Friday, 20 February 2009

Naked bodies - a rant

A couple of months ago, a new sign appeared on the wall of the communal changing room at our swimming pool .


The showers are not in cubicles - they are all in a row. Naked bathers cannot hide.

At our pool, there has always been a universally known but unwritten rule that bathers who changed their clothes without protecting their modesty and showered naked would be prepubescent. At the first sighting of a pubic hair a towel would be employed to hide one's genitals and naked showering would cease.

The last time I took Joseph (7) and Orla (3) to the pool, a mother was helping her 2 or 3 year old son to change out of his swimsuit while simultaneously holding a bath towel around him and preventing him from looking at some 3 or 4 year old boys and girls scampering around naked and without inhibitions.

Why that boy got towel round him?” asked Orla embarrassingly loudly, removing her pants in full view of everyone.

To stop anyone seeing his willy,” giggled Joseph, also stripping with abandon.

The mother gave me a really dirty look. I was obviously, in her eyes, unfit to be a parent.

Later, swimming pool session over, Orla and Joseph wanted to know why they had to shower still wearing their swimwear. For the life of me, I couldn't think of any reasonable answer. I still can't. Except that there was a directive fixed to the wall, but that's not a real answer.

As a young boy in the late 1950's and early 1960's, I used to share a bath with my sister. At my grandparents' house, the only house in their area to have a bath, my sister and I some of our cousins of both sexes bathed together and consecutively. My grandparents lived in a poor farming community where there was little disposable income and prepubescent children did not wear any underwear. It was considered an unnecessary expense. We didn't find it at all unusual. At the nearby beach we all ran around naked and carefree until our ages reached double figures. We watched various varieties of mammals copulate, give birth and die and knew instinctively that we humans were part of that cycle of life.

In the evening we used to watch one of only two TV channels available – BBC or ITV. For a while there was a programme where FULL FRONTAL NUDITY was shown. And around 6 pm! The programme was about primitive communities and aboriginal tribes. I recall clearly that several episodes featured Amazon tribes where the men and boys tramped through the jungle with their penises either tied to their body or flapping around while the women and girls were as naked as the day that they were born. (They still exist today - you can see them here.) To the best of my knowledge, not one complaint was made about this prime-time nudity. I wonder if totally naked white folk frolicking in their gardens would have been similarly received?

I asked my parents why only black people could be naked on the telly (I was an annoyingly precocious boy). They couldn't answer. The same thing happened when I asked why men could show their breasts in public, but ladies couldn't.

Society in the Republic of Ireland was even more sexually repressed at that time than in Northern Ireland, where I lived. However, one well-respected Dublin newspaper showed a shapely pair of breasts and informed its readers that they belonged to a celebrity. The readers were invited to guess to whom the breasts belonged. There was a public outcry and incredulity that such a respected paper would indulge in “pornography.” Prominent politicians and religious leaders were much less vocal when the owner of the breasts was revealed to be an Irish politician – a man!

I worry about the messages that our society is giving its youth. For example - are parts of our bodies too shameful to show? is nakedness only sexual? in the media, why is it that only young women can disrobe? why do film and TV censors not become corrupted, if they believe the material they ban can corrupt? why do some women expose their genitals to a male gynaecologist, but not to their husbands? why is it acceptable to show naked “primitive” (always black) people in the popular media, but not “civilised” (white) people?

I have to admit to believing that my outlook on sexual behaviour and nakedness is unusual for a male in western society. I find pornography boring in the extreme. I avoid strip-clubs and find pole-dancing distasteful. I believe in the total equality of the sexes. I think that breast-feeding in public is acceptable. All peoples of all races, cultures, ages and degrees of “civilisation” are equal in my eyes. And all bodies of all people are beautiful in their own way.

Perhaps these subversive views make me a danger to society.


morethananelectrician said...

Regardless of your views (or mine)there is a true lack of consistency anywhere regarding this. It really makes no sense and it is much worse here...maybe not worse...but just as weird.

diver said...

Yeah, it (the pool sign) does sound weird and prudish doesn't it. I'd guess it's an anti-paedophile measure ... there's a lot of fear in the community about child sexual exploitation these days.

I like your 'subversive' views though :)

tulipsanddaisys said...

I agree completely Robert I find it very worrying that society encourages us to hide and almost feel ashamed of our bodies and then spend our lives altering them to "fit". I would hate my children to have these insecurities. What a strange world we have created so far away from our natural instincts.

Coffeecup said...

The previous comment makes a good point; if we saw REAL bodies rather than the media controlled visions of perfection, broad society would be a whole lot healthier.

If someone wishes to walk around stark naked I believe it's their human right to do so. Our culture teaches us that this kind of behaviour is unaceptable, but as you say, will allow us to watch 'primitive' peoples because that's 'their way'.

I guess it's the climate Robert, it's too darn cold to go around in the buff and so this cover up culture has probably developed over thousands of years. We of course, now have lost sight of the original reason.

Faith Hoffen said...

Some of that is quite ridiculous. (Even though I can understand people being worried about pedophiles.) For example - the whole breastfeeding issue. I nursed my kids until they were about 2yrs. Which of course was only my business; but some people I could tell thought it strange. Anyway, I always was careful not to show anything, but when I think about it, what would be wrong with seeing someone breastfeed. What is wrong with that?! It's natural!

Madison Rose said...

Ooh, this is interesting! My tuppence worth: Yes, I think in an ideal world people of all ages, shapes and sizes would be able to walk around naked in public if they wished, and nakedness should be de-sexualised. Have you heard of Stephen Gough? He sounds like a man after your own heart:

I was surprised (and a little disappointed) that he found such a difference between England and my own beloved Scotland.

I suspect diver is right about it being an anti-paedophile thing. I can't decide if I think such measures are a good thing - I suspect most parents would do anything to prevent their children coming to harm, but maybe it doesn't do children any good to be "wrapped in cotton wool." Do you warn your children about paedophiles? What would you say if one of your children asked "What's a paedophile, Daddy?"

I don't think your attitude to porn/strip clubs is all that unusual. I know or have known a few men who have the same attitude (and no, I'm fairly sure they weren't telling me lies, there would be no need for them to). You're not alone!

Robert said...

MTAE - It's inconsistent here also. But then, so are people's attitudes. I guess one follows the other.

Diver - Paedophiles have been around forever, but did you know that they are more prevalent in western (so-called) Christian societies? Perhaps our silly attitudes help to create them?

t&d - I'm totally with you! Our society has moved way to far from nature. Perhaps it was the being close to nature that made my isolated rural childhood so good!

c/cup - I detest the fact that the media/fashion houses/sex industry - even toy manufacturers - have created this fictional "perfect" look and keep selling it to us! The climate here requires us to be clothed most of the time, but the cultural reasons originate in the Eastern Meditteranean where the climate is mostly hot!

FaithH - it's only recently that women in the UK were legally permitted to breastfeed in public! How pathetic is that? Of course, it has always been ok to present images of AFRICAN starving children suckling at their mother's breast... Is there a message in this?

MR - I know of Stephen Gough and support his point of view. However, I feel he could be more effective as a campaigner if he didn't present the image of a fanatic. Perhaps he shouldn't deliberately seek attention and incarceration for the sake of publicity. As for the difference between England & Scotland, I think you'll find that this is primarily due to the greater influence of organised religion there (espec. Presbyterianism). When my children become old enough to spend time unsupervised, they'll be warned not to trust anyone they don't know well. Paedophiles will be nasty people who force children to do things which only adults should do. As with all sexual matters, I educate my children as the questions are asked and the answers are as detailed as the children's understanding will allow.

Jane said...

Very interesting post Rob. Re: the breasts in Irish papers, I remember an article in Cosmopolitan magazine, when I was about 14 and living in Dublin. It showed women how to check their breasts for lumps and had a photo of naked breasts with arrows pointing to what to look for, and the picture was BLANKED OUT. Thus rendering the entire article useless.

Regarding nudity I think we have a terribly prurient attitude towards it. Women's bodies are used to sell stuff, as long as they are smooth, hair free, and very young. An entire beauty and diet industry is founded on making us feel dissatisfied and upset with our bodies and we are taught to only value ourselves in terms of how we look.

I have read, however that regardless of media images, of key importance with children and body image is what they learn from parents. So if mum or mum and dad are comfortable in their own skin and mum isn't forever going on about 'being fat' or being on diets, the child won't pick up that food is dangerous and being thin is the only way to be. Also research has shown that girls who do sport as children have higher self-esteem later on, because they see sport as recreation and not as a means of losing weight.

Robert said...

Hi Jane - Your last paragraph is very interesting & I'll bear it in mind in my conversations with my children & grandchildren. My older daughters aren't preoccupied by their appearances, so perhaps some of what I've been trying to tell them has stuck. Thanks for the comment!

Bsquared86 said...

Great question- Why is it okay for "uncivilized" collectives of people of color to be naked on TV and in the media?

Probably because society doesn't see them as people . . . they are subjects to study, they are items of curiosity. They are dehumanized for their "edu-tainment" (i.e. the television program about primitive aboriginal communities). It's ok, for these "primitive" and "uncivilized" people to be shown in all of their glory on the television screen. But, if the people are modern and "civilized," any bit of nudity is immediately sexual because they are "human."

Very strange, very strange indeed.

Great post, Robert!

Robert said...

Bsquared86 - That attitude, that "natives" are somehow subhuman, is not (consciously, at least) subscribed to by any significant number of people in this country. I think that religion plays a more significant role in society's attitudes to nudity. There are quite a few of us who believe that our society has moved far too far from nature, and these "primitives" could probably teach us plenty!