Mixed feelings: nudity and shame

Anyone who stands naked in public in front of strangers is usually ashamed. But why?

Sociologists still debate whether this feeling is innate or conditioned by our civilization: Shame. When naked people look at each other, unwritten laws regulate what’s allowed and what’s not. But one day, the sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann from the Sorbonne University in Paris and five of his colleagues took heart. They packed recording devices and notepads and headed off to the bathing beaches of Brittany and Normandy, as well as to some urban lawns. There they interviewed around 300 half-naked women and men bathing in the sun on a topic that seemed rather odd to most respondents: the topless. “What is there to ask?” was the most common reaction, reports Kaufmann. At least there were no slaps for the curious researchers; And so, on the basis of this survey, one of the most interesting contributions of recent years was created on the question of what the feeling of shame is and how it is expressed today in the way society deals with the naked body. Kaufmann’s central thesis: It is a big mistake that it is something completely natural to undress a bit on the beach: “Removing the bikini top is not a simple, natural and problem-free gesture, but is part of a historical process and set of extremely sophisticated rules of conduct,” assures the sociologist. More on that later. The decisive factor is that Kaufmann takes a position in a dispute that has been discussed in the ethnological and cultural studies seminars of the universities for years. Is the feeling of shame in the face of nudity more or less innate in people of all cultures and levels of development? Or is it a historical feeling that people have painstakingly acquired in a process of civilization? To put it bluntly: the scientific findings are contradictory.

Those who are ashamed would like to disappear

At first glance, the fact that the deeply felt feeling of shame and embarrassment is often accompanied by strong physiological reactions speaks for some kind of biological background. Those who are ashamed of ignorance or failure to meet social expectations because they acted wrongly and were caught doing so may blush and get violent heart palpitations. Thus, although the physical component of shame can be as strong as is otherwise only found in fear, biologists have found it difficult to find even pre-forms of shame in animals. Some attempts to interpret the averting of the gaze of some non-human primates as shame-analogous behavior seem rather attempted. Then the animal would have to be able to see itself as a rule violator from the outside – unlikely that its ability to reflect is sufficient for this. So it is not surprising that many scientists are still pursuing the opposite approach, i.e. researching the social conditionality of the feeling of shame. The sociologist Norbert Elias became famous. In his main work “On the Process of Civilization” he advocated the thesis that shame towards one’s own nudity – like other more refined customs, such as the use of a fork at the dining table – only became popular in Europe since the Middle Ages slowly developed in a historical process. People in the 14th and 15th centuries were still very uninhibited about their bodies and their functions: Contemporary depictions show men and women splashing about naked and at ease in public baths, probably getting closer in the process. There were no private bedrooms, people belched, farted and urinated happily and quite publicly.

It was only with the emergence of modern society, where the individual had to function at his post and observe complex social constraints, that the handling of one’s own body was also regulated. There was increased drive control and affect modelling.

The upbringing then ensured that social prohibitions no longer had to be enforced from outside: external constraints turned into psychological self-constraint. That is the essential function of shame to this day: it dampens overly extroverted and aggressive behavior from within, limits sexual freedom and exhibitionistic tendencies. The elegant theory of Elijah is probably still held by the majority of cultural historians, but it has also come under fire. Above all, the german ethnologist Hans-Peter Duerr has spent 14 years collecting supposed evidence with monomaniac zeal that body shame has probably always been a universal feeling – what swimming trunks are to Bavarians on the lake is to the indigenous Negrito of the Aeta people in the Philippines hold the genital cord.

Liberation from shame of nudity

We have read that bans on nudity and the establishment of a sense of shame, “good manners”, are also intended to prevent aggression and exhibitionism. I think that prohibitions always carry the temptation to transgress them. But what we have in front of our eyes every day is perceived as normal. We are ashamed of our nudity, and with it we are ashamed of ourselves. It has been and continues to be a long way to grasping how locked-in we have been by conventions about nudity; Unfortunately, everyone has to find the key for them. My path to nudism was through acceptance of my own body. I felt the attributions other people make about you when you are visible naked. My revival experience was many years ago. Someone on the beach said to me during a conversation:
“We are more human naked than with synthetic clothing”.
When I went to the beach for the first time in the 90s with my pubic hair completely shaved, people’s first reaction was “to show off”; I only replied “my penis is also just naked”. I had shed my shame from nudity, like my pubic hair – and today I don’t know any nudists with pubic hair; Thanks to waxing and the IPL laser. We are all really naked now.

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