"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky."
- John Lennon
Naked and Not Afraid
Naked and Afraid?
The legacy of shame
Institutionalized shame - our laws
The world of body acceptance and naked living
The appeal of clothes freedom
Coming home to ourselves
The subject of this sermon was suggested to me by a cable TV reality show. Now, I don't watch much TV, especially not the various reality shows that have become so common in the past decade. However, I do go to the gym for a workout 2-3 times a week, and the gym has some 20 TV screens along one wall, each carrying one of the more popular cable channels. I can't hear the sound from any of them, but sometimes I find myself looking at one absentmindedly while working on the elipticals. Sometime last year, I noticed one of the screens showing a series of scenes in a forest or jungle with a couple of people who appeared to be nude. Before long, the show title appeared and I learned that it was called “Naked and Afraid.” Well, this was intriguing, since nudity on TV has long been a taboo. I made a point of learning a bit more about it when I got home from the gym.
As with “Survivor”, the first hit reality show some 15 years ago, the premise is to take some everyday people and strand them in the wild somewhere in the world with minimal supplies. “Naked and Afraid” takes this to what may be the limit – so far anyhow. It takes two people, one man and one woman, who have never met each other before, and strands them in the jungle with no food, no supplies, and no clothes. Now admittedly, the people who are chosen for this are youthful, in excellent physical shape, and have some – perhaps extensive – background in survival skills. It's certainly a tough challenge, with or without the clothes, but the creators of the show threw in the additional lure of nudity just in case the situation itself wasn't enough to pull in a sufficient audience.
Anyhow, I found myself wondering if some of our long-standing taboos around nudity, especially on TV, were beginning to fade.
I also discovered that “Naked and Afraid” is just one of at least 10 TV shows in recent seasons that have some element of nakedness present. While none of these would qualify as great TV (or is that an oxymoron?) nor has been among the top rated shows, this number of offerings does suggest that the long-standing tension in our culture between disapproval of nudity and fascination with it remains strong.
The better-known shows in the category include:
“Dating Naked” - , a dating show where potential couples go on first dates while completely naked. In complete contrast to “Naked and Afraid”, these dates take place on tropical beaches and at nudist resorts with good food and plush amenities..
“The Naked Office” - which takes the old idea of “casual Fridays” to its natural limit - “Naked Fridays,” in which the employees show up to work in the nude. I'm not making this up! I do have to give this show credit for coming up with a way to make watching people work in an office something other than boring. By the way, it seems that some of the groups that have tried this decide they rather like it after getting past some initial awkwardness.
“Buying Naked” - This show is about a real estate agent who works with nudists trying to find a home in nudist communities. This is probably the most realistic of this group of so-called “reality” shows.
There are several more, some broadcast only in the UK or Europe, but you get the idea. For that matter, you can probably find them by searching your cable lineup at home. However, any notion I had that the nudity taboo was fading was quickly quashed when a bit of sampling of segments of these shows made it clear that, as presented on American TV, the “fig leaf” still remains. Whether actual or digitally simulated, the usually covered parts of the body are blocked from view in some way. If all else fails, they are simply blurred or pixelated – leaving some rather weird and IMO unattractive images at times.
So while TV may not be ready to broadcast uncensored images of nude people, I do note that the people in the programs are shown in a positive way and not held up to ridicule. The contestants on “Naked and Afraid” are gutsy people dealing with a challenging situation; the people in “Naked Office” look and act generally like people we would know in contemporary offices. “Dating Naked” may be the dumbest of the lot, but no worse and probably better than many other dating shows where contestants wear clothes.
So why should any of this be of interest to UUs? TV marketing stunts exploiting the old technique of titillation to attract audience is not something consistent with any of our values. The deeper question that I think is worthy of exploration is our relationship to our own bodies. We all have a body, and our bodies come in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and even gender characteristics. Despite this commonness, our social norms are that bodies are mostly covered by clothing. Even in circumstances where little or no clothing is required for comfort or safety, certain body parts must still be covered. On the other hand, some in the general public at least are irresistibly drawn to watching naked people on a TV show.
One can imagine a visitor from another planet arriving here and observing all this and wondering what has possessed us. Depending on our religious orientations, we may see ourselves as made in the image of God, or, as in our principles, each possessing inherent worth and dignity, yet we hide our bodies lest we be ashamed.
This shame thing has been around along time. As someone who tends to prefer history as described by science over the legends of the Bible, I am nonetheless impressed by the story of Adam and Eve. I hear it as an attempt by our ancient forebears who, as their powers of self-awareness and ability to conceptualize developed, tried to figure out the world they found themselves in. Although they had no hunch about evolution as we understand it today, they nonetheless guessed that humans must have, sometime in the past, lived more like all the other animals that surrounded them. The story calls particular attention to one such aspect: That Adam and Eve were naked, just like all the other animals. Not only that, but they were naked and not ashamed. Virtually all of the various translations and renderings are quite specific on that point.
The story goes on, of course, and among the more abstract versions, says that they eventually “ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge” thus becoming aware of themselves, including that they were naked, whereupon this awareness caused them to be ashamed and to set about making coverings. The storytellers who developed and carried this story down through the oral tradition took as a given that we are ashamed when naked, so that must have come along with the knowledge of good and evil.
As UUs, we have mostly set aside “shame” as an inescapable part of our being, just as we have set aside “original sin” as something inherent and from which we can only be saved by divine intervention. Our principles have led and inspired us to do courageous work over many decades to lift society out of the prejudices that make some people less worthy than others. In areas of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender inclusiveness and equality, we have brought about change by living it and being it. In the OWL program, we have taken a fundamental part of who we are – our sexuality – out of the darkness of shame and taught our children that it is their birthright and that they deserve to be fully who they are in that realm.
We have also chosen to remove the shame surrounding our bodies as part of the OWL curriculum. In the core junior high program as well as in other age groups, participants look at body image – their feelings about their own bodies. They explore societal influences on body image and learn how positive and negative body image can affect a person’s sexual attitudes, decision-making, and behaviors.
This is a tough challenge with the ever-increasing presence of media images and influences that we all – young people especially – are exposed to. Advertisers relentlessly promote images of body perfection that few of us, young or old, can live up to. The natural naked body is rarely shown in current media, including, as I noted at the outset, the TV programs that offer nakedness as key element of their content. The fact that body parts are pixelated and blurred sends an inescapable message.
The message is that you may not show yourself naked, even if you choose to.
This is a distinct twist on the characterization of nakedness in the story of Adam and Eve. There, Adam and Eve were compelled by shame to cover their bodies after eating the forbidden fruit, but nothing in the story suggests that it would have been a sin for them not to have covered themselves. Indeed, God himself comes looking for them in the garden, and when he finds them, Adam says that they hid from God because they were ashamed of their nakedness. Well, God was ticked. I'm reading a bit between the lines here, but I figure God said something like, “I gave you beautiful bodies in my image, and now you cover them because you're ashamed?? Get outta here!”
From our understanding of ancient history, then, nakedness was seen as something that people would avoid in social situations, but not necessarily something that others would take offense at or that would be proscribed by law. In the time of the Roman Empire, the nobility and others with sufficient wealth and power would wear fine garments, but slaves might well be naked.
Today, it is part of the fundamental rights of persons in this country that no one can be forced to be naked against their will. This certainly represents an advance in human rights and dignity from ancient times, but the pendulum swung further than that. Laws and social pressures not only preclude being forced to be naked, but also prohibit choosing to be naked in any non-private setting in many cases.
In the US, laws regarding public nudity are generally set by the states and so vary, sometimes by quite a lot, from state to state. In most cases, the laws prohibit behavior that is obviously intended to be offensive – exposure directed at other persons, sexually explicit activity or gestures intended to attract attention or to offend, and so on. Words like “lascivious“ and “wanton” appear often in the statutes. This proscription is appropriate and consistent with the general principle that behavior which is aggressive, threatening, or otherwise intended to cause upset or freight is outlawed.
The problem is that many of these laws are written as if nudity itself, or specifically the mere lack of covering of designated body parts, is necessarily an indication of sexual aggression directed at others. This goes so far in some cases as to make it a crime to be seen naked even while in one's own house.
Another oddity and inconsistency is that women's breasts and nipples are usually included in the list of verboten body parts, but no such proscription exists for men. This is not true in all states however. Partly as a result of court challenges based on gender equality rights, New York, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, and Texas each have laws expressly allowing women to go topless in any location where men could do so legally.
I can't help but contrast these laws with the very permissive laws in many states regarding guns, especially as many such laws have become more permissive in recent years. No one doubts a gun is a dangerous weapon and can quickly cause injury or death to others at the whim of the user. Nonetheless, it is legal in many places to openly carry a gun. Hence, there are many places, perhaps right here in our own state, where, if I walked down Main Street naked and carrying a powerful rifle, I would surely be arrested – but only for being nude, not for displaying a dangerous weapon. It's as if my li'l old naked body was a greater danger to the citizens of town than the lethal weapon I'm carrying.
Now it is true that anti-nudity laws are rarely enforced these days, but when they are, it can easily be for arbitrary and inappropriate reasons. In the same way, old religious morality based laws regarding private sexual acts, interracial marriage, and so on, were sometimes used for political motives, or between spouses in divorce and custody proceedings, or the like, long after these activities were part of social norms.
The particular danger of many of these laws is that, as I noted earlier, they make simple nudity a sexual offense, thus making anyone found guilty a sexual offender and subject to the ongoing scrutiny and stigma of that designation.
But enough of the dark side of attitudes toward nudity today; let's look at some of the positive and brighter parts of the picture. Let's consider the variety of ways that positive attitudes about nudity are increasing, and the experiences that more people are having of finding that comfort with naked bodies – their own and others – can be a part of a path to greater wholeness.
First, there is the large and growing number of people who consider themselves nudists – meaning that they find or create environments where they can be nude in the company of others of similar inclination. Another term in common use along with nudist is 'naturist' – this growing out of movements in the early and mid 20th century that held that the natural – that is, unclothed – body was a path to deeper connection and harmony with nature in general.
For most nudists or naturists, it is in recreational activities that they find the opportunity for expression of their clothing preference. Indeed, the largest organization devoted to the purpose of supporting choices around nudity goes by the name of the American Association for Nude Recreation - AANR. Its origins go back to around 1931, and some years back, it was known as ASA – American Sunbathing Association. The name changed several decades ago reflecting that there are a lot of recreational choices for nudists in addition to sunbathing. AANR reports having served over 200,000 members over the years, and presently counts some 200 resorts and affiliates supporting nude recreation.
At this point, I think it would be appropriate to make known my own personal perspective. I am an active nudist, meaning that I seek out nude recreation opportunities and environments and find it an important and positive part of my lifestyle. I have been a nudist, well, all my life really. Even as a child, I generally jumped at the rare opportunities for a skinny dip or the like. However, it was not until about 20 years ago that I came to look for and take advantage of nude recreation opportunities.
Another organization supporting and promoting body acceptance through nude recreation is The Naturist Society – TNS. The primary difference between the two is that AANR includes most nudists resorts and other commercial ventures available to nudists, whereas TNS is more of a grass-roots organization working to maintain clothing-optional beaches and other non-commercial opportunities and to bring knowledgeable opposition to bear against local authorities who attempt to shut down these things.
Nude resorts cover a large spectrum from simple campgrounds and rustic accommodations to very upscale resorts with all the usual amenities – restaurants, multiple swimming pools, tennis and other sports, workout rooms, and so on. In some cases, there are permanent nudist communities connected with the resorts – communities where families reside year-round, send their children to local schools, and so on. Yes, it's a family affair.
As you might suspect, there aren't many year-round nudist communities here in the northeast. Our weather just isn't conducive to outdoor nude recreation all year long. Hence, such communities are mostly in southern states. Florida has perhaps a dozen altogether. We do have nudist communities here in the northeast, but they are seasonal and close up over the winter.
Another form of nude recreation which has grown considerably over the past 25 years is nude cruises. The best known company in this area now offers several cruises each year in locations around the world. These sail on ships ranging from multi-masted vessels carrying only a few hundred passengers up to modern cruise ships carrying 2 to 3 thousand passengers. Any doubt as to the popularity of nude recreation is quickly dispelled when you find yourself in the boarding lines for one of these with 2000 other people.
I should mention that one reason for nude cruises is that, once past the 3-mile mark from port, local laws regarding nudity don't apply, so the clothes can all come off. This is one the presumably unintended consequences of our archaic laws and prejudices regarding nudity.
Another expression of nakedness that has grown in the past dozen years is something called the “World Naked Bike Ride.” Basically, a group of bicyclists gather, generally in a city of some size, and ride around town for an hour or two wearing little or no clothes. “As bare as you dare,” the leaders describe it. Now, this event is not primarily about promoting nudism or the like. Rather, it starts with cycling advocacy and moves to strong environmental concerns related to cars, the fuels they require, and the pollutants they emit, in contrast to the environmental friendliness of bicycles. Another point is bicycle awareness, and the naked aspect is to dramatize the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians as well in cities clogged with cars. Related points include self-sufficiency, thinking globally while acting locally, and community building. Since 2004, the number of cities where rides are held has grown from 2 to more than a hundred in many countries around the world, including about 12 in the US. One of these is Boston, which held it's 6th annual ride this past July 11 with some 200 riders, myself included.
All these activities, commerical and otherwise, exist only because there are a large and growing number of people who desire them and, if necessary, choose to allocate their recreation budget accordingly. So let's look a bit at how and why people become nudists. Most every nudist has a story about how they first tried it, and there are some common threads. For some, it was something they heard about and felt a pull to explore. For others, friends, or a spouse perhaps, extended the invitation to come along on a visit to a nudist venue. Usually, this is offered in a gentle way, leaving the newbie completely at choice about actually taking the plunge. In other words, the invitation is to come along, we'll be getting naked, but you can keep your clothes on unless and until you decide to do otherwise.
The story usually continues with the newbie deciding to take the risk, and after only a few moments of awkwardness, finding a sense of freedom and comfort that they could not have imagined. Indeed, they may have been saying, “Oh, I could never do that” only a short time before.
For long-time nudists, this sense of freedom and being at home in their body is often mentioned in tones that sound like a spiritual experience, even if that word isn't used. For many, there is that sense of being without shame and so having a heavy burden lifted. It's as if we somehow manged to reverse a specific piece of that spell from the forbidden fruit and now find ourselves in a Garden of Eden – naked and not ashamed.
Although he wasn't talking about nudity, I think these words from Woody Guthrie capture that sense exactly. This is from a song you may have heard me sing with Kathy and Harry.
I was born again, I was born again complete.
I stood above my trouble and I stand on my two feet.
My hand it feels unlimited, my body feels like the sky.
I feel at home in the universe where yonder planets fly.”
Then too, many nudists appreciate the practical aspects of clothing-optional living with regard to activities like swimming. No need to dig out that swimsuit before heading to the beach or pool. No cold, clammy cloth on your skin after you get out of the water, and no wet suit to pack when you head home from a vacation. Beyond that, the feel of swimming naked is one that many people don't want to give up once they have experienced it.
Here are some reflections from poet Kahil Gibran on the experience of freedom from clothes:
And the weaver said, "Speak to us of Clothes.", And he answered: Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful. And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain. Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment, For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind. Some of you say, "It is the north wind who has woven the clothes to wear." But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread. And when his work was done he laughed in the forest. Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean. And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind? And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.
-Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet Ch.10)
I describe one more setting in which people experience communal
nudity, I want to share with you a quote on the relationship of
nakedness and shame. I was surprised to find this in the past week or
so as I was doing research for this sermon.
Sexual modesty cannot then in any simple way be identified with the use of clothing, nor shamelessness with the absence of clothing and total or partial nakedness. There are circumstances in which total nakedness is not immodest....Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness. Immodesty is only present when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person...The human body is not in itself shameful, nor for the same reasons are sensual reactions, and human sensuality in general. Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of the individual.
That come from Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II. Yes, it still uses words like “shamelessness” and “immodesty”, but I have a feeling he was really talking about things the we understand and just have different words for. In any case, it is refreshing to hear a view like this from high up in Catholic church.
As I said a bit earlier, experiencing nakedness in the right environment can be a significant experience in letting go of shame, negative body image, and other old beliefs that diminish our self esteem. In whatever way it happens, this kind of change is one we often talk about in the UU world. Simply put, if we indeed covenant to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that must necessarily includes our own selves.
This same kind of awareness is part of the curriculum and processes in many of the personal growth programs offered around the country today. If, as we affirmed a short while ago, “Love is the spirit of this church, and service it's call”, then we must always as a community be looking to learn and better understand how we can dwell together in peace, seek the truth in love, and help one another.” We must be alert to ways in which walls of distrust may start to grow up among us and be willing to let ourselves be a bit vulnerable as we work to clear the misunderstandings and unspoken feelings that separate us. This is what our Covenant of Right Relationships is all about.
In some of the personal growth programs I am aware of, this kind of focus and learning continues, not just over a full weekend of exercises and experiences, but perhaps over a number of such weekends, each seeking to deepen and reinforce intimacy and openness with those we are close to – a letting down of barriers and ways in which we keep ourselves hidden, and getting past fears of being seen. We may hide in all kinds of ways – words, actions – always imagining what others may think about us, and trying to make it OK. To break those habits requires some conscious choices around being more vulnerable and open to the possibility of discovering that others will love us more as we really are than as who we pretend to be. Elizabeth's reading spoke to this in the refrain: letting go of who we think we ought to be, and embracing who we are.
One way to embrace who we are is to accept and embrace who we are in a physical sense – our bodies. It can be both a metaphor for freeing our emotional and spiritual sense of being and a direct experience of openness and vulnerability to stand naked in a room with a group of people that have been getting to know one another for a period of time. And, as with those who try nudity in other settings, many find that it is freeing and a fine way to be for recreation or relaxation.
Many find that it is wonderful to literally be who we are in the physical world.
“Be who you are” is a theme that occurs in a number of sermons of UU Ministers. One of the best known is Rev. Forrest Church. “Be who you are” he writes. Simply put, to be who you are is not to "fake your existence." He writes that "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." This may be a hard task – one that requires us to overcome long-held beliefs and things we were taught in childhood. We may have internalize messages like “Why can't you be more like … your brother, your sister”, whoever. Maybe there were messages about what we ought to do and what we should be when we grow up. Sometime during adulthood, we may start to realize that we've gotten so good at hiding who we really are that we can't even see ourselves.
When that moment occurs, it can be the beginning of a road toward wholeness, coming home to who we each really are, and coming to really love that person. It's not a destination, but a continuing journey of discovery – of standing above our troubles and on our own two feet. Standing metaphorically, spiritually, emotionally, physically – Naked. And not afraid.
may it be.