Body of evidence: do we fear nudity or nakedness?

Do it together and it’s harmless, do it alone and it’s criminal, says Suzanne Harrington

IT is the season to take your clothes off, not just for the beach, but to protest. Nakedly. Want media coverage? Get naked. This month, there is a naked bike ride in Cork, on the 22nd. Naked cyclists ride their bikes through the city to raise awareness of their physical vulnerability in traffic. Naked bike rides in chilly Ireland and England show the determination of cyclists to assert their place among the motorised. Brrrr.

Mass nakedness is endearing and non-confrontational. Naked bike riders are cheered on as brave, determined, perhaps slightly bonkers. They don’t cause fear or offence.

Spencer Tunick’s art installations, in which hundreds, or even thousands, of naked people assemble in public places to be photographed, creating a vast skinscape against a well-known background, are not protest or demonstration, but a celebration of naked humanity as art.

The feminist group, Femen, are visually confrontational, using their bodies as billboards of protest. This blows people’s minds — the naked female body, traditionally something passive to be gawped at, is covered only in thick, black letters demanding social change. Vladimir Putin reacted to Femen protests with the leer of a dirty old man, even as he incarcerated fully clothed, but equally vociferous, feminist protestors, Pussy Riot. To present yourself to riot police wearing only flowers in your hair, and ink on your flesh, takes suffragette-levels of guts, even as it guarantees you tabloid pages.

Femen’s protests follow on from a small, Californian anti-war group, Breasts Not Bombs, who were arrested for indecency — that is, protesting topless — in 2005. The group could have been convicted as sex offenders, had they lost their case, but they won, saying that it was war, not breasts, that is indecent.

Their actions mirrored that of one of society’s earliest naked protestors, Lady Godiva, who rode naked through Coventry in the 11th century to show solidarity with the townspeople being oppressively taxed by her husband.

It worked. Her husband lowered their taxes to avoid any further naked horse rides.

And then there is innocuous nakedness. The ‘calendar girls’, the naked rugby players, all raising money for charity, with a carefully discreet nakedness designed not to raise any eyebrows. No fannies, no willies. Nothing to worry about.

Because we do worry. ‘The naked rambler’, that chap who insists upon walking around Britain in all weathers with nothing on, has been repeatedly jailed in Scotland, because he refuses to be clothed. Nothing more than that. Yet he is regarded as a criminal. Brrrr.

“Stop reading and take off your clothes,” says Philip Carr-Gomm, in A Brief History of Nakedness. “If you’re about to read this in the bath, this would present no problem, but if you happen to be reading it in a bookshop or as you wait for a bus or a train, your life is about to change.”

We freak out at non-contextual, individual nakedness, calling it indecent exposure, or, at best, streaking or flashing. Yet, as a group activity in designated areas, you can partake in naked anything — sky-diving, beach rugby, bungee-jumping, surfing, boxing, swimming, skiing, yoga, dining, air travel, weddings. (The last three are not made up).

Similarly, under the cloak of spiritual practice, nakedness is normalised in aspects of Jainism (where not wearing clothes is called being ‘sky clad’), and nearer home, in wiccan practice. Similarly, the religion of naturists is nakedness.

What’s the big deal, you wonder? “Our society’s attitudes, rules and conventions around nudity are riddled with contradictions, complexities and disavowals,” wrote Ruth Barcan in Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. But wait. What’s the difference between nakedness and nudity? “Nudity happens in art, nakedness happens in your bathroom,” writes Carr-Gomm. “Nakedness represents the raw, nudity the ideal.” Or, as art critic John Berger says “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude.”

So we own our nakedness. Being naked is an act, being nude passive. It is not the nude bike ride, but the naked one. Equally, Putin’s goggled-eyed reaction to naked Femem protestors converted them, in his mind at least, to nudes. Angry and protesting, but nudes nevertheless. Pornography does not contain nakedness, but an awful lot of nudity. It’s not about high art or low art, but about the who and how of perception.

And it remains entirely contradictory. “It is now completely acceptable to show interiors of the body, but it is still not possible to grant the same freedoms to its surface,” writes Carr-Gomm, referring to the 18m people who have paid to see Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds exhibitions.

So you can stand in front of a stripped-down, preserved human and stare at their innards, but if you take your clothes off there, you’ll be arrested. No wonder human beings go mad sometimes and end up naked in Tesco.

*The 2013 World Naked Bike Ride in Cork takes place on Saturday 22nd June from 3-5pm


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