Even though nudity is one of the most natural and normal things a human can experience, American society has been in the business of censoring it for a long time. As modesty began to take deep roots in our human psyche, we stopped embracing the bare human body and instead started treating it as an object of shame, something we should be hiding. Even today, we maintain this discomfort and shame around nudity, which stems from religious, sexist, and generally conservative beliefs. It is time that we in America learn to move beyond this fear of nudity and return to comfort around bare bodies, because it is a state of being we will never be able to ignore or escape. In writing this piece, I am also coming from a cis woman’s point of view, which deeply impacts how I navigate the topic, and the place from which I ground my arguments. Due to this, there are some perspectives that are missing from this piece as a whole.
Before I dive in, I would like to take a moment to draw a distinction between nudity and nakedness, as they are two distinct things. Nudity is something that happens in art, a way for humans to interact with an ideal body. Nudity makes a body an object and detaches it from the person who owns it. Nakedness, however, is a more raw version of a bare body. As the Irish Examiner puts it, “nakedness happens in your bathroom” and tends to be more vulnerable, whereas nudity “is to be seen by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” When a naked body becomes nude, the body becomes an object and is detached from its owner. This distinction is vital and at the heart of the problem, because by fearing nudity we continue to make nude bodies into objects, rather than see them as human beings.
The Catholic Church, and more specifically the Vatican, is one of the most powerful, deeply influential actors in our fear of open nudity. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, nudity in Europe was ignored, and artwork featured bodies hidden under shrouds of fabric. It wasn’t until 1440, when Donatello dared to make a small bronze statue of a nude David, that nudity was returned to art. The acceptance of nude bodies, however, lasted for a very short period, as the Fig Leaf Campaign began in 1541, which aimed to cover all nude bodies in artwork around Europe. This campaign didn’t really take off until the Council of Trent, in the mid-1500s, when the Catholic Church signed on to it in an effort to push towards more modesty. After that, statues and paintings were vandalized in order to be made more conservative across Europe. There was a Christian fear of overt sexuality that created a direct link between nudity and sex. This strict censoring of art that swept across Europe worked to strengthen the link, which is still visible today.
While the covering up of artwork may seem inconsequential, the truth is that what we portray in art deeply impacts our society. A significant amount of artwork that is famed and that many people grow up admiring seeps into our individual psyches, and we begin to associate that art with who we as individuals should strive to be. While some art has been left in its natural state, a significant amount of vandalized art is present in the forefront of our minds when we picture famed artwork. This is one of the main roots of our discomfort with nudity.
Our discomfort and rejection of nudity has been strengthened by sexism. Society appears to be more comfortable with the nudity of a male-passing person than other people’s nudity, a rule that seems to span many cultures, religions, and societies. In many denominations of Abrahamic religions, women of faith who are deeply devout have to cover their heads and sometimes their faces in order to be pure before the Lord. In the summer when people hit the beaches, male-passing people are able to remain bare-chested, whilst people who are not male-passing are often forced to wear bikini tops or full suits. The way we as a society so clearly impose stricter rules around nudity for some groups of people above others is abysmal.
Most recently, there has been a lot of pressure on social media platforms, particularly Instagram, to explain why their nudity guidelines are so inconsistent. This is in it of itself an issue, since Instagram takes on the role of gendering individuals rather than letting individuals identify with the gender they are. The first problem with the “female” nipple controversy is the very fact that a nipple is gendered by the company. Amber Heard, an actress, recently posted a picture from a September photoshoot that showed her nipple. It was flagged and removed by Instagram, and she protested by putting the same picture with Jason Momoa’s body and face instead. Unsurprisingly, the Momoa picture is still up, and has not been flagged for its cis male nipples.
Instagram’s policy of policing “female” nipples means that trans and nonbinary people may be unfairly targeted or treated by the company in its efforts to do away with overt nudity. There are accounts, however, that are challenging this ‘nipple ban’, the most prominent being ‘genderless nipples’ which posts close ups of nipples and implores the platform and its users to rethink the nipple guidelines.
The hiding away of “female” nipples has been a huge problem on the platform, specifically in relation to the art community that lives off the content they create, as well as parenting communities that may be barred from including breastfeeding or birth videos. There is an overall sexualizing of nipples that does not occur for male-passing people. Nipples belonging to any body are not inherently sexual, but are simply another body part, but are linked to sex because nudity has been banned in all non-sexual realms.
When discussing nudity, American culture must also be discussed. Nudity is not something that is discussed in a positive way in public, and the only places I have heard it brought up have been in sexualized contexts. In American locker rooms, outside of Swarthmore, I had to learn how to cover myself with a towel as I tried to get changed because those around me refused to even see a hint of a nipple. When I first moved to the US, I had a variation of the following conversation with everyone I met, “You’re from Italy, huh? Why do none of the women there wear bikini tops?” Depending on who was asking the question, there was either a sense of disgust or a creepiness accompanying their words. Platonic, non-sexual ways of being nude seem to be nonexistent in this country — it is as if all nudity must be sexual, otherwise it may not exist.For the country with the highest consumption of porn in the world, the shame and fear that surrounds nudity is hard to understand. This aversion to nudity that exists in the United States oppresses all bodies around the country, and cultivates a sense of disgust that is directed towards ourselves. Unfortunately, whilst we can tweak our bodies, we will never be able to leave them, so the self-directed disgust stays with us for many years, a time in which it is imperative we unlearn the shame we feel towards our own nudity. American culture must shift to accepting and embracing the nude human body without sexualizing it or making it a spectacle, because it is no longer acceptable to live in this way.