American composer Cole Porter’s marvelous musical Anything Goes debuted on Broadway in 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression. The American Sunbathing Association, precursor to today’s AANR, was just three years old at the time. The storyline of the musical explores the “shocking” behavior of societal types like the Gangster, the Evangelist, the Aristocrat, and the Debutante with plenty of dated references such as “cellophane” and “the great [Jimmy] Durante” in the song “You’re the Top.” And yet…reading the lyrics to the title song now, they seem timeless. It may be more difficult today than it was in 1934 to imagine how a glimpse of stocking could be so shocking, but the “anything goes” line seems to have been evoked anew in the recent Huffington Post piece by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, “State of Undress: Is Nudity Still Newsworthy?”
Rotondi raises some pithy questions. Regarding San Francisco’s consideration to mandate towel-sitting by nudists, she asks, “When a practice arrives at the point where it has a system of etiquette, has it lost its shock value?” Regarding recent nude protests against animal abuse and war, she asks, “with so much skin being bared, does nudity really shock us anymore? And if not, has it lost its power to make a statement?” I notice that the author has used the word “shock” twice in these questions, recalling the “shock value” of Porter’s shocking stocking. Indeed, Rotondi explores a gamut of contemporary headline-grabbers related to nudity, along a scale of contexts sliding from sexual to non-sexual, from Janet Jackson and Anthony Weiner to Demi Moore and George Davis.
How to answer these very good questions? And what might have been the role of organizations like AANR in leading up to the asking of these questions?
There will always be ways to shock, I think, and there will always be contexts in which some practice or another, such as social nudism, can be shocking. The revolution in communications technology–think of all the changes since 1934, let alone since 1994–opens a bigger question about how some such practice can shock when the contexts of news coverage approach ubiquity. In the United States, The Naturist Society and AANR–in their sometimes divergent, sometimes convergent ways–have no doubt helped make the idea of social nudism less shocking. But context is everything. As Rotondi shows, yet-another mass nude protest demonstration or calendar may be overlooked in the flood of such happenings, and Demi Moore’s nude-while-pregnant photoshoot was revolutionary at the time, though much less so now. And yet some of the most ancient artifacts made by human hands are carved fertility idols in the shapes of pregnant women and aroused men.
If such a fact is shocking, it can only be because contemporary society has tended to lose touch (literally) with the fleshly nature of our humanity. Some products of the communications revolution, such as this very blog and many others like it (see side bar list), can be helpful in advocating a social nudism that leads to body acceptance, a term that needs to be understood here as including awareness of learning about sexuality and the reproductive system, physical and mental diseases and disabilities, and the aging process. And, although the Internet more often commodifies and objectifies without instigating participation, it is nonetheless through the Internet that many people first learn of social nudism and where to find like-minded people, appropriate places, and organized events. It’s a lot easier now to find out about nudist events than it would have been for “the set that’s smart” in these lesser-known lines of Porter’s from the same song:
There are still plenty of private “nudist parties,” but for most people, instead of depending on word-of-mouth and private invitations from those-in-the-know, there are now many more ways to find out about and participate in social nudist or naturist events heralded online.
And yes, “anything goes” in the sense that some people use social nudism to promote overtly sexual contexts. This is why the AANR and TNS imprimaturs on organized events, and on established parks or resorts, need to be as fiercely defended as possible in order to guarantee contexts that can be promoted as “naturist” and “family-friendly.” The family unit is indispensable to the promotion of naturism’s claims to body acceptance, because only by encompassing the entire range of human experience, from newborn to centenarian, can social nudism through naturism be truly considered a viable way-of-being in the world for the betterment of our own health and of our environment.
Returning to Rotondi’s questions, I can only hope that some day, yes, social nudism’s system of etiquette will allow it to lose its shock value as a practice in greater society. (Obviously, for many of us it already has.) Perhaps one day mere but essential nudity, whether on the street or in a staged crowd photograph, will not be shocking in a negative or off-putting way. But, in contrast, I hope that “so much skin being bared” never loses its power to make a statement that is vital, constant, and humble: body acceptance.