September 2010

Alan Good

nonfiction

A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm

In 2003 a group of British women shaved their pubes and sent them to Tony Blair with the message, “I got rid of my Bush -- now you get rid of yours.” This kind of protest -- laudable, clever, comfortable -- appeals to me. However, I’m thankful Dick Cheney was only Acting President of the United States for a few hours. Now that Bush is gone and, politically speaking, Americans are shaved, it does feel freer, cooler. Unfortunately, this feels like a temporary phase, as if we all shaved our bushes out of necessity rather than principle, as if Lady Liberty had pubic lice, but now she’s letting it all grow back. It’s awfully itchy.

Did you know we’re fighting a war in Afghanistan? I’m not terribly keen on it. I may be anti-military, but I support the troops, although my definition of support is more radical than the meaning attached to the bumper stickers; support, in my interpretation, is a preference for soldiers not to be placed in positions in which they’re likely to be blown up or shot, and for them not to be sent home limbless or head-traumatized or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or denied benefits because they suffer from supposedly pre-existing psychological conditions that didn’t exist before they signed up. Some American troops are leaving Iraq. To draw attention to the forces that aren’t being pulled out of Afghanistan, I wanted to call for a Great American Pull-Out. It’s exactly what you think it is. There are a lot of logistical problems with that one, but wouldn’t it be a blast? Then I was going to designate October 7, which will be the ninth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, as International Go Commando for the Troops Day, but it turns out there’s a Facebook group with a very similar name, although their commando week is in March. So now I’ve decided that we just need a naked march on the Pentagon. The protesters need to be naked to symbolize the vulnerability of the soldiers and the people of Afghanistan, and they need to march on the Pentagon because it’s full of the pricks who run the war.

All of these ideas and more were inspired by reading Philip Carr-Gomm’s new book A Brief History of Nakedness, which, even if it doesn’t make you want to get naked for peace, will make you want to get naked.

I like Philip Carr-Gomm. I like his style. He takes a risk in the very first sentence: “Here’s a suggestion: stop reading and start taking off your clothes.” Most writers would be wary of asking their readers to stop reading. I didn’t take the author up on either part of his suggestion. I wanted to take off my clothes, but it was daytime, and the apartment has a lot of windows. (His point is that if you take off your clothes in the bathtub you’ll get naked, and if you take them off while browsing through his book in a bookstore you’ll get arrested.) Carr-Gomm is knowledgeable but not arrogant, thorough but not boring, and A Brief History of Nakedness, with its fascinating photos and anecdotes, is a pleasure to read. I appreciate the author’s understated writing style. Consider this sentence from a passage on naturists: “At Sandy Balls in Hampshire, adult members of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, a youth movement created in 1916 as an alternative to the Scouts, sometimes met together in the nude…” A less confident author, aiming for cuteness, would have written something like: “At the aptly named Sandy Balls in Hampshire, adult members of the even-more-aptly named Order of Woodcraft Chivalry,” and so on. There are other instances in which the author chose not to beat his readers over the head with a stick, but I forgot to mark them.

Even if you hate to read, you should get this book for the pictures. Carr-Gomm collected a wide variety of photographs, and if you browse through the book you’ll see an advertisement from an old nudist magazine, Marilyn Manson’s tuck-back juxtaposed with Nick Oliveri’s (of Queens of the Stone Age) more open stance, and a picture of Peter Sellers with a guitar for a fig leaf. There’s a naked women’s soccer team and some naked men’s soccer fans. There are naked shoppers, naked men in Mickey Mouse masks, and several streakers. There’s a naked perfume model and a woman wearing a one-piece string bikini that just looks uncomfortable. Make of this what you will: none of the penises depicted are erect.

There are six chapters, but the book is structured around three themes: nudity and religion, nudity and politics, and shifting public opinions toward nudity. Carr-Gomm roots proscriptions against nudity in religion, but he also notes the importance of nudity within mainstream religions, particularly Christianity. Jesus was naked on the cross (and depicted as such by the likes of Michelangelo and El Greco), St. Francis walked nude in the snow, and Pope John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body that the body alone can make “visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God.” As Carr-Gomm points out, the body is a paradox, both beautiful and -- regrettably -- shameful. “On the one hand the body is a creation of deity -- in Christian terms made ‘in the image of God.’ On the other hand it is both the locus of our suffering and its cause… The fact that the body can be cast as both temple and prison has resulted in the ambivalent attitude to it that is found in many religious approaches.”

In the middle two chapters he discusses nakedness in the political realm. My favorite chapter covers nudity as a protest tool. Carr-Gomm starts with the legend of Lady Godiva and moves on to show how nudity has been used by environmentalists and other activists -- like Breasts Not Bombs -- to draw attention to their causes and protest injustice.

The final chapters cover the loosening of strictures against nudity, from streakers to musicals to advertisements. The section on streaking is a highlight. My favorite Ray Stevens song has always been “The Streak,” and my favorite photograph in the book is of a muscular, tattooed naked guy being held in the air by an angry-looking footballer. Some people would be offended by A Brief History of Nakedness, but there’s no doubt we’re more tolerant toward nudity these days. Even in my lifetime I’ve loosened up. When I saw Kevin Bacon’s cock in Wild Things I was shocked. Ten years later, when I saw Jason Segel’s in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I laughed. Now I think there should be more cocks in cinema for the very simple reason that they’re funny.

Is nakedness a human right? Carr-Gomm doesn’t state that human beings should have the right to go naked; he assumes it. I’ll say this much: there should be more nakedness. There should be more clothing-optional beaches and facilities, women should have the right to breast feed in public, universities should look the other way on mass student nudity, and streakers should not face stiff penalties. But as Carr-Gomm points out, “Being naked is often an act not only of celebration, but of defiance: of the individual claiming their right simply to be, in the face of potential obliteration or of tyranny.” Nudity is a powerful protest tool. If nudity becomes totally acceptable it will be stripped of its power. We still need that power. I’ll protest for the right “to express oneself freely and without inhibition… as the birthright of every individual” when there’s nothing left to protest.

Almost all the causes -- peasants’ rights, animal rights, women’s rights -- for which people get naked are liberal causes. Why should liberals have all the fun? Here are a few ideas to get conservatives started. They could have a Shirt Off My Back party where they walk around topless to protest letting part of the Bush tax cuts expire. You won’t find a ton of conservative men willing to go The Full Monty because a lot of them don’t have any balls, which is a shame because the N.R.A. could have a really fine naked rally under the slogan Glock Out With Your Cock Out! They could hold placards that read, “You can have my handgun when you pry it out of my tight little ass.” Of course, conservative people tend to be pro-stricture and pro-Establishment, while naked protest is generally an anti-Establishment activity. If I ever get my naked march on Washington, there will probably be some clothed counter-protesters with signs that read, “Keep your clothes on for the status quo!”

A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm
Reaktion Books
ISBN: 1861896476
286 Pages