Thursday, November 15, 2012

"When confronted with an object that is ambiguous in nature, individuals must deal with it in some way... such situations, individuals may choose one interpretation over another to reduce ambiguity." pg. 606 "Nudity and Framing" 
Most of us know when to take our clothes off. Obviously, it is necessary to do so in private when we bathe and change etc., but clothing is generally required in a formal public setting. On top of that, different types of dress are considered appropriate depending on the occasion. The long list of rules regarding nudity and dress may be taken for granted in any given culture, but, like the quote above suggests, the human "problem" of nudity has never been solved by one set of rules.

Images like these demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of the role that nudity plays in our society. What are each of these images trying to communicate? How can you tell? Is one more "appropriate" than the other? Questions like these might be hard to answer at first, and the remarkable thing is that these images aren't even that different! How much more difficult is it to answer general questions like: When is the naked body beautiful? When is it obscene? Is it dangerous?
      Nudity is such an important problem that, alongside societal norms, there are penal laws that pertain to it. However, these codes have been subject to controversy over the ages, and they are certainly not uniform across the globe. Inconsistencies in laws and norms relevant to nudity highlight that fact that they are a social construct and culturally relative, and with a little investigation we can begin to glimpse the reasons behind some of the strange rules we are so familiar with in America.

Prior Studies on Nudity

“In a world where everyone seems to be going public, it’s inevitable we’re obsessed with what’s left of the private.” – Catharine Lumby
Throughout history, researchers have worked to attempt to understand the ambivalence which our society has in regards to nudity, sex, and the media.  Robert Maddex states the following as an introduction to this cultural contradiction: “We are all born naked, yet humans have some innate need to cover their nakedness to function as social beings. The taboo against nudity…is an old one. When Europeans came to the New World, they were often shocked by the relative nudity of some Native Americans. In the Old World, public nudity was equated with wantonness or a lack of morality.” (Maddex, p. 228)  This sense of the natural state of a body being morally wrong has pervaded through time and history.  Americans tend to think of humans as always clothed (a social truth) rather than essentially naked (a natural truth), which downgrades the naked state from being morally upheld as natural to one which is highly sexualized, immoral, and/or taboo.  (Barcan, p. 2)
      However, there are still times when nudity can be an acceptable form of creativity or expression of self.  “What constitutes improper nudity is often difficult to pin down, and relevant laws appear somewhat inconsistent.  Nudity…can be perfectly acceptable both socially and legally.  A nude model in a freehand drawing class or a nude statue in a museum is not considered offensive by most people." (Maddex, p. 229)

                The question that naturally comes from this contradiction is simply “Why?”  Why is there such confusion towards nudity in America, and why does nudity seem to be acceptable in some situations while completely wrong in others?  To find the answer, we must dive into previous research on the subject. 
                From a sociologist’s perspective, sexuality has much more to do with culture than simple biological functions: “That we are sexual is determined by a biological imperative toward reproduction, but how we are sexual – where, when, how often, with whom, and why – has to do with cultural learning, with meanings transmitted in a cultural setting.” (Longmore, p.44)  Another research article again illustrates the vast scope which sexuality entails, saying “sexuality, in contrast with sex, is much more than physical attraction and contact…Sexuality involves all that it means to be a man or a woman; it is a part of a person’s total being.  Our sexuality includes emotions, values, moral and ethical makeup, social relations, ability to use good judgment and make decisions, physical desires and fulfillment.  Sexuality cannot be separated from a person’s total life.” (Stinnett, p.222)
In our society, the negative taboo towards sexuality likely comes from the idea that uneasiness with nudity in related to uneasiness about sex.  Although the words “naked” or “nude” have nothing to do with sex on first glance, popular cultural conceptions link these words almost automatically.  In a 1968 report on the public image of nudism, the author commented that many people “link the words nudity and sex as readily as they would link knife to fork.” (Clarke, p. 212)  This “automatic” assessment can itself be treated as an interesting phenomenon. 
                The next question which researchers sought an answer to was “why are nudity and sex automatically assessed as being one and the same in most aspects of American culture?”  When the research is compiled, the answer is again simple – media and advertising create an intrinsic link between nudity and sexual desire.  The effect of the media on sexuality is an area which has been a host to hundreds if not thousands of research studies throughout time.  A synopsis of a few of these studies can be seen below:

 Media in General
·         “In the United States, youth ages 10 to 15 most frequently name the mass media, including movies, TV, magazines and music, as their source of information about sex and intimacy.” – (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1997).
·         Media influence people via cultivation, the phenomenon whereby people come to believe that media depictions are accurate representations of mainstream culture. (Gerbner, 2002)
·         “In the realm of sexual socialization, television is thought to contribute to young people’s knowledge about sexual relationships, their judgments about social norms regarding sexual activity, and their attitudes about sexual behavior, among other influences.” (Farrar, p. 7)
·         In two decades of sex in music videos, research showed that sexual innuendo was very common (though explicit sex was not), women were presented in revealing clothing or positions of implied nudity five to seven times more frequently than men, women tended to be portrayed as subordinate sexual objects in traditionally female roles that were often overtly sexual, and even when women were portrayed as powerful and independent (rare), they were still highly sexualized. (Andsager, 2003)
·         Analyses performed in 1988 (Soley) and 2004 (Reichert) show trends of increasing proportions of advertisements which contain sexual content, increased nudity (both partial and full) in sexual content especially for women, and increased explicitness in depictions of sexual activities in advertisements across multiple magazines.
o   Both studies used a ranking system of the amount of clothing in the ads, one spectrum being fully dressed while the other side being totally nude, and each study used six different magazines to analyze the advertisements in them: two women’s magazines, two men’s, and two general interest/news magazines.
o   In Soley, the images analyzed were comparing advertisements from 1964 to advertisements from 1984.  The conclusion was that “the social attitudes towards sex and sexuality are less conservative in the 1980s than in the 1960s.” (Soley, p. 960) Nudity was also more prevalent in the 1984 advertisements than in the 1964 advertisements, and women were dressed in more provocative outfits than males in all types of magazines. The study showed that as society became more sexually open, advertising agencies adapted to become more sexually explicit.
o   In Reichert, the study looked at magazine ads from 1983 and 2003 to analyze the differences, and concluded that while the amount of sexual advertisements had remained constant between the two years, the female’s level of dress became more provocative (Reichert, p. 828), and that “in 2003 almost four out of five women who appeared in ads were suggestively dressed, partially clad, or nude.” (Reichert, p. 833).
·         In a study which compared advertisements containing nude males as opposed to nude females, the conclusion was that both men and women felt generally uncomfortable looking at the male nude advertisements.  Men responded by expressing extreme disinterest and reasserting their heterosexuality, and women responded by first expressing a sense of lust, which was soon accompanied with a sense of guilt or shame due to taking on the more “masculine” role when looking at a sexually charged advertisement.  Eck, the author, suggests that “this is what it means to live in a world in which desire is structured by a gendered sexual subject… It’s not just “out there”, it’s “in us” too.” (Eck,  2003).
·         One way that the media’s focus on women’s bodies has been quantified is in terms of “relative facial prominence”, which states that men tend to be portrayed in print media and artwork with an emphasis on the head and face, and with greater facial detail, while women tend to be portrayed with an emphasis on the body.  It is not uncommon for magazine advertisements to show only the body or shape of a woman, and not put her face in the advertisement at all.  Archer et al. refer to this as “face-ism” bias, where the “face-ism” of men reflects the “body-ism” of women – that is, the media portray women as if their bodies are able to represent the woman as a whole. (Archer, 1983).
·         In Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, the narrator comments on the power of clothes to create an identity: “[T]here is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mold of arm or breast, but they mold our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.” (Woolf, p. 117)
·         “There are clothes whose function is paradoxical rather than marginal, their primary function being to make the body look naked…. A number of elite fashion designers have played with making clothing that simulates nakedness, and have made “nude” outfits – flesh-coloured shoes, dresses, jackets, handbags, stockings, and make-up.” (Barcan, p. 16)
 Unfortunately, these mixed messages of nudity being “ok” through the media yet “morally wrong” in the general society greatly contribute to the confusion which is associated with sexuality and nudity.  Children are considered to be “protected” from the damaging effects of viewing nudity growing up, but body violence, nudity, sexualized conceptions of women, and much more create an extremely convoluted value system within the American society. Advertisements containing nudity are beginning to show up in ads not obviously related to sexual activities, such as fast food restaurants, web providers, housing loans, watches, and more, and it seems that nudity is quickly becoming the “latest fashion” while still being a very taboo subject in everyday life.  Even though there is now more nudity in entertainment than ever before, blatant public nudity is generally not acceptable – evidence of this could be noted with the disaster of the wardrobe malfunction of Janet Jackson in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.  Although we as individuals are able to make clear-cut judgments on what we believe to be culturally proper or not, our society as a whole is still characterized by a sense of ambivalence towards nudity, one which does not appear to be changing anytime in the near future. 

The Genesis Effect

The premiere human creations of God suddenly feeling ashamed of their bodies? Can it get any more confusing?

    A young person socialized in our current culture is bound to consider their clothes as necessary as their own skin. But where did this need to cover up originate? In America, where more than 3/4 of people belong to a Christian faith, the logical place to start looking for answers is in the Garden of Eden.
     In case you don't know the story, Adam and Eve disobey God by eating a forbidden fruit and then
     "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Genesis 3:7 NIV.
      As David Velleman explains it: 
     “What Genesis suggests is that the necessity of clothing was not a cultural invention but a natural fact.” 
     Most people in America feel the familiar "need" for their clothing, but few would suggest that this feeling is a religious hegemonic construction. Whether intentional or not, traditionalists may be responsible, in part, for perpetuating the feelings of ambivalence towards nakedness that began in Eden to the point of nudity becoming an "ambiguous symbol of both innate purity and the inevitability of it's loss." (Barcan 280)

Laws and Public Nudity

Images from Hippie Hollow Park
          In Austin it is not uncommon to see scantily clad individuals commuting on bike around the city or areas where nudity is not only accepted but the norm. Places like Hippie Hollow, Barton Springs, and even clothing-optional apartment complexes are well known places that provide a suitable environment for nudity that other Austinites don’t blink twice over. Logically the question follows why is nudity more acceptable in Austin than many other places in America? Of course we do not see individuals walk naked around downtown or the UT campus, but the question still remains. In Texas, Penal Code Title 9, Section 42.01 categorizes public nudity as disorderly conduct. In the law an individual can be found guilty of the offense if they “intentionally or knowingly expose their anus or genitals in a public place and is reckless about whether another may be present who will be offended or alarmed by his act.” The section regarding indecent exposure emphasizes that an offense occurs when genitalia are exposed with a sexual intent and if another is offended by this act. These definitions and laws unsurprisingly are similar to both conservative and liberal states. The site lists all the state laws on public indecency and depicts the related nature of these laws. All of them describe that if an individual is offended by another’s exposure and if there is a sexual intent, that individual could be guilty of public indecency or indecent exposure. These policies do not make public nudity illegal but support the social norm of public nudity being obnoxious and offensive. Returning back to Austin we might describe the larger social acceptance of public nudity as a sub or counterculture where there is a reversal in what is socially acceptable in mainstream society. These subcultures exist throughout America as can be seen by the many nudist/naturalist colonies and clubs. However, this small change in values is not an alienating feature from the rest of America and is seen as the norm in other countries.
Nudist protesters in San Francisco. Taken by Jim Wilson/ The New York Times
 Not only have social opinions on nudity but legal decisions have been discussed for a long time. In 1935 New York’s People v. Burke decided that people renting a gymnasium to swim in the nude was not illegal because the activity was not lewd (Nevitt, 1950)  Even today in San Francisco nudists are suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to prevent the passing of a nudity ban on the city. If the ordinance were to pass a fine ranging from $100-$500 would be placed on the offender depending on the repetition of the offense. Using the conflict perspective anti-nudists are the majority group that opposes and imposes themselves on the minority group, the nudists. The struggle here is to maintain a norm that most people hold and can be seen implemented through society using laws and social pressure. In a recent humorous segment of the show The Colbert Report, a case in New York made a judgment on whether “lap dances” were art and whether they were eligible for a tax break. Although this ventures into the realm of what is considered art, it is important to note that when analyzed and decided by experts as art, there was uncomfortable feeling with the kind of nudity displayed.Stephen Colbert The uncomfortable feeling with and negative view of public nudity may stem from multiple things but it is obvious that it can create conflicts in social and legal spheres.


              Overall, the human body is contextualized in many different ways by American media. Advertisements oftentimes put forth a sexual ideal to sell products. Figurative art pieces explore the beauty of the human form for aesthetics sake. Pornography depicts explicitly sexual content. In turn, we frame the naked body in our minds to make sense of the challenges it presents. Even in our day to day language, we frame the naked body with the words we use to describe it. Because of the variety of ways nudity is handled, our perception of it remains fragmented and compartmentalized, and so we as a society continue to create, obey and perpetuate norms/laws to make sense of it. The origin of this reflexive relationship between culture and the media may be unclear, but with the sociological imagination, we can understand nudity much more.
Works Cited
§  Andsager, Julie, & Roe, Kimberly.  “What’s your definition of dirty, baby?”: Sex in music video. Sexuality and Culture. 2003. 79-97.

§  Archer, D., Iritani, B., Kimes, D. D., Barrios, M. “Face-ism: Five studies of sex difference in facial prominence”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1983. 725-735

§  Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. Berg Publishers, 2004.

§  Clarke, Magnus.  Nudism in Australia: A First Study. Elysium Growth Press. 1982.

§  Eck, Beth.  “Men are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images.” Gender & Society 17. 2003. 691-710.

§  Farrar, Kirstie, et al. “Sexual messages during prime-time programming”. Sexuality and Culture. 2003. 7-37.

§  Gerbner, George, Gross, L., & Morgan, M. “Growing up with television: Cultivation processes”.  Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. (2nd ed.).  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 2002. 43-67.

§  Kaiser Family Foundation. National survey of teens: Teens talk about dating, intimacy, and their sexual experiences. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. 1997.

§  Longmore, M.A. “Symbolic Interactionism and the Study of Sexuality”. The Journal of Sex Research. 1998.  44-57.

§  Maddex, Robert L. “Nudity”.  Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior and the Law. Washington, DC: CQ Press.  2006.  228-233.  Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.

§ Nevitt, P. K. “The Legal Aspects of Nudism”Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.195. 41(1). 57-61
§  Reichert, Tom & Carpenter, Courtney. “An Update on Sex in Magazine Advertising: 1983 to 2003”.  Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 2004. 823-837.

§  Soley, Lawrence C. & Reid, Leonard N. “Taking It Off: Are Models In Magazine Ads Wearing Less?” Journalism Quarterly. 1988. 960-966.

§  Soley, Lawrence C., & Kurzbard, Gary. “Sex in advertising: A comparison of 1964 and 1984 magazine advertisements.” Journal of Advertising, 1986.  46-54.

§  Stinnett, N. & Walters, James.  Relationships in Marriage and Family. Prentice Hall. 1977Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. 1977 (1928)
§ Velleman, J. David. "The Genesis of Shame" Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.1 (2001): 27-52. Web. 15 Nov, 2012.