I stumbled into this book quite by accident, as I was looking for a substantive answer as to why Americans have so many hang ups when it comes to the topic of nudity. I have wondered – for years – why so many of our friends, some of whom have all but disavowed organized religion (let alone conservative fundamentalism), are completely spooked by the concept that we have a deep passion for family naturist recreation.
“Aren’t you worried about…. you know… stuff?!”
In his Brief History of Nakedness, Philip Carr-Gomm presents a neatly organized chronology of the ever-evolving social perceptions about nudity, blowing rather effortlessly through two millennia of religious doctrine, pagan rituals, and various tangential witch hunts for naked people, all of which finally culminate in the various trends related to (in)decent exposure in the early 21st century. It’s gets a little chewy when you’re tying to sort out the cross pollination between the religious traditions of the early Christians, Hindus, and Druids – but the fact is, that’s pretty much the score. There are a lot of reasons why people fear nakedness; some religious, some political, some sociological – but in the end, it’s one big tangly yarn of confusion. But I dare say, few people can actually articulate why an exposed nipple is more offensive than live footage of genocide on the 6 o’clock news.
I think the author makes a compelling and thought provoking case, based largely on centuries of what most would call political, religious, and gender-biased oppression. It’s something of a let down that all this hoo-hah about the “nudist colony” down the road might actually come down to the fear that one man’s penis is simply locked in a power struggle with another woman’s breast, but in the end, it seems that may well be the case.
And, personally, I also appreciated that Carr-Gomm took the leap into the shark-infested waters, suggesting that there might be an element of sexuality in the realm of social nudity. His parting shot related to the need “to see and be seen” resonated deeply with me, well documented in his writing in that he truly came to understand his research on nakedness when he, himself, engaged in social nudity. It was perhaps the best rebuttal to the tiresome “nudity does not equate sex” banter that I have seen. Forthright, but steeped in real perceptions of the mainstream public. Not just the idealist doctrine inherent of “hardcore naturist propaganda.” (My words, not his!) I’m truly grateful for those who stand up to defend our civil liberties, and the tireless efforts of groups like the Naturist Action Committee, but it worries me that despite these efforts, Americans seem to be regressing toward a level puritanical paranoia and intolerance that has turned public ideals of family naturism into sexual deviance! The author’s matter-of-fact chronology does well in setting the stage as to how we may have painted ourselves into this corner, and how those defining moments of naked proclamation are perceived by the average person on the street.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is reading the Amazon.com reviews of the Kindle edition, which happens to be the edition I read. Most readers commended the author for his succinct account of the evolution of the naked condition, but two or three reviewers gave the author low marks due to the fact that the Kindle edition is published without the photographs included in the printed edition. Really? You’re going to download a scholarly book about nudity in search of images of naked humans? Aren’t there better options to be found on the internet for that sort of thing? Once again, additional evidence of the very confusion and controversy that surrounds the issue in the first place.
In the end, even though I consider myself to be an educated and thoughtful (meaning one who thinks a lot) person, I found myself quite absorbed in the complexity of it all, leading me to believe that the wholesale acceptance of the naturist movement might not occur during my lifetime, or maybe… ever. I don’t know if this means that naturists are simply a wiser breed, ahead of their time in the psycho/sociological scheme of things, or if we’re simply collective freaks of nature who will never quite find a place in mainstream culture. But it’s rare that you see such a well written attempt to explain the entire phenomenon. I suspect I’ll be reflecting upon Mr. Carr-Gomm’s research for a long time; in particular, every time I get naked!