Nudity (with Ruth Barcan, Ph.D.)

Season 3, Episode 5

What do the Pioneer 10 plaque and communal bathhouses of Renaissance Europe have in common? Today we’re stripping down the complicated concept of nudity with Dr. Ruth Barcan, honorary associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia. We’ll explore the meanings, reactions, and laws surrounding nudity, from how art influenced our perception of nudity to the complex legalities of female toplessness in the US. Oh yeah, and we’re getting deep into the nudism movement, which has an origin story you’ll be telling people about at parties.

Pick up Ruth Barcan’s book Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy.

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Citations and further reading:


Ashley: In 1972, we sent nudes to space. In hopes that an intelligent alien race would find them.

Ashley: I’m of course, talking about the plaque aboard the Pioneer 10 probe, which was designed to capture images and other data from Jupiter. Once Pioneer’s main mission was complete, it would head further and further from Earth into the outer reaches of our solar system before leaving it all together.

Ashley: At that point, it would float in space for eternity. So just in case extraterrestrials happened upon it, we added a plaque that would tell them who it belonged to.

Ashley: The idea came from legendary astronomer, Carl Sagan, who worked with also legendary astrophysicist, Frank Drake and artist Linda Sagan, Carl’s then wife, to create this message to the universe. It includes a map of our place in the galaxy, a diagram of our solar system, a silhouette of the spacecraft, and a measurement scale based on hydrogen atoms.

Ashley: And on the right side of the plaque in front of the Pioneer silhouette, are a naked man and a naked woman. As you might imagine of a design intended to represent the entire human race that was designed by three people in three weeks, there were some objections to the design. And as you might imagine of human beings, most of the objections were to the human beings.

Ashley: First they looked white, when more than half of the human population is Asian. And second, the man is standing upright with his hand raised in greeting while the woman has her hands down and one leg out to the side in contrapasto, making her look demure and subservient.

Ashley: Oh, and he has genitals while she doesn’t. I mean, female genitalia is mostly on the inside, true, but there’s still a bit you can see from the front, and the woman on the Pioneer plaque might as well be a Barbie doll. Sagan later wrote that this was on purpose since he didn’t think the higher ups at NASA would ever approve a depiction of female genitalia.

Ashley: Still, others considered the images pornographic and several newspapers actually censored the images in print. But why was a universal depiction of humanity naked anyway? Are we at our most human when we’re nude or when we’re clothed? Today we’re exploring that question and many others. Stick around.

Ashley: –

Ashley: The problem with the people on the Pioneer plaque is that finding a single universal depiction of humanity is basically impossible. If they’d worn clothes, well, what clothes would they have worn? A T-shirt and jeans certainly wouldn’t have symbolized our entire species.

Ruth Barcan: It’s not like, oh, they picked the wrong image. There is no image that can encapsulate all of us in our, diversity of age, of gender, of body stature, of, you know, um, number of limbs, anything.

Ruth Barcan: And so, of course they picked the one that seemed natural and universal and human to them. You know, obviously, being those who get to write history. But nudity then stands in for this idea of the universal human. But you know, I, I think of it as like it’s the metaphor for the lack of metaphor.

Ruth Barcan: It is a metaphor. It is a symbol of a universality that is never universal.

Ashley: That is honorary associate Professor Ruth Barcan.

Ruth Barcan: I work at the University of Sydney in Australia, and I’ve been a nude watcher for a very long time. I’ve written a book about nudity and studied it over many years from a sociocultural perspective.

Ashley: So why were the naked figures on the pioneer plaque censored by some people and criticized for not showing enough by others.

Ashley: It’s because nudity is incredibly complicated. For example, in her book, Ruth writes about how in the Judaic tradition, divinity is veiled or clothed. So nakedness distances you from God. But in the Greek tradition, nudity is the state of the ideal human figure. Western culture is very influenced by both of these camps, so our view of nudity is a big, convoluted jumble.

Ruth Barcan: And then of course, modern nations like the US and Australia, where I am, you’ve got, uh, the influence of immigration and a multicultural society and lots of very different religious and cultural meanings and backgrounds and practices.

Ashley: While every society on Earth has had some sort of body adornment, indigenous cultures in Africa, north and South America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, basically anywhere with good weather, have had traditions that involve little to no clothing for day-to-day living. And it wasn’t until European colonists arrived and imposed their cultural values that people started covering up.

Ashley: Modern society is a big mess of influences from both nudes and prudes.

Ruth Barcan: And then of course, that society is itself plugged into a, a global network of images and meaning. So it’s a kind of jumble of contradictions, our beliefs and experiences of the naked body.

Ashley: Even the words are murky. Like we’ve got nude. We’ve got naked. We’ve also got nekkid, which the great scholar Jeff Foxworthy defines as naked and up to something.

Ashley: But seriously, what is the difference between being nude and being naked?

Ruth Barcan: it’s an opposition that got entrenched in the language of fine arts. Kenneth Clark in his book, The Nude, a fine art historian many decades ago, really elaborated that distinction at length. And for him, nakedness was like the raw material. It was sort of unvarnished unclothedness, if you like, and it was art that turned nakedness into nudity, which was something more refined, more idealized, more universal.

Ruth Barcan: It’s not a distinction I really believe in, although the useful thing about it is that it does speak to the very different experiences of nudity that people can have and the very different meanings that an unclothed body can have in different contexts.

Ashley: For example, a naked man comes with very different meanings, reactions and consequences than a naked woman.

Ruth Barcan: A naked woman is very acceptable inside the walls of an art gallery. And very valued in the world of marketing and, uh, advertising. But much more physically at risk. If a woman walked naked down the street in most societies, she would be physically at risk. She would be at risk of shaming.

Ruth Barcan: And I’m not saying there would be no consequences for a man walking naked down the street, but a man can walk at least topless down the street. And there are contexts in which male nakedness could be celebrated and applauded by onlookers, as, you know, uh, virile or daring or a little bit naughty, but the, the potential consequences, social and physical consequences for a female walking naked down the street are not exactly one and the same as those for men.

Ruth Barcan: So female nakedness has been revered and idealized in certain consequences. It’s been commoditized and commercialized in many, many ones, but mostly it’s in this sort of ambiguous terrain. Um, there was an art theorist called Lisa Tickner who called the female body in general, not just the naked body.

Ruth Barcan: She called it occupied territory.

Ashley: While a naked woman is likely to be seen as in danger, a naked man is more likely to be seen as dangerous.

Ashley: I mean, you don’t really hear of women being arrested for flashing their genitals at people in the park. Even nudist groups, which we will fully explore later in this episode, they’ve historically banned single men. A lone naked man is suspect.

Ashley: But because the female body is occupied territory — she can be naked when other people want her to be, not when she wants to — female nakedness also has a ton of power,

Ruth Barcan: there’s this other long history going back to archaic times of much more powerful, including female-centric, sinister, wild, untamed meanings of nudity, associations with protection against evil, rituals for crop production, reproductive rituals and so on with wild, powerful, female figures. There is this other tradition, which included wild female nudity, um, The French Revolution, Liberty leading the people. Liberty is at the barricades in the famous Delacroix painting with one bare breast and so on. So there are these wild protesting, rebellious, archaic meanings of female nakedness that can be harnessed and still are harnessed in celebratory and protest and, uh, ways, joyful ways by women.

Ruth Barcan: And so nakedness is commonly used as a, either a political device or sometimes a, a sort of charity device because of the wealth of things it can mean. So, you know, charity runs or bike rides or swims or whatever. The double edged sword of female nudity can also be used by women activists. It can be used because they know the media will be there taking photos and and so on, and so they can be prepared to play that particular game for a particular cause to harness these wild meanings. So it’s really important to know that nakedness remains a kind of symbolic vehicle that can be harnessed.

Ashley: But as Ruth said, a man can still walk topless down the street and nobody would bat an eye, but a woman doing that, whether during a protest or just a random Tuesday, she would be seen as exposing herself. Likewise, you can moon someone and most of the time not get in trouble. But if you exposed your genitals well, the law would probably be involved. And in various places of worship, exposed shoulders or even an exposed head can be seen as disrespectful.

Ashley: Nudity isn’t one thing. There are different levels depending on the body part, the culture, or even the individual.

Ruth Barcan: some of it is just obvious that parts of the body that are most obviously biologically connected to sex and reproduction have got the most weighted cultural meanings attached to them. That’s perennially an important part of the picture, but then that doesn’t explain the varying meanings of female toplessness.

Ruth Barcan: So the, the breasts associated with lactation, of course not for all people, but biologically that’s part of their purpose. So, it’s not a surprise that those parts that are most about, uh, eroticism, sex, gender, reproduction and so on, are most culturally freighted with meaning.

Ruth Barcan: I think we can also think of about nakedness as a, as an experience. So for people who have been habitually, very much covered up, for example, it’s possible that bare shoulders or arms or legs could feel naked when exposed, and especially if that exposure is kind of, um, mandated or policed or regulated.

Ashley: What kind of country would pass a law forcing people to expose parts of themselves? Well, many, many countries have laws about headgear and face coverings, especially in government institutions like schools. Turbans, burqas, and other religious items end up banned as a result of these laws, forcing the people who follow these religions to expose parts of their body in public that they would never ordinarily expose.

Ruth Barcan: It would be an extremely violating experience to a person who has habitually through their religion or their culture, been covered in public in certain ways to not be allowed to, or, or to have the threat that that might happen. Surely that experience of uncovered arms or face or hair would feel absolutely like nakedness.

Ashley: Of course most laws about nudity go the other way. They prevent people from exposing themselves and considering that our cultural beliefs about nudity are incredibly complicated, our laws are too.

Ruth Barcan: The meanings of nakedness and the social practices regulating it and the physical embodied experiences of it, and the laws, of course, are bound up in that too. The legality of what the law decides is nakedness and what isn’t is all of these things are complexly, intertwined.

Ruth Barcan: it’s quite fascinating how the, the feeling in the body is linked to the laws and it’s linked to the beliefs, and that’s linked to the metaphors and that’s linked to the history and so on.

Ashley: For example, female toplessness in the US is a quagmire of different laws and exceptions to those laws.

Ashley: Some state nudity laws forbid exposing female nipples, while others just have laws against quote unquote lewd conduct, which is basically exposing yourself with the intent to shock, arouse, or offend. Federal law provides an exception to breastfeeding mothers on federal property, and most states have similar exceptions. But aside from breastfeeding, you’d think that if you were a woman who lived in a state that just has a lewd conduct law, you’d be fine to go topless.

Ashley: But then you’d have to check your city laws. Let’s look at California. In San Francisco, female toplessness is legal, but you need permission from the city to be topless in a park.

Ashley: But in nearby Oakland, exposing the female breast at all is totally illegal. And in Berkeley, you can’t expose anything at or below the areola. Very specific. If the super liberal Bay Area of California can’t decide what to do with breasts, what hope do the rest of us have?

Ashley: Things weren’t always like this.

Ruth Barcan: You imagine Renaissance Europe where people walked naked or with flimsy bits of clothing around them down to the communal bathhouse, and that this is what you did. And at the same kind of, broadly speaking, moment in history, this is the moment that the nude is also starting to emerge as this idealized figure in fine art. And so over centuries, you know, naked bodies in the European and, you know, US and Australian context start to disappear from the streets and turn up in art galleries and then in advertising in billboards and posters.

Ruth Barcan: So I couldn’t walk down the street naked to a bathhouse, legally, but I could walk clothed under any number of billboards that show hardly clad people, on my way there.

Ruth Barcan: the sociologist Norbert Eliza, uh, Elias talked about how things that start off as social customs, they gradually start to become psychological taboos, and then they become sort of like legal enforcement. And finally the last stage of that is, is this kind of rationalization. Well, of course you couldn’t possibly have naked people down the street. That would be whatever it might be.

Ruth Barcan: And then he says, there’s the great forgetting at the end of it all. You forget that things were ever different. We don’t know that historically people thought that, you know, using a fork at the dinner table was an absolute abomination against God. Or we forget that, you know, that all these kind of taboos.

Ruth Barcan: So he’ll say they start with the changes in social practice, which are usually about economics and so on, and they gradually become psychological taboos and then legal restrictions and then rationalization, scientific rationalizations. Well it would be impossible for us to do this and that, you know, of course we must eat in this sort of way cuz otherwise it would be unhealthy.

Ruth Barcan: And then we sort of, forget.

Ashley: These changes in social practice are happening as we speak. To see what I mean? You only have to enter a gym locker room. There’s a stereotype about how the oldest people in the locker room are also the most likely to be walking around completely naked, their foot up on a bench chatting about their weekend without semblance of shame.

Ashley: Meanwhile, younger generations are actually becoming more embarrassed of being naked in front of each other, even when it’s for a practical purpose like showering after gym class.

Ashley: Yet we’re seeing more and more of people’s bodies in the media.

Ashley: According to Ruth. That may not be a coincidence. It could be that one is directly leading to the other. As the media depicts more of the human body in this perfect, toned, airbrushed form, young people are more aware of the realistic quote unquote flaws in their own bodies and don’t want others to see them.

Ashley: With all of the shame and double standards and complicated rules around nudity, you might wish that we could just cast off the rules altogether and just be nude if we wanna be. In that case, you would have something in common with the nudism movement.

Ruth Barcan: I mean, of course people have been naked in public, have slept and uh, swam naked for, you know, centuries, of course, thousands of years. This is what people have done. But as an organized movement, it came out of Europe and it comes as a response to what’s understood to be the repression associated with clothing.

Ruth Barcan: And it’s around about the 1920s and 1930s.

Ashley: in the late 19th century, there was a trend among philosophers and social reformers in Germany to find ways to cast off an urban industrial life for something more natural and authentic. These philosophies promoted exercise, healthy eating, and importantly, the purifying effects of sunlight on the body.

Ruth Barcan: It styled itself as a very scientific movement. It was understood as being modern, modern in that rational scientific sense. And it was, we need to rid ourselves of these ridiculous, archaic taboos. We need to recognize the healthful benefits of being naked in sunlight.

Ruth Barcan: You can tell they’re in, um, England, not, not in Australia and France and Germany, uh, you know, uh, and a few in Russia.

Ashley: That led to what were basically naked group gymnastics classes in open fields. People wrote about the practice and it soon spread across Europe.

Ruth Barcan: And it was this progressive movement. Um, some of the adherents were kind of left wing. It was, uh, often quite socialist. It was sort of militarized in a sense, with these camps where people would go down and a whistle would blow and they’d all march down to the beach and do healthy exercises on the beach, naked and all swim, vegetarian food and all that sort of stuff.

Ruth Barcan: So it was a very collective practice. It was quite regimented. And it spanned a surprising range of political positions. So you, lots of socialists who, who genuinely believed there would be like a naked revolution.

Ruth Barcan: And this was part of the revolution that we would all be naked after the revolution. And then there were Christian nudists. There was a, a, a Reverend Norwood who was, you know, really bravely wrote a book in the 1930s in England.

Ashley: Norwood wrote that Christian shame about the body came from an outdated interpretation of the Adam and Eve story that put the body and the spirit in opposition with one another. Modern Christians, he said, believed that the two were one and the same, and they needed nudity to heal themselves from the harm those early beliefs had done.

Ashley: With these collective philosophies, you might imagine the early nudism movement to be incredibly body positive. I mean, you’re seeing the human body in all its forms. That’s gotta inoculate you against judging people for their size or skin color or anything else. Yeah, not quite.

Ruth Barcan: It also often got tied up in the thirties then with eugenics in that complicated way that there were left wing thinkers who were eugenicists before the second World War.

Ruth Barcan: And so did that complicated legacy of like, we are going to perfect the human race. We’re going to beautify it. There was a quite an esthetic dimension to it about beautifying the body.

Ashley: There was a belief that not only being nude, but looking at nude people was good for you. So nudist magazines would print tasteful photographs sometimes of actual practicing nudist at camp, but most often staged pictures of tall female models and male bodybuilders. Always attractive, always young, always white.

Ashley: Part of this was to improve magazine sales and recruit people to become nudists. But another purpose was to demonstrate what a good human body looked like and shame those who didn’t look the part. One editor of a nudist magazine is quoted saying that for stomach fat nudism, quote, “is the most effective measure for eliminating this monstrous distortion by spreading an ideal of human beauty and shaming those who fall so far short of it.” End quote. Real “I’m just concerned about that fat person’s health” vibes.

Ashley: But I know what you’re thinking. Lots of naked men and women frolicking together. Surely there was tons of sex going on. Low hanging fruit, am I right? But no, nudism now and then has been almost completely sex free. Ruth says that when she tells people about this topic, that’s the part that’s met with the most surprise,

Ruth Barcan: Surprise that nudism could be anything other than deviant or perverse. That would be the most habitual reaction, at least in Australia, where the idea that nudism is, is some strange, deviant, weird, sick, sexualized practice and when you go, oh, actually it’s got a very long history and it used to be associated with this, and then it went to through eugenics and then it was this, people believed there was a socialist, you know, nude future and so on.

Ruth Barcan: I think that’s what surprises people most, that it has a long history. That it’s associated with, um, all kinds of progressive thought.

Ashley: Yeah. I guess it didn’t, it didn’t occur to me that immediately the assumption would be there’s something sexual going on when it’s, it’s a bunch of people naked together. And I guess that it makes sense that people would assume that, but

Ruth Barcan: They’ve assumed that for centuries, and that’s partly why nudism was always so anxious to recruit women because women were kind of, um, symbolic guarantors of its naturalness and its, uh, purity.

Ruth Barcan: and of course in saying that, of course some nudist spaces are very much about sex and there are particular nudist clubs or particular nudist contingencies and so on.

Ruth Barcan: So, nudism’s official claim is always that it has nothing to do with sex and there’s a lot of truth in that, but of course, equally that’s quite varigated in different locations. The regulation of nudity is always about expelling that as a public idea while regulating however they wanna regulate internally.

Ashley: nudism has thankfully survived past its eugenics stage. You can thank the 1960s counterculture for that one, which shifted the goal from making every body perfect to accepting every body as it is. But it still has a diversity problem.

Ruth Barcan: I’ve been to nudist places where there were people, amputees and women who’d had mastectomies and so on. And on nudist bea ches, you’ll see a variety of body shapes. I don’t think it would be accurate to say that there are many nudist contexts in which people of all ages and races and religions are represented.

Ruth Barcan: I have seen contexts in, not at a nudist one, but at a sort of like hippie festival, I’ve seen trans people are naked along other naked people, but I haven’t seen that in sort of a mainstream nudist resort. But that may just be happenstance.

Ruth Barcan: But there are issues for trans people. it can be experienced as liberating, but could also be experienced as completely vulnerable making and exploitative and so on.

Ruth Barcan: So, I wanna say both things. One’s, absolutely, there is this experience of recognizing that bodies are multiple and various and different and, and this strange dropping away of judgment, but of course that shouldn’t ever be equated in a sort of facile way with everybody’s welcome here and everybody’s the same and everybody could just do this and everyone would be free cuz that’s not how it works.

Ashley: However, there has been scientific research testing the claims of the nudist movement: that being naked and especially participating in the nudist movement as a whole, leads to improvements in body image, self-esteem, and overall life satisfaction. A 2018 study by University of London psychology researcher Keon West — Dr. West, if you’re listening, I have sent you approximately 4,000 emails — anyway, he found that, yeah, not only did people who hung out naked with other naked people tend to have greater life satisfaction, which they determined was caused by a better body image and self-esteem, but those factors also got a boost immediately after participating in a naked event.

Ashley: And before you say, well, maybe people with a healthy body image and high self-esteem are more likely to feel okay walking around naked in public. Well, Dr. West put that to the test too. He put 15 people struggling with their body image through a four day quote, nudity based intervention that started with hanging out, clothed around naked people, and gradually led to the participants themselves getting undressed, on their own terms, by the end of the intervention.

Ashley: And guess what? The participants reported real improvements in body image, self-esteem, and life satisfaction that were still persisting when the researchers checked on them a month later.

Ashley: So being naked in certain contexts can make you happy. It can also make you ashamed or make you lose your job or put you in jail. Nudity is bound up in so many conflicting influences that it can never be one thing. Not even a human universal. Just take the story of Adam and Eve.

Ruth Barcan: It’s a simple little story, but it’s really quite rich in a way, I think, because on the one hand, clothing is seen as a fall from grace. It’s a sign of sin, it’s a degradation. So there’s this echo of the idea that the naked body in Eden was pure and natural and sort of unmarked. It was nothing. It was unremarkable because it was just the state of of being.

Ruth Barcan: But then the clothing is what then ushers in a distinctively human world because from that point on, Adam and Eve are no longer at one with God.

Ruth Barcan: So the idea that clothing is the basis of our humanness is a kind of interesting, it’s an interesting one. Because you could say equally, equally, you could say the natural, if you want to say natural, I always put a few inverted coms around that, but the natural condition of the human is naked.

Ruth Barcan: We’re all born naked. You could say that. But you could equally well say the natural condition of the human is to be clothed because you could say there’s no societies that haven’t had some form of ornamentation, clothing, protection of the body.

Ashley: Nudity is a paradox. It’s both a completely natural state and unlike how any human society has existed. It’s both freeing and violating. Equality and hierarchy. We can’t escape the challenges of human society by taking off our clothes. But it helps at least in the right situation.

Ashley: Thanks for listening. Extra thanks to Dr. Ruth Barcan. Her book is Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, and it’s literally the only book that attempts to cover everything there is to know about nudity. You can find a link to pick it up in the show notes.

Ashley: Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music. Episode music is from Epidemic Sound. If you need music for a project, just use the referral link in the show notes and the podcast will get a kickback.

Ashley: If you liked this episode, I’d love it if you wrote me a review on Apple Podcasts.

Ashley: Just use the link at the bottom of the episode description and tell me the most surprising thing you learned in this episode. It would mean a lot. The next episode is all about the taboos of makeup, and it’ll be out in two weeks. Hope you tune in. I won’t tell anyone.