Review by Rod Berry
There is a strong undercurrent in contemporary nudist culture that we must forever justify our preference for being naked. Time and again nudist blogs formulate arguments in favour of our lifestyle, as though we are under siege, and that we are at risk at any moment of being wrapped in white coats and taken away to mad-houses.
One of the refreshing elements to A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm is the rather obvious but easily forgotten truth that social nakedness is a fact of millennia of human history. The current generation has not suddenly discovered the comfort of nakedness; rather we have simply re-discovered a knowledge that people of most ages and times have been aware of, albeit expressed in different ways.
The majority of Carr-Gomm’s other writings reflect his interest and personal involvement in Wicca. He brings this interest into his Brief History by reflecting on the significance of nudity in the ritual of many religious movements throughout history, including sacred Druidic ceremonies, but also including rites more familiar to many of us in the West – including Christian Baptism, which for many centuries was performed in the nude. Carr-Gomm looks at ritual nudity in other religions as well – including Hinduism, Jainism and Judaism. Contrary to our modern mindset that nudity has a necessary association with scandal, Carr- Gomm is able to demonstrate an entirely different perception – that nudity has historically been associated with the sacred. It is as though when we strip back to our essential element (the naked birth-state), we are cleansed of the dross of human failings, bringing us closer to our pure state of innocence and truth. Nudity thus has an historical association with humility, surrender and religious devotion.
Protest, and the power of the naked body to garner public interest, is one of the fascinating aspects to Carr-Gomm’s Brief History. He starts with the Legend of Lady Godiva, and traces the many ways in which through the 20th and early 21st century nudity has been harnessed to bring social change in society.
Numerous examples are given, including women’s nude protests in various countries to protest against the abuse of women, to challenge the fear of open breast-feeding in the West, to oppose the Iraq War, to support animal rights, to challenge the authoritarianism of certain military governments, to protest against large companies laying off workers, to articulate concerns over the mistreatment of female prisoners, and to campaign against human despoliation of the natural environment and global warming.
If, as we have seen, the naked human form has a deep psychological association with humility and purity, then the naked protestor may represent the idealized human, who, stripped of cultural baggage, embodies the ideals we have forgotten as a society, and who assumes a form of moral ascendancy when addressing issues of conscience. Somewhat cynically, the writer notes that in recent years, some political parties have even tried to get on the nudist band-wagon, and the marketing machines of big business have started to commercialise nudity to sell their goods.
Carr-Gomm is frank in acknowledging that the social scandal of nudity also drives the use of nakedness in protest. Nudity fascinates and shocks simultaneously because it challenges our deeply embedded social mores. Nudity is almost always news- worthy in the West. This leads the writer to move to explore the movement to acknowledging the right to be naked, following some of the major nudist movements around the world, and some of the key personalities who have fought for the legalization of public nudity, such as the Naked Rambler Stephen Gough in the UK.
In the context of the long history of human social nudity, the evolution of the modern nudist movement is given its proper place. Those who formed the early nudist organisations were concerned with recapturing innocence, of returning to our natural condition, of turning their backs on the steely cold of modern inventions and concrete cities, and returning to the metaphorical forests.
Early modern Naturists were often vegetarians. They frowned upon excesses of any sort, especially alcohol, and they focused on the health benefits of exposure to the sun and air, and of naturist physical exercise. There was almost a religious zeal to their outlook – something which perhaps should not surprise us when we consider the strong ancient associations between religion and human nudity.
The final portion of the Brief History explores the phenomenon of human nudity in the modern world. We read about nudity in theatre and dance, of streaking at sporting events, the use of nudity in visual arts. We are reminded of the association between nudity and free love in the protest era of the late 60s and early 70s, the Full Monte and nude fundraising calendar movement, and the many ways in which the boundaries are constantly challenged by comedians and various fringe cultural groups, to include nudity in their alternative expressions of how they see the world and wish to interact with it.
Naturism no longer bears the same strong attachment to pure innocence and a return to nature – in some of its less attractive guises it inverts these themes, and almost triumphs in the scandal of being naked.
This witty and well-researched discussion of nudity is the best I have ever read. It covers a wide range of themes and issues, and provides an excellent introduction to human nudism movements. The illustrations are largely high quality and in colour, and help to convey some of the fun and scandal of the nudist movement, and support the text by demonstrating many of the themes being discussed.
I find many Naturist publications shallow or simplistic in their approach. This book digs far deeper, and is immensely satisfying for anyone interested in thinking more deeply about how our naturism fits into wider culture and history. For me, it was helpful to be reminded of the aspirational views of the early modern naturists – the return to nature and taking a break from the hysteria of modern living – ideas which are at the core of my convictions too.
I thoroughly recommend it to anyone wanting to get a better understanding of how people over the centuries have conceived of their bodies and how we have arrived at the nudist culture we observe in the west today.