I would like to start this essay by asking a question that many of you- particularly my younger readers- might find uncomfortable: When I ask you to imagine a nude body, what is the image that you imagine? It might be your own body, or the youthful, tauntly lean body that you see in advertisements and media. It could also be a female body, or a male body. Perhaps it’s the type of body you find most attractive, or the body of your spouse, partner, or recent lover.
Now I ask you this: How many naked bodies have you seen and openly viewed in real life? How many naked bodies have you seen in photos and video? How many of the former bodies would you objectively consider beautiful? How many of the latter?
And lastly this: How many times do you believe your own body is not perfect because it has lines, rolls, fat, cellulite, scars, and visual imperfections despite the fact that all human bodies have a combination of those traits? And how do you believe the image you have of your body as not ‘normal’ or ‘beautiful’ is impacted by the fact that- in the range of nude bodies you have viewed in your life- it is likely that most of them have been beautiful, youthful ones shot in attractive lighting and positions?
These are hard but necessary questions to ask because of our cultures obsession with youthful beauty and the manner in which we shame, stigmatize, and sexualize nudity. Since the naked body is seen as sacred and something that must be hidden from public view, we don’t get the opportunity to view with unashamed scrutiny a variety of bodies in our daily lives. And those that we do often see are selected from a limited range of body types and worked upon and retouched into perfection, providing us with an unrealistic, narrowly-contrived expectation of the human form. Moreover, in a culture that demeans casual, non-sexual nudity, our experience with another’s naked body is normally in conjunction with a sexual encounter or brings to mind our sexuality and the sexuality of the nude figure we are visualizing; and partly due to the limited manner in which nudity is acceptable, our bodies are prized not as the incredible form we experience our physical presence through, but for its capacity to incite and appease sexual urges. This makes it so that our bodies value is most often measured by its youth/fertility, gender, and objective beauty[i], and it gets marketed by those standards.
Our lack of comfort in our bodies and the sexualization of the human form is a natural result of the manner in which modern humans are raised. From an age before we sexually matured, we were cultured in the private, covert manner in which we react to and discuss the human body and its natural biological processes. It was demanded that we cover ourselves with clothes, use certain words to describe our body parts, remain secretive and negatively cryptic around genitalia and sex, and hide all actions that come from our sexual organs and anus. Since it is in modern societies benefit to teach cleanliness and sexual modesty to children in order to help promote the standards of life we have become accustomed to as a species, such requirements are not inherently wrong. Yet despite the importance of such social conditioning, we were not encouraged to question the logical reasoning why we are raised to hide, clothe, and wash our bodies and the excrement that is expelled from it, and nor were we informed of the importance of such rules and regulations that suppress sexual expression. On the contrary, we were often berated, hushed, and/or redirected with our inquiries when we asked such questions about our bodies, as sex was something forbidden, taboo and ‘wrong’ and discharge and excrement from our genitalia and anus were seen as disgusting, unsanitary[ii], and unsightly. In other words, topics and thoughts to be discussed either in private or- ideally- not at all.
Thus, from the day we are born, our bodies become something we should clean, hide, cover, and- to some extent- view as dirty; and once we become sexually mature, it becomes a commodity for someone else to desire and love. As preteens and teenagers, instead of being told how important fitness is to mental and physical well-being and longevity, adults, magazines, television, social media, and the popularity hierarchy at our school institutions condition us to focus on dressing, acting, and presenting ourselves in a certain manner that will attract others towards us. In our youth, the majority of us keep ourselves firm, fit and beautiful not for our own benefit or so that we can perform physical tasks in order to survive (as we no longer need to maintain our stamina, strength, and vigor for survival, at least in our youth) but in order to please those around us. Some lift weights and take steroids to the point that their body reacts negatively. Others starve themselves and exercise to the point that their body lacks the necessary nutrients, fat, and muscle for ideal health. Athletes train their bodies to obscene and injurious amounts and either restrict or indulge in their nutritional intake to an unhealthy extent to garner respect, money, acceptance, and admiration. People consistently diet, attempt certain fitness regimes, complain about their weight, cravings, and food habits, and bemoan physical characteristics all with the purpose to attract others towards them due to our innate requirement for community, attention, and social interaction and the fact that humans as a species rely on sight as our primary sense. And- both ironically and as a rational consequence of a decreased need for social connections sexually, platonically, and professionally- it isn’t until our old age when our health declines and our bodies are deteriorating that the majority of us finally respect the incredible power of the human body for its physical purpose, not its visual purpose, and become comfortable in its pure form, naked or clothed.
But if we want this elusive wisdom to be privy to the youth of society whose physical beauty is an important aspect of success, we will have to redefine the manner in which we discuss and relate to our bodies and sex. This- of course- is something that many of us understand, and individuals and corporations have spent countless resources attempting to rectify the harm that the advertising, beauty, and sex industry has brought to society. However, with the advent of programs such as Photoshop, applications such as Instagram, and corporations such as Vogue, Victoria’s Secret, and PornHub, our entire perspective and relationship with nudity and sexuality must be altered in order to remedy the negative effects that such standards have on the population of image conscious youth and adults. And this should start by de-shaming sex and the nude body. In essence, nudity and sex must be discussed and respectfully praised for the natural, non-sinful things that they are in order for us to finally feel comfortable with our body as it is. For if we could often see the unclothed bodies of those around us in a non-sexual environment, and feel comfortable enough to truly look at them and allow others to do the same to our own, perhaps we would feel confident and knowledgeable enough to accept and discuss our own physical form, the bodily excretions it emits, and the sexual desires it feels, along with the untouched, non-romanticized reality of the human body.
[i] (which is highly influenced by societal norms.)
[ii] (which it is, along with saliva, breath, spit.)
As children, we were conditioned to place our bodies and the sexuality they emit into the perceived dark recesses of our mind and of society.