I often think that in many situations clothes have no utility whatsoever. When I do a Google search and type in this question, the most common reasons I get are “adornment, protection, identification, modesty, and status.”
Now there’s a self-contradictory list if there ever was one! It lists “modesty” vs. “adornment”, and “protection” vs. “identification” and “status”. In the former case, we use clothing to be modest, yet we use it to decorate our bodies. In the latter case we use clothing to protect ourselves, yet we also use it to advertise our status and even identify ourselves. In certain cases this is exactly what we don’t want to do if we want to protect ourselves.
Then again, suppose that we find ourselves on a vacation in a warm environment, where we are unlikely to meet anyone who wishes us either good or ill. Why do we wear clothes then? We don’t need a swimsuit to go swimming, yet people do wear it even when they’re completely alone. Some people even wear clothing when they bathe or shower, and some religious people promote the idea of having sex without undressing those parts of the body which are not required for the act.
My guess is that the real answer to the above question is something else and the reasons given to me by Google are mere rationalizations. They do justify some peripheral, or extreme situations where we would want to wear clothes, but for most of our lives, neither reason justifies our drive to don clothing.
Let me make a digression by telling you a little story.
A man lived in a village where everyone had chicken. They grew chicken for their eggs and meat and were known throughout their land as having the best eggs and the best poultry. This particular man, however, was very proud of his chicken. He let people take a look at his farm, study his farming methods, and in many ways he really did have the best chicken in the village. He would tell everyone about his farm, describe it to them in such precise details that people felt as if they had actually visited the place even if they hadn’t.
One day, the man woke up to find all his chickens slaughtered. Because of this, he eventually had to sell the farm and move someplace else.
Now, this story is a bit banal, but it shows clearly what I want it to show. A man is proud of his chicken and tells in what he believes is amicable conversation everything about them. He likes to talk about it. It is a conversation starter for him and by talking about it he feels accepted into the community he lives in.
Someone, or maybe even everyone in the community, however, feels differently. They feel as if he was flaunting the fact that his chicken are the best; he looks overconfident and too proud of an accomplishment that everyone else in the village is capable of anyway. They feel his tales of his farm are actually boasts and demeaning to the other chicken farmers in the community.
Because of this, they take his confidence and his flaunting of success and use it to destroy him completely.
Now how does the “hero” of our story feel when he realizes that all his chicken are dead? That what he thought of as his greatest accomplishment, was suddenly and completely destroyed? He might feel betrayed by his community, yes. But in his own behavior, he might find patterns which will suggest what others have seen: that he was boastful, demeaning, and too proud. He might conclude that it was never alright to talk about his accomplishments, for fear that he might again come across as such. He might withdraw into himself, for fear of another betrayal.
Moreover, the fact that he failed to protect his chicken might be a massive source of shame for him. He’d unwittingly practically opened the door to the perpetrator. He told everyone everything about his farm. And then he got punished for being so open.
There are a number of courses of action open to him after this. He could try and find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. He could take matters into his own hands and slaughter chicken of every other farmer in the village. But whatever he did, the question remains what he would – in his own mind – make of the fact that he had boastfully flaunted his most prized possession which was then taken from him for precisely the reason that he had boastfully flaunted it? How will it affect his future behavior?
Assuming he once again becomes successful at something – anything – will he be more cautious? Will he continue to flaunt his achievement, or will he be more quiet about it and perhaps even appear withdrawn to other people in his new community? Will he increase security on his farm, or will he ignore security at the peril of the past repeating itself? Will he take the slaughter of his chickens as a sign that he should stop letting just about anyone near his achievements, or will he take it as an admission of others that they are unable to best him and that he is right to boast and should boast more?
At some level we can understand any reaction, even if there was a lack of any apparent reaction. Now imagine if a similar scenario had happened to this man over and over and over again. At some point he is bound to change something about his approach, if for no other reason then because starting over gets boring after a while. If he is in his essence a chicken farmer, then he will have to change how he communicates that to others.
One apparent way is to simply not let anyone know – to hide what he does and how he does it. To close down his farm to everyone except those who work on it. To hide it from those who have no business with it, and especially from competitors. In a way, he will have become more shy and picky about who to open up to.
Now let’s go back and talk about clothes.
One obvious and important fact about us humans is that we walk upright on two legs. Our proper and healthy body posture, however, leaves unprotected certain vulnerable parts of our bodies, namely our belly and our genitals. You could say that the essence of human physical appearance is that we appear to flaunt our most vulnerable body parts before any onlooker. We expose them to potential predators. Our healthy posture is vulnerable, though at the same time it exudes confidence and strength.
This is similar to the chicken farmer in our story who openly spoke about his farm. He told everyone exactly what he values most and by describing it he also relayed information on how to hurt him most. His farm was his biggest asset, his strength, but also his weak spot. Similarly, our human posture is our asset because it frees our hands to handle tools and weapons, but it also opens up our weak spots for the world to see.
If these weak spots were violated in any way, on some level it would be a similar experience – albeit physically more painful – as that of the chicken farmer who had his chicken slaughtered. That we were seemingly flaunting these weak spots before they got violated is a powerfully shaming fact because we realize from it that we’d been flaunting something valuable that we were in that instance unable to protect. The natural reaction is to hide these weak spots.
And so, we end up hiding our bodies not because we are ashamed of them as such, but rather because we fear we would be ashamed if it was painfully demonstrated to us that we are unable to protect them from being violated after we’d flaunted them. So it is shame we’re dealing with when we put on clothes. The same sentiment is even expressed in the Bible. But when we are told that it is because parts of our bodies are shameful, we are being misled onto a path where first we are ashamed of our bodies, and ultimately ashamed even of being human. What’s shameful is that we seem to believe that we are unable to live up to our full human potential, unable to stand up straight with our shoulders back, even (or especially) when completely exposed, and that which makes us human is on full display.
Regardless of our lifestyle, we nudists have not overcome this feeling of shame. We may have created, or joined, an environment where these attacks are not likely, but leave this environment and that shame is right there with us. Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler, seems to lack this shame despite being continuously attacked by the police and sentenced to jail by the courts. Most of us are not prepared for these kinds of consequences and such degree of ostracism for an issue that nobody perceives as essential for life. Although it is a kind of discrimination, putting naked people in jail is hardly the same as enslaving black people, since nakedness is easily remedied by clothing, whereas the virtue of having a dark skin is inherent in the physical nature of a black person and cannot (or better said, should not) be “remedied”, Michael Jackson notwithstanding.
I myself have often seen nudity as a peripheral issue of personal freedom. Yes, if we try to go naked in public we will be ostracized in today’s society, but we will be accepted right back if we put on clothes (exceptions do apply). There are personal freedoms that are taken from people who are simply different by their nature, which seem like more essential freedoms to fight for. For example, rights of homosexual people have long been denied them even though being or not being homosexual was rarely, if ever, a matter of choice. Before that it was the rights of black people for their virtue of being born black.
Interestingly, as I re-read the list of reasons why we wear clothing, another point strikes me. It says that we wear them for “identification” and “status”. We thus use clothing to “flaunt” not our bodies, but rather our status in the society. And truly, it seems much better to have one’s status challenged than one’s physical body, since losing the former may hurt one’s pride and perhaps inflict some shame, while losing the latter will actually hurt, and quite likely inflict death. But it is not unheard of that people get physically attacked for their status.
I believe that the core reason we wear clothes is shame. But we are not ashamed of the body per se, but rather of our vulnerability. This quickly gets translated into being ashamed of our bodies in our minds, because we are so programmed to protect our vulnerable parts, but in my opinion this distinction is very important. After all, our emotional responses in social context – particularly those we deem dysfunctional – are the result of our adaptation to the circumstances we’ve lived through since our childhood protect us from being hurt in ways that we were hurt in the past.
When we feel ashamed of being naked in public, that shame is protecting us from harm that we believe will be inflicted upon us if we get naked in public. Many people who have tried nudism, or have participated in some events naked (such as the World Naked Bike Ride, for example) report a decrease in issues regarding their body confidence. It makes sense if we see it from this angle of perceived harm resulting from our nakedness: when we see that no harm is forthcoming, we relax; fear disappears; discomfort subsides. And we ask ourselves what is there to be ashamed of? They are just body parts.
Except we were never ashamed of parts of our bodies to begin with. We may have associated the feeling of shame to certain body parts, but what I think we are really ashamed of is exposing them to those who would violate them – or who would violate us for exposing them.
By “violate” I don’t necessarily mean physical violence and sexual assault, I also mean the various forms of emotional abuse. When I began my barefoot lifestyle, I was most afraid to run into people I knew, because I knew they could hurt me most in that regard. That, however, ties into my early childhood experiences in a house where usually eight of us lived (with myself being, for most of my childhood, the only child in the house) and I often found myself standing alone and without emotional support or physical protection from my parents. But that is a story for some other time.