Going naked for an audience – and yes, I hesitate to call it ‘nudity’, which somehow gives it an artistic hall-pass – used to be a desperate measure. But these days, it has become the default trick of all ponies – even if I do intermingle ‘nakedness’ and ‘ponies’ in the same thought-stream. Such is its pervasive nature. There is nakedness in music, movies, sports, activism, politics, exercise, cooking – well, any activity that you can think of. Except showering. For that, there’s a frosted glass barrier.
In my mind, one can sunbathe topless or take a nudie selfie all (s)he likes: but doing that to the benefit of the peeping-tom next door or tweeting that selfie – is where I draw the line. Hence, the instances of nakedness I pick here are essentially meant for cultural delivery-systems, meant for an audience. Let private nudity thrive in all its rightful glory.
Legend has it that in 11th century Coventry, a chaste, noblewoman was utterly torn by the excessive taxes levied by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. Repeatedly, she pleaded with him to lower the taxes. But he wouldn’t. Finally, tired of her nagging – he agreed, but only if she would ride through the town on a horse, butt-naked. Clearly, the dastardly Earl had underestimated his wife Godiva. Lady Godiva urged her people to shut their windows and eyes on the fateful day and took a long, naked ride through the streets for the sake of the commoners.
Serves the Earl right, I say! The chaste and pious Lady Godiva’s riding nude in public remains one of the enduring legends involving public nudity used for a selfless cause. I hold her a beacon of light in such dark ages.
But as the ages got brighter, the beacons have gotten dimmer. Nakedness has gotten …easier. ‘Meh’ to be precise! Millions are putting out their naked images – through films, press, social-media, advertisements and other questionable means. The truth is: the market for nakedness has stabilized, gained some respectability even! There are now its champions and worshippers. Thousands of blogs and sites will lap up a snap of your beaver. Millions will shower labels like ’empowered’ only if a girl bares her body (unfortunately, male nudity is yet to rise above the label of ‘public indecency’).
I think, male nudity just doesn’t sell as well. Biologically, men are much more inclined to see women uncovered (than vice versa). The more, the merrier. Perhaps, getting women to disrobe is an all-gender effort. And it’s not unfair to say that some women commoditize their sexuality …because, let’s face it, it has tangible value. Besides, the social consensus on what constitutes ‘female nudity’ is much more stringent than it’s verdict on ‘male nudity’. Therefore, much of the nudity we’re exposed to is that of females’.
All forms of culture feature nudity to some extent. Some, like fashion, are integrally linked to clothes/bodies and have the latitude to manipulate it. The same could be applicable for modeling, lingerie, nude art (not met-art though), yoga etc. All-pervasive nudity in the rest of popular culture is curious, and at times, disturbing.
The first form that comes to mind is ‘movies’. It is quite unthinkable that a girl will excel in the industry without disrobing. Going naked is just evening out the field. I can probably name actresses who haven’t disrobed on screen: Julia Roberts,
Scarlett Johansson, Christina Hendricks and Isla Fisher. Right? And maybe a couple of others (just wait and see what happens with ‘Under the Skin‘ where Scarlett Johansson goes nude for the first time). Yes, some roles demand nudity. Other instances just boost ratings. The thumb rule seems to be: weaker stories need more nakedness.
The global ‘celebrity worship’ culture means that movie-stars are encouraged to expose skin from an early age. All sorts and ages of celebrities are invited into commercial nudity. You can act? Get naked. You play the guitar? Get naked. You are a wrestler? Get naked. It’s so excruciatingly cliche! Great Britain recently banned an ad featuring Dakota Fanning because it ‘sexualized a child’. But more former child stars are stripping down to announce, “hey, I’m 18, it’s okay to objectify me now”. The sexualization is constantly priming young girls for future nudity.
Sexualization: occurs when someone’s sense of their own value is based solely on sex appeal or that individual is held to narrow standards of attractiveness. It happens when a person is “sexually objectified” — made into a “thing” for others’ sexual use.
The cause-and-effect relationship between ‘celebrity status’ and ‘nudity’ can become so blurred that it all condenses into a steamy, raunchy, slippery exploitative mess. So, some have managed to become celebrities by baring/sexualizing themselves. Kim Kardashian, who reportedly made $65 million from her sextape, is the biggest example. Paris Hilton, Tila Tequila, Farrah Abraham, Katie Price aka Jordan are following suit.
Once upon a time, TV programming used to be safe for family viewing. But no more! TV shows like Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Spartacus and Californication are really milking television’s newfound freedom.
HBO’s Game of Thrones has taken female nakedness to a new level. Viewers have seen every conceivable kind of nudity on it – including naked ‘harlots’, inebriated orgies, public nudity, older women baring breasts, incestuous bathing scenes and smoldering nudity with dragons.
Unlike with movies, television shows brings nudity into our homes, into our living rooms – where children / teenagers are exposed to it. Resultant objectification, normalizing nudity and body-image issues are just the beginning.
And what of music? Where have all the guitar-strumming, shy, gentle darlings gone? And whose bright idea was it to replace them with glitter-smearing, oft-stripping, boob-jousting, bra-busting, over-the-edge gyrating-twerking teenage girls on the stage? We knew Shakira wasn’t lying when she testified to the truthfulness of her hips. But Robin Thicke sure crossed a line with Blurred Lines (NSFW video), which wasn’t even a very good song.
Starting from Queen to Alanis Morissette, Madonna to Momsen, Duran Duran to Britney Spears – plenty of singers are throwing skin into the mix to fuel the fire. It sells. Why else are lyrics like “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl, I know you want it, I know you want it, I know you want it, You’re a good girl, Can’t let it get past me, You’re far from plastic, Talk about getting blasted” (‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke) getting 313,088,351 views on YouTube?
And all this talk of ‘selling’ – brings us to Advertising. With a over decade of experience in the field, I now know that my colleagues constantly use (female) nudity to aggressively push useless but sexualized crap into your shopping cart for a premium. I mean, men’s underwear can portrayed as sexy, right?
And going nude for PETA to protest fur clothing is quite clever.
But why coffee? Who drinks his/her coffee naked? Well, I mean …during daytime? And what couple rolls around in and showers each others with coffee beans? Why are they risking chafing by stray beans lodged in inconvenient orifices?
Nakedness is hounding sports too. The World Naked Bike Ride has spread to 70 cities in 20 countries. ‘Naked Running’ is a legit sport with its annual calendar of events. Naked marathons, Olympics and volleyball are all out there. But because of the dynamic nature of sports, much of the sexualization is carried out off-field. WWE Divas are constantly nude on magazines and videos. Female olympic athletes, Olympics skiers, footballers’ wives, tennis stars …pretty much any girl who has gotten close to sports, has considered the option.
Video games are filling up with nudity. Sports-related magazines are also jumping in with some full-on nudity. And lastly, no matter how hard people try to concentrate on the game, there will always be a girl who’s taken off her shirt in the gallery or is running naked through the field. And then, on ESPN, we have 3 seconds of the best kind of nakedness: the unexpected kind.
Citizen activism has had its injection of nudity too. It comes in the form of ‘Femen’. For those who don’t know, ‘Femen’ is an “international women’s movement of topless female activists”. They write strange stuff on their boobs, hide in bushes and then ambush opponents with their naked bodies and shrill demands. The objective may be ‘submission from annoyance’.
So, regardless of the issue, Femen activists primarily expose their naked bodies and create disruption to draw attention. And interestingly, they care deeply about disrobing Muslim women and ‘free’ them from whatever evil that causes them to wear clothes.
The implication is clear. Activism and it’s causes are often not sexy: clean the bay, save the rainforest, help the tortoise, rescue the gnomes …I mean, it gets tedious. And nakedness is the cheapest and laziest way to make such issues sexy. It’s not unlike stand-up comedians making fart-jokes to get a quick laugh.
Some weeks back, a New York pulp-fiction appreciation club realized the PR value of nudity and promptly shed their tops. This time, to ‘make reading sexy’.
Many of the women photographed hadn’t even managed to get their hands on a book yet, but were comfortably naked in the park, browsing through picnic baskets. These were young girls. They wanted to make a difference. It was misguided marketing that led them to bare their bodies instead of sharing a book or put together a literary festival. But the publicists got it right. They knew bare skin would break through the clutter and get this teeny movement on the world’s radar. But chances are, people aren’t even reading the articles, let alone books. End result: books: no; boobs: yes, please. And this result is symptomatic (if you know).
Nakedness on social media (which, please note, is by definition a type of ‘media’) is worse because this means having a 2-way conversation with (mostly) real people. A number of celebrities have tweeted naked photos. Some have cried foul too!
The abundance of nude selfies has given rise to users like this, who are constantly collecting, collating and tweeting amateur nude photos to the world. The most bizarre instance has been the American Airlines tweet, where a the company ‘mistakenly’ tweeted the NSFW photo of a nude woman shoving an airplane model into …erm, better you use your imagination.
On WordPress too, we have our naked blogs e.g. with designated ‘Boobdays’ for posting new photos of the bloggers’ boobs. But that’s the kind of thing that, I think, has its uses. If nothing else, it shatters notions of the ‘body-ideal’.
Earlier this year (2014), an American Apparel advert featured a topless, Bangladeshi, Muslim girl, Maks, with the words ‘Made in Bangladesh’ typed across her breasts. The infamous CEO refused to explain why she was topless, how the ‘Bangladeshi’ association was relevant and why they delved so deep into her (doubtful) Muslim upbringing.
But the advert went viral within days: some said she had disgraced her country and religion. Others appreciated her anatomy and defended her right to show it off. Still more thought it an insult to millions of conservative, hard-working women of the Bangladeshi garment sector.
Nakedness is slowly turning into a cultural trope: “if you (figuratively) suck at what you do, or if you stink of mediocrity – just take off (your) clothes”. This is the postmodern maxim for success. Top to bottom, clothes are being removed with reckless abandon for the benefit of viewers, followers, fans and lowly voyeurs – and this, cannot but have a socio-cultural trickle-down effect.
So, do some close-minded conservatives, like me, make a big deal out of nothing? Is nakedness a non-issue? Yes, we do make a fuss. Is it a laughing matter? I’m not too sure about that. Remember Seth McFarlane’s prevented-from-being-performed-by-traveling-through-time song “We Saw Your Boobs” in the Academy Awards ceremony? Ever wonder why it caused such an outrage?
“(The Boob Song) reinforced, over and over, that women somehow don’t belong. They matter only insofar as they are beautiful or naked, or preferably both. […] MacFarlane’s opening musical number, “We Saw Your Boobs,” might as well have been a siren blaring, “This isn’t for you” … Actual gender equality is a ways away, but I’d settle for one four-hour ceremony where women aren’t being actively degraded.” – Margaret Lyons
Would the reaction be the same if the song had been about actresses’ eyes or lips? The answer is a categorical ‘No’. Nudity is specific and sensitive. First, let’s acknowledge that ‘Nudity’, as a commodity, is both manufactured and consumed. Given prevailing ideas about (im)modesty, performing / tweeting in the nude has a hidden cost. For a woman, it has social implications; it entails morality, modesty and character judgments that measure individuals against social benchmarks and rank/score them accordingly.
Another interesting fact is that Nudity quickly diminishes in value. The first nude tweet is electric! The second has great shapes, but the third is plain boring. More people would prefer to see a nude Jennifer Lawrence over a nude Pamela Anderson, right? That’s because, as the woman’s (perceived) modesty plummets, the utility derived from naked imagery also falls. The more modest and restrained the subject, the higher the value of her nudity. In brief: commoditizing Nudity, invariably devalues it.
As for consumers of nudity and exposure, a deluge of skin can’t be absorbed in large quantities by a society, without affecting what it means to be naked. And at both ends, it is often sexist, dehumanizing and degrading. Why? Because, it’s got to do with the essence of femininity (just as male genitals have to do with the essence of masculinity). And we are all more than our stripped, naked bodies. If every coffee advert and every inane protest begins to use naked females to shout, “Here, look at me! Hear my story, I’m naked” – then the uncovered female form just becomes a currency for buying attention. And that is the textbook definition of ‘objectification’.
When society and culture turn women’s bodies into objects, this creates a climate where “violence and exploitation of women are both tolerated and tacitly encouraged.” It makes it easier to mistreat women when they have the status of objects rather than people.
So: is more nudity a problem? I think, yes. Going naked every time we want to be noticed or heard, can only diminish the marginal utility of Nudity. If the girls of Femen, much to the chagrin of the man who founded them, keep facing disappointment, they’ll feel the need to level up. Breast-baring just won’t cut it any longer. If nakedness becomes ubiquitous in twenty years, where do we go from there? What do we do to make people listen?
- TedEx Talk by Caroline Heldman: Sexual Objectification
- Why do men in America feel entitled to women?