The Body in Science, the Body in Culture: nakedness without/with norm violation

These are two very different things.

The permission allotted to professionals in clinics and hospitals, to view our nude or partially  nude bodies for medical purposes, stands in stark contrast to being arrested for cooking steak on the back deck bar-b-q, while in the nude (or even topless if a female) because it feels comfortable.

Being nude (like other things) is a function of time, place, and circumstance. So in the first instance of being in a clinic or hospital, we forfeit body privacy for the higher need of getting well. Showing doctors and nurses our bodies is bound by the time of visit (hours or days), the location (screened off bed/table/room), and problem at hand (illness or disease). There are expected norms (standards of behaviour) that apply, namely, you show your affected body part(s) when asked, because any shame you may have previouly harboured is now moved to another part of your brain and forgotten, at least temporarily. This expected behaviour from being a ‘patient’ flows from a latent psychological deference hierarchy in our minds, from which we control, by order of their deference status, who sees what, when, where, and how. We give this viewing privilege to doctors and nurses, because of their assumed role objectivity. Here the body is an object of science. It is a specimen under examination, and it doesn’t matter what our own age, sex, religion, ethnicity, occupation, education, or social status is. We defer to their expertise in exposing our bodies to them. They don’t judge what we look like. as part of their role. This is not a public event.

And the police aren’t called.

In the second instance, different norms apply. This the public arena, and unless you have already secured the ‘permission’ of your surrounding neighbours, you are taking a risk bar-b-queing in the nude (apart from getting splashed or dripped on). Current Canadian formal and informal norms around public nudity are at least the following:

  1. nudity in private settings (home, bars, nude beaches, nudist/naturist resorts) is okay;
  2. nude hiking, canoeing, camping, is permitted by our criminal code in remote public parks and federal areas;
  3. total nudity in all other public areas is not permitted by law;
  4. partial nudity, i.e., toplessness in women, is now pemitted by law in most public areas in most provinces (yes, a woman can walk down the street in Toronto, or cut her front lawn in Sioux Saint Marie while topless);
  5. total nudity is allowed in certain situations, e.g., downtown parades for a cause;
  6. nude statues and paintings are okay.

Science and culture mostly stand apart when it comes to seeing the nude body. Yet they both circumscribe it by time, place and circumstance. The Western tradition over the past 200 years has been to increasingly sexualize the nude body in media depictions. Nudity and partial nudity, especially of women, sells. It has become an international capitalist enterprise making millions or billions annually, and shows minimal signs of morphing into complete body acceptance and desexualization. Nudist/naturist movements across the globe have had some success in the past 90 years in enlightening their citizens, and it is estimated that in liberal democratic countries there are over 33 million card-carrying nudists/naturists. And more middle-aged people, i.e., those who suported equal topless rights, et., are apparently living in the nude in their homes. But the millenial generation of today is showing little interest in picking up this gauntlet. Some social change crawls on its stomach, until the moral pendulum swings the other way. Human rights advocacy and public protest are not within the scope of current millenials’ thinking. They just want jobs and friendships and privacy over all other values.

Law infringement involving mere nudity makes prosecution difficult because of having to prove intent. When one person walks nude down a busy street, an arrest will probably be made on the basis of ‘exhibitionism’, mental condition, or some sort of sexual ‘perversion’. When 300 people walk nude down a busy street, it is interpreted as a ‘demonstration’ and thus permitted. And if they stood still, it might be seen as a work of art.

Society has not yet reached the point where we have no need to justify our nudity on the basis of time, place, and circumstance. Although we are born nude, unlike all other animals, we lack the basic right to be what we are, where we are. Nudity, especially in public places, has become over centuries attenuated to morality, and historically is now a cultural phenomenon. It is culture, not nature, that has created norms against the body as it is. Culture, is of course maleable,  changeable, and whimsical, as it responds to human political power structues, persons of influence, and social fads. But core change takes time, especially because today the nude body being considered is a sensual, media-magnetized, and heavily sexualized, source of an individual’s self-concept. To change people’s minds you need to first get their attention, and then to convince them change is necessary or in their best interests.

But the obstacles to complete body acceptance are enormous.

Age, sex, education, employment, religion, ethnicity, nationality, political beliefs, ignorance, prejudice – they can all determine one’s receptivity to social change…that would in this case turn the clock back 50,000 years, and forward perhaps many decades. The medical/scientific ambience treats the nude body as amoral, neither moral nor immoral. Its neutrality is protected and enforced by professional norms, not social norms. Society and science are conversely related in this sense with regard to norm violation. The nude backyard bar-b-qer may become commonplace one day, but if he burns himself he’s safe as a nude today in the arms of medical science. Like many things, social change towards nude body acceptance comes down to walking the path in increasing numbers, because numbers can change policy.


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