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Original artwork by Melinda Jensen

For the past few days I’ve procrastinated about bringing up a controversial and volatile subject; but that ‘still, small voice’ is so insistent, I’ve decided to wade right on in. Past experience assures me that the topic – ‘nakedness’, or ‘nudity’, in all its nuances – raises strong opinions and heated debate on both sides.

There is a certain niche culture that embraces and even worships the human body at its most exposed; artists and sculptors endlessly depict it, actors wantonly portray it and photographers of a certain ilk are somewhat lecherously obsessed with it. Other sections of society are more coy, though coyness is fast disappearing in a world that rewards image over substance, superficiality over depth. Where ordinary mortals may once have been relatively protected from exposure to mass human nudity, needing to actively seek it out in order to experience it outside their own mirrors and bedrooms, today’s similarly ordinary mortals are subjected to nakedness any number of times in a day, without their consent. Why? What does it mean? And how do we cope with the onslaught?

Let’s take a look at what history teaches about the implication of nudity as it is used to express societal attitudes. There is little dispute that in the beginning of time, when humanity was just emerging, the issue was merely a practical one. Clothes were fashioned and adopted according to the dictates of climate, habitat and mode of living. As humankind’s thought processes became more advanced however, what was once merely a practical consideration began to take on a host of possible meanings, bringing with it an even larger host of emotional responses.

Greek and Roman gods were often depicted naked, with a couple of theories being put forward as explanation. Some sources indicate that in day to day existence, ancient Greek and Roman citizens wore long, flowing robes and even in the public baths, where people disrobed freely, the sexes were generally segregated. Other sources insist that communal bathing, with the genders mixed, was not uncommon and that Greek citizens frequently dropped their robes to work naked in the fields, to dance, and of course, to exercise.

According to the first theory, there existed a widespread cultural attitude of respect for the human body, and Greek philosophy held that health of both mind and body were of paramount importance to spiritual and psychological maturity. The display of the body was considered a sign of health and strength of character, and did not elicit responses of lust and ribaldry. It is thought that in the depiction of gods in particular, nudity was used to indicate that a hero or god had passed beyond the need for such protection as clothes offered.  And while it is true that Olympic athletes originally performed naked, historians believe this was both to prevent cheating and to allow them to move more freely, since the clothing of the day was restrictive and cumbersome. It is also noteworthy that women were not allowed to participate, and married women were not even allowed to attend. At a separate festival, celebrating the goddess Hera, young women were permitted to participate in foot races but were covered in loose tunics that fell to their knees.

Nudity was reserved then, almost exclusively for men, as evidenced by a number of surviving sculptures. And the prevailing attitude towards that nudity was one of respect for the health, strength and spiritual achievements of those depicted.

What seems indisputable is that during that particular period in history, a state of undress denoted a certain respect for a being’s divinity or accomplishments.

Yet…such are the vagueries of history…that other sources insists the Greeks were, in fact, vain creatures who succumbed to the lures of the flesh from very early on. This contradictory view argues that the rampant displays of nudity were fueled by vanity and hedonism, and that the Olympic games, right from the get-go, were characterized by orgies, dope-taking, prostitution and blood-lust.

How can we make sense of such blatant contradictions? For the purposes of my post, either scenario can be used to argue against the acceptability of today’s pornographic images, which center almost entirely on the female form (gay porn aside).

Considering the first scenario – can it be said that today, women are being displayed naked as a symbol of their strength, health, power and spiritual achievement? The answer must be a resounding no. They are there for the viewing pleasure and titillation of, in fact for the arousal of, lust in men. (Mostly! Yes, I hear those of you who are protesting that there’s a growing culture of women who use porn for the same reason.)

Considering the second scenario – that historical nudity was linked to hedonism, orgiastic behaviour, drugs, prostitution and blood-lust – what does that tell us about today’s culture of porn, including the so-called ‘soft-porn’, whereby fashion magazines, movies, television and even newspapers feature partially naked or even fully-naked women? It clearly tells us that a woman’s nudity is used for ribald and lustful purposes, certainly not to empower or engender respect.

Think of the image of Miley Cyrus on her wrecking ball.  I hardly think it conjures up respect, nor a reverence for her spiritual (or other) attainments. It conjures instead mirth, derision or lust, and frequently all three.

So how has the panorama evolved since the days of myth and legend? Firstly, to state the obvious, today’s nudity is overwhelmingly female. The one constant is that these ‘objects’ of lust have been almost exclusively used for the pleasure of the masculine of the species.

What else? We’ve all heard that the only constant in life is change, and history bears this out. As the centuries rolled by, along with changes catalyzed by ever-expanding exploration, discovery, industrial and scientific inroads and social change, so too has the context and connotation of ‘nakedness’ changed. There have been epic landmarks to note these changes.

No human condition more clearly depicts gross inequality and injustice than that of slavery. A slave has no worth above that of his monetary value, a value set by his potential owners in the same way it would be set for pigs or cattle or even farm produce. He is valued only for his perceived capacity for hard labour and obedience. He is beaten and abused because his life has no value and he is assigned no dignity or inherent worth. A slave is an object of degradation. At the moment he is sold into slavery he is stripped of his humanity at the same time as he is stripped of his clothes and paraded naked for the inspection of his masters. Not allowed to so much as look upon the face of a white woman without risking punishment, even death, he is himself (and herself) able to be intimately scrutinized in all his naked vulnerability. The message is clear. To be naked correlates with inferiority, dis-empowerment, humiliation and being at the mercy of a ruling class.

From the Christian scriptures we learn that Jesus was stripped naked, flogged and tortured, then hung on a cross to die a brutal death – classed as a low-life criminal. He died, bare and exposed to his detractors, laughed at and ridiculed as they shredded his robes – the ultimate humiliation. His nakedness too, marked him as inferior, dis-empowered, and at the mercy of a ruling class.

Where does this leave the argument of modern day feminists who forcefully insist on their right to parade naked and semi-naked, enter prostitution, pose for porn magazines and movies, claiming it is empowering for them to do with their bodies whatever they please?

Frankly, they’re on shaky ground. Clambering to appropriate some prized position as if it truly were an indication of equality and empowerment. Playing right into the industry’s hands … and dare I say it, right into the hands of the dominant culture; a privileged white male culture, who once again, achieve exactly what they want. That is, an endless supply of objects for their amusement, titillation, and (as I have shown above), objects of humiliation and inferiority who have been successfully brainwashed into believing they are joining a ruling class, when in fact, they are simply still being ruled by it. In a different manner to which women have been dominated throughout the centuries, yes. But dominated all the same, through manipulation of their psyches.

Much research points to the likelihood of pornography inciting violence against women, and when we view the historical context of nudity, and perceive it as the tool it has been – one used to dominate, humiliate, denigrate and dis-empower – it isn’t difficult to fathom its role in today’s escalating culture of violence against the feminine.

The subtleties of the game have changed. But the game itself has not.