Unwrapping the Sensory Mechanics of Nudity
There are certain body parts that the twin social strictures of religion and politics most want to cover—or, more accurately, to bind. These parts are put on reserve, so to speak: under wraps. According to the rules of repression, they can’t be checked out, or unwrapped, except by special, sweaty-palmed permission. What are these parts? They are the female breasts, and the genitals and buttocks of both sexes. (Sometimes the list expands to include the belly of either sex and the long hair of women as something that social forces desire to cover.) These organs fulfill important sexual roles, but their roles are not by any means exclusive to sex. Let’s have a look at these items on reserve and mention three rather obvious—yet rarely discussed—qualities that they share.
(1) Involuntary movement or leakage: These parts are precisely those relatively large areas of our bodies over which we have no muscular control. When exposed, the breasts, the adipose tissue of the buttocks, and the penis and scrotum continue to move, for example, after we detain through muscular action the movement of the rest of the body. If you are hammering a nail or slicing a watermelon, these areas of you, if exposed, will wobble. Additionally, the erectile tissue of the penis and the nipples, along with the pliable skin of the scrotum and its involuntary contractions or expansions in reaction to temperature, present a gamut of involuntary movement that further highlights our lack of voluntary muscular control over these areas. Also, all of these areas, along with the similarly “reserved” vulva, produce fluids of one sort or another that may or may not be controllable given circumstances of age, the reproductive cycle, etc.
(2) Unalterable appearance: We can, to an extent, shape our chests, arms, and legs through exercise and activity, but the genitals, breasts, and the fatty areas of the buttocks, lacking tonable muscles and bones, receive their form through genetics only, and are modified only by age, use (breastfeeding), or surgical procedures (plastic surgery, circumcision and other forms of scarification). The shape of the penis, for example, varies considerably from man to man and assumes a very particular size and angle as it becomes erect; this shape is mostly unalterable, despite the dubious claims of spam emails. Likewise, though less visible, is the unique shape of each set of external female genitalia. Furthermore, such areas are associated with varying degrees of hirsuteness, such that pubic hair, hair on the buttocks or on the chest, around the nipples and under the arms accounts for another area of genetically determined appearance that, although it can be controlled by shaving, cutting, waxing, or burning, may sometimes present a formidable challenge to such control.
Hence the feeling of shame, born from this lack of muscular control related to movement, production of fluids, and appearance—the shame of one who thinks that, in comparison, his penis is too small, too big, or too excitable, or one who thinks that, in comparison, her breasts are too big, too small, or too saggy, or one who determines himself or herself to be too hairy in a given corporeal region, and knows there is little to be done about it physically. Today there are more surgical options, with varying degrees of efficiency and cost, but the ancestral sense of shame is inherited from bygone eras of much cruder technology. Coping with this sense of shame, or envy, became either a matter of individual attitude, which can be quite difficult, or else the easier matter of covering oneself from view, and then shaming others into doing the same: something like a textile democratization insurance policy in which all are covered.
Paradoxically, today’s nudists are the ones who are able to reclaim the notion of democratization, because without the trappings of dress (brand, fashion, quality of cloth and manufacture, etc.) you can’t tell who’s the banker and who’s the baker. The reserve held by the nudist and the naturist is not to keep parts of ourselves on reserve, but rather the determination to honor body integrity. Instead of shaming ourselves over uncontrollable bodily differences, we should celebrate those differences through acceptance and through the active creation of a body aesthetics, in which the image of the nude is reclaimed from its banishment to the reservation of pornography. This is the essential nudist message, as summarized by American activist Lee Baxandall: “Body Acceptance is the idea, Nude Recreation is the way.” Naturism, in turn, takes that message and broadens the respect inherent in body acceptance to include respect for nature, through various paths that share a focus on reduced consumption as it relates to preservation of the environment as well as the body: reduced consumption of calories (benefit: trimmer, healthier body), reduced consumption of clothing and other goods (benefit: decreased consumerism), reduced consumption of gasoline (benefit: exercise through gas-free movement such as walking, running, biking).
Both naturism and nudism advocate the essential wholeness of the body and its purity as such. Certainly society’s desire to bind or cover genitals, breasts, and buttocks can be offset by the sensation of freedom when they are unbound and uncovered. In fact, precisely because these organs can bounce and jiggle beyond our control when we unclothe ourselves, they increase our own trajectories of movement through space. They project out from us; when we move they swing or sway involuntarily, even though the intensity of such movement, or of the arc of their swing, can be controlled by the major muscles of our torso and limbs. Consequently there is a time lag between the tracing of the arc of our voluntary movements, and the absolute end of that arc reached by the tip of a nipple or a penis. Given that the shapes of our bodies, as they move through a fluid (water or air), displace unique-to-our-body-shape masses of that fluid in directions resulting from the movements of all the body parts in motion at that given moment, then only when we are nude does our movement through space become complete and our tactile perception of that movement become complete.
(3) Large surface: These most-often-covered organs also share the fact that they encompass rather vast amounts of surface area. Regardless of individual organ size, the skin surface area shut off from sensation when binding the breasts, buttocks, and genitals is expansive and includes some especially sensitive skin zones. To what degree or in what ways might our uncovered bodies interact more fully with our environment, for example with meteorological phenomena such as temperature, barometric pressure, and wind speed and direction? How could it be preferable to go through life without feeling what it’s like to swim, to jump in the leaves, to roll in the sand, to play volleyball or Frisbee while nude?
For many, the social nudist prospects of this increased, uncovered sensation—tactile, visual, olfactory—are daunting. I’d rather not go there, they think. They would rather reserve this naked terrain for sexual contexts, as we are conditioned to behave and believe by most religions, governments, and media. But this attitude of reservation reveals, in turn, an unwillingness to acknowledge the sensuality of everyday life and its proximity to eroticism. This proximity exists in clothed society as much as, if not more than, in social nudism, because clothed society blockades, as mentioned above, large areas of corporeal real estate as taboo, thus creating the desire to peek over the reservation fence—the fence as large as a burqa or as small as a bikini bottom—and wonder why the “No Trespassing” sign was posted. For nudists and naturists, the proximity of sensuality to eroticism is simply another aspect of our corporeality to be celebrated, leading to a deeper respect for our sexuality, for the reproductive system, and for the life stages of pregnancy, infancy, childhood, adolescence and beyond.
But it is that persistent desire of the textile-clad—to reserve increased sensation for sexual contexts—that makes them assume that social nudism must then itself be a sexual context. These naked people must be out of control, they imagine. On the contrary: social nudism, while unabashedly a sensual context, is not any more or less erotic than everyday textile society, and therefore not any more or less likely to be a sexual context. Nudists are not any more or less apt to plan a massive orgy than are the textile-clad. But in many ways nudists, due to their exposure, are simply more accepting of human nature, including sexuality in its panoply of expression.
Reserve is the catchword: if nudists and naturists show reserve, it is because they are beneficent, patient folk who pity the misguided, media-led, media-fed body politic. This reserve, ultimately, is what leads many nudists and naturists to set up landed clubs where they can exercise the freedom they recognize to be essential. A fenced-in naturist club may seem to resemble a terrain not unlike the reservation to which non-nudists banish the fetishized boobs, buns, and balls, but the difference is that instead of a “No Trespassing” sign with legal admonishments in the small print, there is a sign designed to frankly inform the curious:
Instead of being deterred, you are invited, and if you want to visit, you only need set up a meeting, make a reservation, because you are the one, as an outsider, who needs to be vetted for inclusion—whether for an afternoon or for a lifetime—in a group built on the common acceptance of, and respect for, nudity. That way the naturists can determine what reservations you may have about their lifestyle, and whether you have the reserve to overcome them. Probably this won’t take very long. After that, the best way to begin is simply to unwrap and uncover yourself: remove your clothing. Most people, after a few minutes of astonished appreciation as they adjust to their improved sensory mechanics, never look back.
Let’s move on to a society without reservations.