How Do I Sign Up For Naked And Afraid
How Do I Sign Up For Naked And Afraid – Ruth Barkan has not received funding from, consulted for, shared with, or worked for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant relationships outside of their academic appointments.
A major exhibition opens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales this weekend – a collection of nudes from London’s Tate Gallery. I have been intrigued by the complexities of nudity as a cultural phenomenon for many years, so this exhibition provides the perfect moment for me to revisit this intriguing research interest. Has anything changed in the decade since I wrote the book about nudity? What major problem does the trivialization of nudity represent today?
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My scholarly interest in nudity began with a paradox: sometimes being covered up is less embarrassing than being naked in front of a stranger. There was a certain moment when I realized this. I was having an acupuncture treatment with a doctor I didn’t know, who asked me to undress on the right side. He offered me a small towel that covered only the essentials.
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Lying there, humiliated and angry but strangely passive, I thought, “I’d rather be naked than covered up.” “That’s interesting,” I thought. “I’ll write a book about it.”
At the time, I saw nudity as paradoxical – mundane yet controversial, simultaneously natural and unnatural. There is a fundamental dichotomy in the nature of human existence: humans are indeed naked (albeit for a brief moment!) and yet clothing and/or body adornment is a social inevitability.
Humans may be naked by nature, but we have used clothing to define our species and distinguish it from one another. Nudity and clothing are how hegemonic groups define who is considered fully human – who is to be taken seriously and who is scorned; Who is “under”-dressed (primitive, savage, slut) and who is “over”-dressed (who have many masks hiding many secrets).
Berkeley L. Hendricks, ‘Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggas)’, 1974. Courtesy Tate Gallery, North American Acquisitions Committee 2015, © Berkeley Hendricks, Courtesy the artist
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Nudity is also conceptually interesting. When you think about it, it’s not clear what counts as nudity Can the mouth be empty? An elbow? Fingers may not even be straight in what counts as clothing. Aborigines were naked to European explorers and colonists; Their dresses, ceremonial decorations and turbans are not considered as clothing. This in their view disqualified the indigenous people from full humanity.
Additionally, Europeans’ own ambivalence about dress and civilization is also clearly demonstrated. After all, Christianity’s own mythology about the origin of the world is a story in which clothing serves as a symbol of sin and distance from God. The fig leaf of Adam and Eve symbolizes the end of a beautiful human existence and the birth of a distinct human culture.
According to philosopher Mario Parniola, this dichotomy – nudity as a symbol of sin and corruption, and nudity as a symbol of innocence, authenticity and truth – pervades Western tradition. Many of the nudes in the Tate exhibition can be interpreted through one or another of these cultural frames.
But many things – immigration, globalisation, consumerism, sexual liberalization, the internet, social media, changing gender roles – have changed Australian society over the past few decades. All of them have significant impact on individual and collective values and more. So surely things are different now?
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Well, yes and no. Our relationship with nudism in Australia today is more a story of earlier intensity of struggle than complete change. The sheer size, ubiquity, permanence and global reach of the images means that perennial cultural problem areas – for example the nudity of indigenous peoples, women, children and adolescents – are still sites of struggle. In this supercharged media environment, divisions within and between communities are more visible and more actively enforced. And everyone – prime ministers, popes, protesters and police – can be dragged into them without notice.
The first site of intense struggle in recent years has been over children’s films. The 2008 controversy over Bill Henson’s painting of nude teenagers at Sydney’s Rosylan Oxley9 gallery pointed to the increasingly inflammatory potential of the image, the juxtaposition of nudity and childhood.
Can the nudity of Henson’s models be interpreted as an aesthetic symbol of vulnerability, transformation, or loneliness, or is it unambiguously and inevitably sexual or romantic? And is such filmmaking an example of plagiarism – even an example of criminal plagiarism?
Such questions, with their full legal and psychological implications, are dangerous and complex. Mainstream political discourse, the debate has quickly sunk in, is not a vehicle for obscurity. The possibility that nudity means different things is not understood, and complex questions (is nudity always or only sex? At what age does one stop being a child?) remain unanswered. The verdict was clear: “I find them absolutely revolting,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Nine Network.
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The volatile, fraught and contested nature of the dividing line between childhood and adulthood has been brought to the forefront of public discourse by another major shift – almost everyone now has a camera in hand or a pocket for an international distribution network. Most of the time.
The legal and psychological consequences of the now common teenage practice of sexting, for example, are often seen in the media. Thankfully, many media and gender scholars like Cath Albury, Catherine Lumby, Alan McKee, and Kate Crawford are working hard to underpin this open dialogue—which is vital for parents, educators, and young people. In this exercise some experiential understanding of what nudity means to the participants and some of its social consequences and moral parameters in the lives of teenagers.
Although active discussions of youth sexuality suggest new forms of sexual ethics and new experiences of gender, some aspects of the gendered experience of nudity remain frustratingly familiar. Recent events – such as the revelation in August this year that a network of teenage boys and young men posted images of more than 2000 Australian schoolgirls without their consent – indicate a technological escalation of ancient sexual and social dynamics.
This lurid trade in nude images of teenagers and young women can be understood through the lens of “homosexuality” coined in 1985 by literature professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The term refers to the strange and powerful combination of friendship and hierarchy that often characterizes relationships between men.
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As much as the teenage trade in nude pictures of girls has as much to do with young men trying to prove themselves to each other, it directly exploits women. It points to the ongoing role that male-male relationships play in shaping women’s experiences.
Young women are taking more control and pleasure from their own sexual images, but the social and psychological consequences of promoting such images are strongly gendered.
So-called revenge porn is not new, but the advent of digital media has allowed it to take on new forms (such as “morph porn”, where an image of a woman’s head is cut out and pasted onto another woman’s body). The reach and potential sustainability of such imagery is unprecedented. Sex may be freer, but nudity is still not democratic.
And there’s no guarantee that anyone will see please. Being “too” covered, it turns out, still fear, disgust or shame. This was made clear in August this year, when a woman in Nice had to take off her burkini because it was not “clothing that respects good morals and secularism”. A woman from nearby Cannes was also fined for wearing too much clothing on the beach. The events come almost 70 years after the first bikini – a 1946 French invention – took the world by storm.
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To add to the complexity, Bikini’s anniversary is marked by a largely celebratory commentary in the West. And yet bikinis are still made to represent the plight of women’s flesh. In the words of a recent commentator:
In the sixties the bikini was a sign of women’s emancipation, literally throwing off the modest clothing of the conservative era, becoming a sad display of new oppression – strict diets and plastic surgery increasingly women had a ‘beautiful body’.
Lucian Michael Freud, ‘Standing by the Rags’, 1988-89. © Property of Lucian Freud. Image © Tate, London 2016
Various social and cultural norms governing male and female nudity and unequal social punishments for violating those norms persist.
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Breastfeeding in public continues to attract opposition from some quarters, regardless of whether the breast is visibly exposed. Just thinking about breasts – coupled, I suspect, with a new growing disgust
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