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‘Naked Fear’ book review
A critique of the second title from Dennis Craig Smith
Naked Fear: Anti-Body Myths, Phobias, Delusions, and the Madness of Modesty (2010) is the full title of the second book from Dennis Craig Smith, his first being the Naked Child: Growing Up Without Shame (1981), which is known for its informal study Smith performed interviewing adults who had grown up in naturism to dispel stigmas associated with child exposure to nudity. Naked Fear could be seen as the flipside of the earlier study: the book takes an exhaustive look at the anti-body culture that has been established by western civilization, highlighting specific people and organizations responsible for such repressive attitudes and how these attitudes are maintained. Aggressive in tone and fragmented feeling at times, Naked Fear is otherwise an informative book on the history of western colonial society’s efforts to censor the naked body and avoid any discussion of its parts and functions. However, at least for me, it had a few other issues.
Smith’s argument explored
The book opens with a list of ten popular misconceptions about the body, including the ideas that a body without clothing is incomplete and that the nakedness of primitive people is not indecent because they are “beneath” us. It’s a strong first chapter, and there are things expressed here that I keep coming back to, although the amount of time spent debating biblical language regarding Adam and Eve’s nudity had me scratching my head, as confused as Smith seems to have been with it.
Chapter two is one of the book’s longest, in which Smith writes about a large number of individuals who have had a huge impact on western society’s lack of body acceptance, starting from Biblical times and moving through history into the twentieth century. The wide ranging list includes Jesus Christ, John Cotton, evangelist Billy Graham, President Ronald Reagan, and more.
From there, he goes on to outline many of the contradictory ideas we have about the body, including one story about a French couple in the 80s who were arrested for stripping down to their underwear for a picnic in a public park despite others nearby being in their swimsuits. Smith also discusses how these conflicting ideas are maintained from generation to generation, through the media and in other ways. There's a lot of information and research imparted, but it can also really be a downer as you read about all of the efforts people go through to avoid talking about bodies and to censor the naked form.
From a nude artist’s perspective
There’s an argument that Smith makes about how nudity is celebrated in art and not in person, specifically pointing out artwork in museums and statues on public display as his most frequent example. It’s a point he makes repeatedly, including a story about a California art professor in the 60s who had a nude model pose as a statue, his students not realizing it was an actual person until the model moved during class, causing outrage.
It’s a good example of our society’s contradictory views on nudity, but at the same time the idea that the nude is more aesthetic and less offensive in art isn’t completely true in my own experience. As an artist who paints nudes and runs a local figure drawing group, living in an area that’s mostly conservative, I'm always cautious about potential backlash when showing my portfolio at markets or conventions, even if the nudes aren't "explicit." In college, aside from figure drawing class, nudes were a rarity in student works. I even remember a high school teacher disturbed by the lyric 'lying naked on the floor' in Natalie Imbruglia’s 'Torn,' and a classmate upset by an Edvard Munch painting in a video.
While there's been some progress with more local galleries featuring nude art lately, it's still not the norm. Smith is right about society's repressed views, but they're so ingrained that the contradiction is lost.
A few things nagged me as I read. As I mentioned above, the aggressive tone was off-putting. Even though I agreed with a lot of what was being expressed, I somehow felt antagonized by the prose.
It also felt dated at times. Naked Fear was originally published in 2010, so I knew it wouldn’t have the most current info, but most of the text felt like it was written in the 90s or early 2000s, with a majority of the facts and statistics stated coming from the 1990s.
A section on Lee Baxandall seems to have been written while he was still alive, mentioning videotapes sold through his publishing company, but at the end of the section is a tacked-on sentence about Baxandall’s death.
It’s very likely that the book is a collection of assorted writing from Smith done over the years, somewhat like Cec Cinder’s the Nudist Idea, which would also account for some of the more repetitive statements. Incidentally, Naked Fear was published by Cec Cinder’s now-defunct independent publishing company UltraViolet Press. There’s no editor listed, and going back through and updating things prior to publication would involve a lot of rewriting, so I can see why it was published as is, but it still feels poorer for it.
Another chapter, which I thought would be interviews the author had with other folks much like in the Naked Child, feels more like fiction. They don’t read like actual conversations between real people to me, and their inclusion here feels weird. They are, I believe, meant to serve as examples of how to discuss the body and nudity with people who are more repressed. I wish there were more practical examples of things we could do to change the conversation, to make people see and understand that the human body is not offensive, that none of its parts or functions are to be ashamed of. It would’ve helped lift things up a little more.
One of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of the book was Hugh Hefner being championed as an advocate for body acceptance and for fighting censorship in the book’s final chapter. There probably weren’t many stories out at the time of writing about the treatment of Playboy bunnies or the sordid things that went on in his mansion, these things didn’t really come to light until more recently after his death, but it’s still just a little unusual that he’s given more pages and space than the likes of Baxandall and Reverend Ilsley Boone. Madonna and Lady Godiva are also in this list of body positive champions, interestingly.
It’s an overall uplifting chapter after so much time spent discussing repression and censorship, even with these unusual choices, and full of names worth researching more.
That is one great thing about the book as a whole: I was constantly pausing mid page to look up and learn more about historical figures and events that Smith mentions; his writing encouraging the reader to dig deeper.
If you like a challenging read
Ultimately, while it does feel outdated in places, and certain parts are repetitive (a product of this book possibly being more of a collection of things Smith has written over the course of several years), Naked Fear is still a worthy read if you want to better understand how western colonial cultures have been suppressing and censoring the human body and what it does for generations. 🪐