting of their friends and relatives who enjoy being naked?
  • How many people who enjoy nudity are willing and able to do so at public clothing-optional beaches or camping/hiking areas where nudity is tolerated?
  • What personal characteristics or life histories distinguish people who have tolerant or favorable attitudes towards nudity from those who don’t?

There are plenty of similar, related questions that would need careful investigation by trained psychologists and sociologists to answer properly, so it’s no knock on Carr-Gomm’s book that it doesn’t address them.

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3 Responses to Review of A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm

  1. Jasen says:

    Nice review. Mark Haskell Smith’s “Naked at Lunch” did a pretty good job of covering the naturist/nudist movement history. As you point out, the seemingly simple act of choosing to not wear clothing is filled with complexity. Many volumes can – and have – been written on the subject with many different perspectives.

    • Many volumes can – and have – been written on the subject with many different perspectives.

      Yes, Smith’s book is quite good. And (I think) he doesn’t even consider himself a nudist or naturist. That actually makes his perspective (which is generally positive) even more important. Unfortunately, there really aren’t all that many good books on “official” nudism/naturism or the broader subject of social nudity. Just look on Amazon. Most of what’s there seems to be self-published quickie “guides” or amateur fictional stories. Serious writing on the subject by professional writers (like Smith), sociologists, psychologists, etc. is rather scarce.

  2. Pingback: The Natural Body As It Is: A Well-Balanced Review Of A Historical Analysis « Social Change

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