When Is Nudity Culturally Acceptable?

by   |  May 12, 2014

David ClothedToday we are going to strip nudity of its mystery—yessss! We are going to decode, debunk and demystify the stigma associated with nudity, as well as explain when and why it’s acceptable to be naked.

Get excited for an eye-opening intellectual discussion on the deeper meanings of going nude.

“How Culture and Marketing Relate”

I am a firm believer that cultural norms are nothing more than a generally-accepted result of carefully-crafted marketing. Nudity norms are just cultural marketing. Religious, political, and other cultural leaders craft their messages meticulously, passing these ideas down to their followers, who in turn teach their children and family members to believe these ideas. And thus continues the cycle through generations.

“So you’re saying we live in The Matrix?”

I’m not trying to be creepy or disturbing in this article. If you are shaken up by any new revelations or “Aha!” moments you have while reading this, I claim no responsibility for that. I’m just a curious observer with thoughts to share on a subject that some people avoid like the plague while others cling to like an addiction.

I am always interested in digging more deeply into why we think the way we do and how those thoughts lead us to behave the way we do. If this blog post makes you think, it has achieved its purpose.

“Must Wear Clothes at All Times”

The question of nudity is an interesting one. In most countries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, nudity is generally frowned upon for day-to-day activities. In the US, the custom at restaurants and other businesses is: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” In most countries, people are expected to wear clothes for shopping, dining, working, and pretty much any activity in which other people will have to look at them.

“Except When . . .”

In each culture there are notable exceptions to the “must wear clothes” rule. In most cultures these days, a half-naked man is nothing to wince at, as long as he is swimming or performing some justifiably athletic activity. A half-naked woman is generally frowned upon. It is okay, however, for a woman to sunbathe topless when at the beach in Southern Europe.

Many Europeans bring this tradition to Miami’s South beach, which causes discomfort amongst American beachgoers. Child porn is strictly banned in the US, yet Western Europeans are also lax about having their little girls run topless at beaches. The Miami police don’t enforce the American laws, perhaps because international tourists are so numerous at South Beach.

In South Korea, everyone goes nude to the public bath houses. This may seem surprising in a culture in which kissing in public is taboo. To make it less of an issue, men and women are separated. This rule was obviously decided upon before the reality of same-sex attraction entered into the public consciousness.
In most European public baths, the dress code is “swimwear at all times”, as in the Hungarian spas. Nudity is not acceptable in the public swimming areas. However, visitors are not only expected but required to strip down in the locker rooms to shower before swimming. And not unlike the Korean bath houses, these visitors shower in plain sight of other guests—in rooms designated for men and women separately, of course. Such is the case at the Icelandic hot springs.

“Porn Is Bad. Right?”

Many religions and private groups teach that pornography is harmful. This was certainly true of my religion. I can expect a quarterly lesson on how porn destroys individuals, families and societies, and as such porn should be avoided at all costs.

So if pornography is bad, why is nudity okay in art? For many people, the belief that porn is bad causes confusion about how one should feel about nudity in art. This confusion leads to cognitive dissonance, moral dilemma, and even insanity!

Really, Mimi? That sounds a bit melodramatic.

Label it as you will, there is constant tension between the notion that porn is bad but nudity in art is okay. Let’s examine how and why nakedness is generally acceptable in art.

“Naked People are Okay in Art. Right?”

When it comes to “art”, of course, scholarly people will assure you that nudity is perfectly acceptable. My first art professor told us to resist the urge to place Post-It Notes in our textbooks to cover the nude subjects therein. Being the cheeky student I am, I couldn’t resist giving Michelangelo’s David a tank top and short shorts. It made his abs looks good!

My second art professor, an Austrian, helped reinforce this idea that nudity is perfectly fine in art. Not only did he encourage the class to check out naked people in paintings and sculptures. He also helped us realize the artist’s “intention”. Some naked portraits were meant to be anatomically instructive, while others were deliberate attempts to arouse sexual feelings. Some naked subjects are meant to illustrate some kind of ideal or simply to glorify the wonder that is the human body.

Even further back in time, my 8th grade teacher told me that nudity is always acceptable in art. She would show us slides of “great” paintings, sculptures, and other representations of the human form. Once she showed us a photograph of naked people as “art”. I recall the girls writhing uncomfortably in their chairs while the boys snickered.

The teacher then turned up the lights, chastised the boys for laughing, and said, “There is nothing wrong with a penis or a breast! Laughing is not allowed. This is art and it’s serious.”

Later that year, the same boys that had chuckled at the serious art brought a porn magazine to class. The teacher sent them to the principal’s office for censure.

“Naked Photography as Art vs. Porn: What’s the Difference?”

Evidently, the high-brow philosophy of when nudity is acceptable always breaks down in photography. I remember the final art class with my Austrian professor. While he had conditioned us well to cozy up to nudity in art, he hadn’t told us that we would be seeing pictures of real naked people that day.

From the first slide to the very last, eyes were darting, palms were sweating, and none of the students quite knew how to react. I don’t think this professor knew that the students at this university, all being seasoned Christians, each had a deeply-engrained belief that porn was harmful to the soul. For years each student—myself included—had been advised by church leaders to “flee temptation” even as Joseph in Egypt ran from Potiphar’s wife. It seemed too awkward, however, for us all to get up and run out of the room. Not only that, we didn’t want to appear immature or disrespectful to the professor.

This lecture was likely the most uncomfortable classroom experience any of these tender-minded Christians had ever had. It sure topped my list of awkward college moments. I can’t help but laugh every time I think of how insecure we all felt during that lecture.

I also laugh to recall that our American program director—also a seasoned Christian—was conveniently absent from that lecture. At the time, this left us feeling without a spiritual guide to help us determine how we were supposed to react. In hindsight, I’m sure he dodged the lecture on purpose.

He would.

“Conclusions? Or . . . Just More Questions?”

There are no conclusive answers to the nudity question, only more questions—endless questions. One question simply leads to another unanswered question:

When and why is nudity acceptable in art?
When is naked photography art vs. pornography?
Wait a minute . . . why does nudity make people so uncomfortable in the first place?
Why is it okay for a man to be half naked but not a woman?

At this point, I’m sure you can think of more questions of your own. As a marketer, I have a moral obligation to guide the questions back into the issues that I believe are most relevant to the discussion on nudity.

Perhaps the most important questions are these:

Who makes the decisions about when nudity is and isn’t acceptable?
What are their motivations in doing so?
How have ideas of nudity evolved in different cultures?
How have these decisions affected power struggles through time?
How does this even matter in our society today . . . or does it?

“What do YOU think?”

Join the conversation! Share your thoughts in the comments below. But please, keep your comments constructive, intelligent and G-rated. Inappropriate comments will be deleted and legal action will be taken as needed. That so rhymed.

More on: Changing the World, Culture, Fine Arts, Marketing
About the Author:

Mimi West is a consummate entrepreneur, brand and marketing expert. This retired opera singer and Founder of My Dream Teacher is now pursuing her MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Administration. You can follower her on Twitter: @MimiGuynnWest.
Publshed: May 12, 2014  | 
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