Why are we so scared of nudity?

Early last week, tabloid newspapers were given a late Christmas present. Nothing makes a tabloid happier than naked photos of an unwilling B-Grade celeb. So when Womens Day obtained a photo of bikini model Lara Bingle in the shower, it was like receiving a giant smut-cake on a silver platter. And that grubby photo was milked for every penny possible, speculating on who took the photo (AFL wanker Brendon Fevola), who gave the photo to the Womens Day (former Channel 7 journo Dylan Howard) and most commonly: how Lara felt about it all.

Lara is so distressed by the photo she is suing Fevola on shaky legal grounds. Actual distress, or opportunistic money-making, I wonder?

Now to be clear – I’m not saying this issue has come about from Lara looking to make money. It could very well be that she is surprised and hurt by the exposure. But I do get a little bit suspicious when this all emerges a week after she gets a new PR manager (and four years after the photo was taken), and I have to wonder whether a bikini model who has dozens of nude or topless photos circulating around the internet is really all that upset that people will see her boobies.

Because quite frankly, I don’t see the big deal. So Lara has breasts. Wow. That’s so… unsurprising, and uninteresting really. I mean hell, even I have breasts. If someone wants to take a photo of them they’re welcome to, although I’d have to question your taste a little. But that’s my point, really – who cares what someone looks like naked? Why should someone be embarrassed or offended by other people seeing their “private” parts?

When I asked that question of a few work colleagues, the responses were all much the same. “I have no problem with nudity,” said one co-worker, “I don’t mind if other people are nude or anything like that. But I’m not comfortable about my OWN nudity.” When questioned further as to why they’re uncomfortable, people couldn’t really give me a concrete answer. “It’s just something I think should be kept private,” some said. “I don’t know, I just don’t feel right about it,” said others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest “ickiness” feeling came from the thought of parents and family members seeing nude photos. “I wouldn’t want my Dad to feel uncomfortable, and he would be if he saw those photos” said one woman.

We are taught from an early age to hide our nakedness. We’re taught the only time we can be nude is in the bath. The only reason I can think of for this is that, over time, we’ve linked nudity with sex. And sex has a whole smorgasbord of shame and guilt associated with it (thanks for that, religion). Why else would we get so hysterical when an photographic artist makes an exhibition featuring naked children? Surely the fear is that the photos – even if not sexual in nature – are sexually objectifying our children? But the unclothed human body isn’t, in and of itself, smutty or dirty. The sexualisation of it comes from it’s actions or the imagination of the viewer. The nude body has been a subject of art for thousands of years, and many of the masterpieces on display in galleries aren’t suggestive or pornographic.

Did anyone else notice that 5,000 people can sprawl around the Sydney Opera House to pose nude for Spencer Tunick and nobody has an issue with it? But an underwear model has a shower and everyone’s in uproar? Sure, in one case the participants chose to have their photo taken and in the other case the photo was taken without consent. I realise there’s a difference there, and in fact it was one of the reasons a coworker gave for why she wouldn’t want to have a photo taken of her naked. “It’s something for me to choose to show someone,” she said. I don’t understand that though. What’s so special about it? Interestingly, the same coworker said she had body image issues, and didn’t like her body – so why is it something to show a special someone? “Honey, I love you so much I’m going to let you look at my hideous ugly body” doesn’t sound too romantic to me.

But what about privacy? Surely she has a right to privacy, people have said to me. And when they say that, I first of all point them to George Carlin’s thoughts on the concept of “rights” (ie, that you have none anyway). And then I argue that if you start down that road, you eventually end up with the right to not pay tax and the right to sleep with your cousin. It’s easy to say you have a right to something, is my point. I will say, however, that you have a right to take certain steps to protect your privacy, such as locking the bathroom door and not sleeping with footballers, for example. But as I’ve argued here before, we shouldn’t get too hung up on privacy. So much of what we do is online and publicly accessible, and that’s not really a problem. The internet – and digital cameras – have changed society dramatically in this regard, and society needs to adjust its attitude to accommodate that. There’s no shame in being naked, or having sex, or having flaws and weaknesses – all things people rush to pretend don’t happen. But they DO happen, and we need to stop being neurotic about it. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said recently “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” I try to be open and honest about all aspects of my life, because I don’t feel I have anything I should be ashamed about or need to hide. And that honesty (and the knowledge that I’m not good at lying anyway) is central to who I am and keeps me from doing things I shouldn’t. I don’t lie or cheat or steal, because – well, because it’s wrong, mainly – but also because I can’t cover that up. If I do something dodgy, someone will find out eventually and then the lying about it will end up causing more trouble. Transparency and openness are key to a better, more trustworthy and safer society.

And again, I’d like to point out that these comments do not pertain specifically to the Lara Bingle case. There’s other, bigger issues there to do with trust and consent (for a well written look at those issues, I recommend Bronwen Kiely’s post on The Drum). I simply think that as a society we need to stop being afraid of nudity, and loosen up about our own nudity.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m weird (no argument there, actually), but I simply can’t understand society’s attitude to nudity. When I see people in bathers at the beach, there’s usually very little left to the imagination. Whether they’re wearing bikinis, one-piece bathers, board shorts or budgie smugglers, it’s still all there for everyone to see.  I see that the women have breasts, that many of them remove the hair from (at least) their armpits and legs. Unless you’re wearing a burqa, people have a pretty good idea what you look like naked. Sure, they might not know the details – they might not know if you have a third nipple, or a piercing, your style of pubic hair or your ‘size’ – but they know enough to build a mental wank bank. Get over it! It’s just a body. Just bits held together by skin, nothing groundbreaking.

I’m reminded of an old joke among nudists that observes: if two men are walking down the street, and one is naked and the other wearing a black trenchcoat and carrying a machine gun, several grenades and a rocket launcher the police will get 50 phone calls about the nude guy and maybe 3 about the gun-nut. Our society loves to fear nakedness. Councils are always receiving complaints or threatening to close down nude beaches. Again this is mostly because of a perceived link between nudity and sex, which is ludicrous. If anything, it’s the opposite – the nudist community actively forbids sexual activity. Go to a nude beach and start masturbating, I guarantee you’ll get thrown out immediately. Nudists have long ago realised that the unclothed human body is only a sexual object if you make it one in your mind. Imagine someone pouring a cup of coffee. Now imagine them pouring the same cup of coffee, only this time they’re naked. Neither image was sexy or pornographic, was it? Same goes for just about everything we do in life – except things we do for sexual reasons. The naked human body simply isn’t worth the significance placed on it by today’s society. Isn’t it time we all grew up and stopped worrying for the sake of worrying?

Has anyone seen you naked when you weren’t expecting it? Were you embarrassed or upset? Why? Let us know in the comments!