Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nudity There and Here

I've been trying to learn a few words of Flemish, which is a form of Dutch -- I think it's nice to be able to say "please," "hello" and "good-bye," and "thank you" in the language of a country you visit -- so maybe my radar is just tuned to this frequency. Today Dara Colwell, a writer at AlterNet, has a little piece called "Why Are Americans Afraid of Being Naked?" She compared us to the Dutch, and I think the article is kind of fun. Check this out:
When Catholic protesters recently shut down a New York exhibit displaying a naked, life-sized Jesus sculpted from chocolate, the outcry wasn't totally unexpected. Labeled offensive by critics, the artwork touched an angry nerve by pushing religion and nudity -- two substances that historically don't mix -- into the limelight. While the media was quick to exploit the story, it also expressed surprising modesty when it came to the naked Christ, avoiding the full frontal and opting for photos of the Lord's backside.

But in Europe, and particularly the Netherlands, where bakeries display anatomically-correct marzipan nudes in their front windows right next to chocolate bunnies and chicks, such furor over confectionary draws a complete blank. On this side of the Atlantic, when it comes to nudity, Europeans happily assert they've got absolutely nothing to hide.

"The Netherlands is a liberal country where public nakedness is allowed, and that's the way it should be -- that's why there's a law for it," says Ragna Verwer of the Dutch Naturist Federation (NFN), a 70,000-member-strong organization established to expand naturist activities.

According to Verwer, 1.9 million Dutch regularly get nude, going to nude beaches or stripping down in their own gardens, though she estimates the numbers are much higher as NFN doesn't include sauna-goers in its research. "Naked recreation is well accepted here. But we have to take care that things stay this way, which is why we often discuss these matters with local city councils and recreation areas to create more places."

Legally, in Netherlands people are allowed to be naked anywhere except public roads or when they annoy others, a law in play since 1986. It is not uncommon to find nude swimming sessions at public swimming pools, nude or topless beaches...Why Are Americans Afraid of Being Naked?

Our family went to Denmark a few years ago, and you should have seen my kids' expressions the first time somebody at the beach stripped down to change into their bathing suit. Hilarious. Some family comes up, plops down a towel a few feet away from you, and then they just ... take ... their ... clothes ... off. Somehow we survived it, and in fact after the first surprise there wasn't much said about it.

I read a theory years ago about why humans don't have an annual breeding cycle like many other animals. This guy thought it was because of clothes, like, we control presentation and access to our sexuality through the use of clothing. Thus, we can breed year-round. I can see that. Generally, clothes operate in the modest direction, right? They cover up stuff. But, once you've established a sort of norm or standard, you can see plenty of times that clothing operates in the immodest direction -- what we'd call sexy clothes. Certain styles seem to elicit thoughts of, uh, reproductive behavior, typically by giving a glimpse of some skin that would only be concealed in the first place out of modesty. And of course norms of modesty vary from one society to another, and from time to time within a society. Are we a strange species, or what?

Anybody who has ever been to a nude beach knows that the excitement wears off very quickly. What you'd die for a glimpse of is constantly displayed; the game is off. It's almost disappointing, but it turns out nudity is, as the Dutch seem to have discovered, no big deal.
"Nudity is definitely not shocking or even arousing," says Mandy Servais, a customer at Amsterdam's Sauna Deco, in a robe wrapped loosely around her body, which for all intents and purposes, was naked, as Dutch saunas are visited in the buff. Says Servais, who has frequented saunas since she was a teen, "I think as a society we're very simple and take a practical approach to sex and nudity. We think that everything that exists is normal so there's no need to make a fuss. We're not really occupied with what others think."

Verwer mirrors Servais' response. "I think the Dutch believe let everyone have their dignity and do what they enjoy most. This isn't just how we think about naked recreation, the same goes for gays --everyone's accepted," she says.

For the life of me, I can't figure out what's wrong with that way of looking at things. I'm not here to tell anybody else they need to be this easy-going, but ... I don't see any sense in judging everybody all the time for everything they do.

Americans are not the biggest prudes on the planet -- I think the winner of that award will probably come from the Middle East somewhere -- but we are the biggest prudes of the Western World.
While the Dutch seem to accept that underneath their clothing everyone's naked, the same laissez-faire attitude doesn't apply in the States, where the public has been schooled in the cultural ideology that "nude is naughty," and nudity is regarded as sexual.

Perhaps much of this attitude can be chalked down to America's cultural forefathers, the Puritans, whose deeply religious moral zeal made them fear nudity so much they refused to bathe, ensuring a future of national prudishness.

This might appear a huge contradiction given the American media's rampant appetite for sex, but how else to explain the fury over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" and the network's rush to cleanup before facing clampdowns and stiff fines? Or PBS's need to position the disclaimer "For mature audiences only" when broadcasting footage of Michelangelo's David.

I generally think of human irrationality as a fun thing. We contradict ourselves, very well then, we contradict ourselves, we are large, we contain multitudes.

I only feel sorry for anybody who expects to make sense of it.

Ah, this is the real problem: naked old people:
A further inconsistency when it comes to nudity is what Americans regard as risqué: barely clad Victoria Secret models strutting their way across television or nude grandmothers? As Dove soap found out this March, it's the latter. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates America's broadcast media, banned a series of prime-time ads depicting six middle-aged women posing nude for Dove Proage products, claiming it was inappropriate, though the ads ran successfully in Europe and Canada.

Ironically, Dove's parent company is the Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever. While a number of pro-family and women's groups complained the ad contributed to the further commercial sexualization of women -- an ongoing and valid debate -- clearly, older nudity is threatening because our culture rarely separates nakedness from sex, which is something the elder crowd, at least until Viagra, wasn't supposed to be having.

My head is spinning.
On a similar note, in 2004 Wal-Mart, never one to balk at profits, refused to sell Jon Stewart's book "America," which featured doctored nude photos of Supreme Court judges. Old, saggy bodies were simply too offensive compared to, say, the number of slasher films Wal-Mart also carries.

Yes, well, moralistic hypocrisy has been a theme here for the past couple of years. I guess we are not surprised.

And look, here's the point:
Another, perhaps sobering, reality: America has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, and a rate that exceeds the Dutch by nine-fold. A healthy attitude to nudity as well as sex, something the Dutch are regaled for, might have a positive impact as more exposure typically leads to greater information.

Basically our debate over sex education in Montgomery County has given people a choice between Prudish and Extremely Prudish. I sometimes hear people argue for a "sex-friendly" attitude in education, but that's not on the table here. The basic message in our county is abstinence, health teachers give students lots of reasons not to have sex, and I don't think there's anything anywhere that tells them why anybody would want to ... do that.

The Puritan explanation is probably as good as any. It seems like a long time ago that those stuffy folks stepped onto the dry land of our continent, but their ways didn't die out. The result is this sex-obsessed self-contradicting prudishly-fetishistic society that's half-afraid to tell teenagers anything, terrified that if you let the sex-cat out of the bag it's going to run around scratching everybody. Meanwhile, in other places in the world, kitty sits in somebody's lap and purrs.


Anonymous Steve Boese said...

The puritanical roots contribute to different perspectives on substance use, abuse, and treatment as well. Europe is more likely to study and support evidence-based use of harm reduction, where here it is nearly treated as aiding and abetting criminality.

April 19, 2007 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Americans imagine nude beaches to be full of buff bodies. After my first experience of a nude/topless beach full of really, really flabby Europeans- I had a different reason for not liking nude beaches.

something is still wrong with my account

April 19, 2007 4:46 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Andrea, two things. First, the fact that you don't have to be beautiful to go to a nude beach might take some of the glamour out of it, but it also means that people like me can go. You don't have to be twenty-two, a hundred twenty pounds of sleek muscle, to enjoy the sun and the water.

Second thing. When Blogger "upgraded" to the new system, I had to set up a new account, as I recall, and you might need to, too. I log in with my email address now. See if you can figure out how to do that -- I remember it was a pain, and actually I still can't post from Internet Explorer because it has my old cookies or something. But that's probably the nexus of your problem logging in.


April 19, 2007 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I stumbled onto a nude beach in NJ by accident.

A bunch of old guys with lots of flab who had NO business walking around with their clothes off.


April 19, 2007 6:29 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Don't forget, Anon, you were not invisible either.

(Though I must add, I had that experience once. I was camping on a beach near Santa Barbara, not realizing it was a nude beach, and a young couple came down and tossed their towels on the ground and stripped naked. They were very attractive... I guess I didn't have that experience, sorry.)


April 19, 2007 7:00 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Thanks, Jim, it worked

April 19, 2007 8:30 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

I am still enthusiastic about a boo that I read a little while ago: Only in Holland. Only the Dutch, by Mark Resch.
Why are so many respondents here, concerned about how others LOOK? (Particularly without clothes on.)
You've already written it, in another way: Are only slim, good-looking people, adult but no older than 30 allowed to be in the presence of these people?
Relax and enjoy the feeling of sun, air and or cool water all over your body. (You don't shower with your bathing costumes on. I KNOW that's been said before.)
Met vriendelijke groeten, uit Sydney, Australië.

April 19, 2007 8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are we that sure that our country was really founded by a bunch of "prudish" or "puritanical" folks? Google Larry Kramer, gay, Jamestown" and read about his assertion that Jamestown was originally populated only by men, that they held "commitment ceremonies," and that they adopted children from the Native Americans. His argument, not mine, but think about how this could turn history on hits head if true.

April 19, 2007 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe this will clear things up. Or maybe not.

Genesis 2 Adam was created from mud, and Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs. Both had remained naked in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:25 states: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." (KJV).

Genesis 3:7: "Then the eyes of both [Adam and Eve] were opened and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." (NIV)

April 20, 2007 7:11 AM  
Blogger Orin Ryssman said...

Anonymous writes,

Are we that sure that our country was really founded by a bunch of "prudish" or "puritanical" folks? Google Larry Kramer, gay, Jamestown" and read about his assertion that Jamestown was originally populated only by men, that they held "commitment ceremonies," and that they adopted children from the Native Americans. His argument, not mine, but think about how this could turn history on hits head if true.

I saw that letter of Kramer's the other day (I think it was in the New Yorker) and I burst out laughing. Then I smiled and thought to myself, "more of Larry Kramer's projectionist fantasies".

April 20, 2007 11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does Allen Chambers' fantasy that "Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible" even though "Exodus International is not a clinical facility," tickle your funny bone too?

April 20, 2007 1:50 PM  
Blogger Orin Ryssman said...

Anonymous writes,

Does Allen Chambers' fantasy that "Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible" even though "Exodus International is not a clinical facility," tickle your funny bone too?

Interesting question...I guess it depends. The way I understand human sexuality (and please correct me if I am wrong) is that it is a continuum, with total heterosexuality on one end and complete homosexuality on the other end. And in the middle, or tending towards either side are gray areas, right? Is it possible for someone that is on the homosexual side, but not totally homosexual to re-orient if they so desired? I think it is possible (though probably not easy, given the way we humans tend to habituate and resist change) and that it is cruel to take that hope away.

April 21, 2007 4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

holding out hope for change is whats cruel.i spent 9 years in a bunch of different ministries.i tried with all my heart and soul to change from gay to straight.they told me if i prayed enough, practiced techniques enough, and had faith in jesus christ as my savior enough i would become heterosexual.

nothing they told me to do changed my innate desire.the only thing that changed for me was the feeling of despair was huge because i failed to change session after session year after year.the shame of failure became more and more overwhelming the harder i tried to change.i finally found peace when i accepted that god loves me the way he made me.

April 23, 2007 1:53 PM  

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