Navigating the many nuances of nudity
Please be advised that the following article may be upsetting to some as it includes references to acts of war as well as physical and sexual abuse.
In the news this week is an alarming story accompanied by photographs of captured Palestinian men who had been stripped nearly naked and lined up side by side, with vague and conflicting reports of whether the men were civilians. Regardless, the images have caused outrage and bring to mind other, similar instances of forced nakedness seen in recent news, history books, and documentaries, from my own country and from others, committed against prisoners, marginalized groups, and indigenous peoples. I’m sure you can recall for yourself—likely more than one case—without any help from me. It wasn’t more than a few weeks prior that a very different story began running through the news cycle: A troubling trend of teenage girls whose likeness had been taken without their consent and, with the help of AI, had been used to create deepfake nude photos and pornography, violating the girls’ claim to their own bodies and their right to decide when and where and who has access to them. Certainly, in the context of the war, terrorism, and indiscriminate loss of life taking place in Israel and Gaza, forced disrobement is perhaps the least of the atrocities. Likewise, fake nude and sexual images generated using someone’s likeness are arguably less atrocious than distributing someone’s actual, private, nude or sexual photos, and decidedly less so than cases of real-world physical or sexual abuse and harassment. None of these cases, however, are trivial just because the offense could have been worse.
Though the contexts of these stories are very different, the impact of these forms of nonconsensual nudity remains the same: demoralization, humiliation, and dehumanization of the subjects. Both cases serve to strip a person or people of their pride, their self worth, and their ownership of their bodies within a larger context of systemic oppression toward vulnerable groups or individuals. Though perhaps less atrocious than other offenses, it serves no one to diminish the traumatic impact of such acts, to downplay the importance of maintaining ownership and decision-making power over one’s body.
Body Pos POV
As someone who regularly writes on the subject of nude recreation and general nudity in society, and as someone who advocates liberation and reverence for the body, naked or otherwise, I am very familiar with all the body-positive perspectives and mantras that aim to overcome our hangups around our bodies. I admit that I have parroted many of them myself because, on the whole, I agree with the idea that we should be more comfortable in our skin, be more accepting of our own and others’ bodies (warts and all), and be less shocked by nudity. Going even one step further, I also see great value in social and recreational nudity and the role that these kinds of nudity can play in breaking down social barriers and promoting a healthier sense of self. Nudity is not a cure for all that ails us, no, but some may find it to be a useful tool for the right job: shame, insecurity, division, etc.
Nakedness, I would argue, can be a vehicle for great personal growth, for community, and for the pursuit of wellness. It can be a tool for self-expression and a language of liberation, rebellion, and progress. I wrote on this particular subject in my article Clothing to a Nudist, in which I collected various perspectives and historical anecdotes relating to dress and the lack thereof and how they have been and can be used to express identity, strength, resistance, and solidarity. But, as I also admitted in that article, nudity is not always a tool for liberation. Sometimes it means nothing at all, while other times it can be (and has been) used as a tool for oppression and control. Whether in cases of assault, bullying, hazing, or genocide, nakedness imposed on a people or individual serves to suppress and assert dominance, to strip someone not only of their clothing but of their privacy and power. It may not be comfortable, as someone who advocates for acceptance of the naked body, to speak of the ways in which the naked body can be a vehicle for trauma or pain, but I also don’t think we are being honest by shying away from exploring these less sunny nuances and complexities of human nakedness.
Within the nudist community, for example, if you’re not careful, you might be convinced to view or portray all instances of nudity as categorically liberating, positive, inspiring. Being naked is fun, carefree! You just have to try to understand! While that may often be the case, the unwillingness to admit that not everyone experiences nudity in this way has caught me off guard on more than one occasion. I sense an underlying reluctance to admit that nakedness can be traumatizing, painful, embarrassing, even to someone comfortable in their own skin but especially for those not familiar with the alternative. Certainly not every nudist or body positivity advocate struggles to grasp this, but you can quite easily find this leaning within the sphere of folks passionate about nudity. And so it bears stating clearly: Being stripped of one’s ability to consent to baring or not baring skin is an offense to the goals of body acceptance and liberation.
Most Americans’ experience with nudity is admittedly relegated to silly punchlines, the occasional youthful streaking or skinny dip session, or sexual encounters, and of course there’s nothing wrong with any of those things. In day-to-day life, nakedness often just serves as comic relief or a source of visual or sexual stimulation, without much additional thought or weight applied to it. At the outer edges of that middle-ground, however, are those who have had wonderful experiences with nudity, and those who, unfortunately, have had very negative or even traumatic experiences with nudity. At both extremes of that spectrum are real experiences with real ramifications on people’s lives, wellbeing, and worldview. Both extremes are worth exploring.
For those who have only experienced trauma around their own naked bodies, or associated with the naked bodies of others, what right do any of us have to tell them that, no, actually, nudity is freeing and liberating and wonderful? The reverse is also true. If someone has experienced primarily enlightenment and joy through nudity, what right does anyone else have to tell them that, no, actually, nudity is shameful and dirty and violating? I don’t think that acknowledging and respecting those differing perspectives on nakedness should invalidate any other perspective or experience. Perhaps, even, having an honest and nuanced appreciation for the positive, negative, and neutral experiences that can come with nudity can make us all more tolerant and understanding of one another. Perhaps it can teach us something about our own experiences, help us see the world in a more balanced way, engage with others with curiosity instead of persuasion, and even advocate on behalf of those whose experiences and choices differ from our own.
Netflix’s 2022 documentary, The Most Hated Man on the Internet, tells the story of just such an advocacy as it chronicles the abuses committed by Hunter Moore by way of his now-defunct website and the long legal battle waged by concerned mother, Charlotte Laws, to get the nude images of her daughter removed from the site. The documentary ultimately presents the dilemma of a legal system ill-equipped to tackle the very modern crime of “revenge porn,” or the nonconsensual distribution of others’ nude or sexual images. The key offense is the breach of consent, which ought to be the most respected and protected of our shared values, especially in the context of our bodies and personhood, naked or not, sexual or not. Revenge porn activists have worked hard over the past decade to bring issues such as this to the forefront and have succeeded in establishing laws against the practice in nearly every US state.
Nudists and body liberation advocates have, in my opinion, a moral obligation to respect and uphold these same tenets of consent, including a respect for and advocacy on behalf of those who do not share their perspective of body positivity, who may not be able to imagine ever feeling comfortable in their own skin. Revenge porn is just one of many negative experiences a person might have associated with nudity, but is a timely example of real harm suffered by real people over access to their own bodies. That kind of protection should be core to nudist activism and body liberation lest these movements become a haven for abuse themselves.
On the brighter side of things, it seems as though we are collectively beginning to grapple with concerns of consent and boundaries in a more effective and understanding way. Despite alarming stories like those mentioned above still trickling into public awareness, the public response to those stories seems to trend more and more toward a respect for individual choice and bodily autonomy. That’s progress, even as the news stories themselves are dire.
One thing we can all do, especially those professed body positivity advocates and celebrators of the nude body, is practice curiosity, understanding, and care for those who have had different experiences with their body, with nudity, and with sexuality, whether negative, positive, or completely neutral. We can bring goodness and growth to these difficult conversations, accept others’ perspectives, and advocate for a culture of respect as part of an advocacy for healthier views of the body.
Bodies are tricky, fraught with all sorts of burdens and stigmas and insecurities. The least we can do is show compassion around those experiences and advocate for better. 🪐