For bourgeois Victorians, sex and nudity were matters best dealt with in the confession box or the brothel. One need only look at their dumpy petticoats and voluminous skirts to see that. Yet because of this attitude, the Victorians created one of the most body-conscious periods in human history. By making the human body taboo, they encouraged an obsession with it that exists even today.
Despite our Talking Cocks, our Vagina Monologues, our Puppetry of the Penis; despite Anne Summers stores moving sex onto the high street; despite the efforts of naturists, people seem more squeamish than ever when it comes to getting their own kit off. We hear of men who’d rather die of testicular cancer than voluntarily get their tackle out for a doctor. The idea of being literally caught with one’s pants down probably ranks as the second greatest fear of the Western world, just behind international terrorism.
To be naked is to be undignified. The Nazi SS would routinely welcome Jewish prisoners into concentration camps by relieving them of their shoes and clothing, dehumanising them in the process. But what humanity can possibly be lost by the shedding of our outer garments? Is there in truth no beauty? That nudity equals indignity promotes the idea that to be human isn’t simply a physical requirement but rather that social status – as verified by our clothes – has become an important level of our being.
Thinking that I might learn a little more about the bodily level of being human and get over some of my societal hang-ups, I recently responded to a classified advert requesting life models. Like most scrawny white boys with spidery nipple hair, I’ve always maintained a certain bashfulness about my body; tending to find vanity in the intellectual rather than physical. I figured it was about time I explored my own body and expelled this childish reticence once and for all.
Predictably I was nervous as I made my way to the studio that afternoon, but stripping down to the bare essentials was easier than I’d supposed. In the end there really was very little to comment upon. My one-hour session in the buff consisted of drinking coffee, changing position four times and the artist paying me ten pounds. Lacking a note, he had to pay me with ten coins, which he seemed infinitely more embarrassed about than I had being naked. I got dressed, we shook hands, I stepped back out into the bustling heart of Glasgow’s west end and became camouflaged once more among the clothed masses.
The reason it was so easy is that, in the world of the life model, nudity is unremarkable. If one expected to remain clothed, the whole essence of life modelling would be lost and you’d be laughed out of the building. But how can being naked in one situation be normal, artistic and pro-human when in another be seen as dehumanising or shameful? Being naked as a life model is separated from the concept of being naked in the middle of Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. But why is that? What dignity can be lost simply for having a body when that is precisely the one thing that everyone has in common?
And there you have it. In this culture of illusory individualism, we don’t want to be reminded that we are essentially the same beast as everyone else, consisting of the same natural design, sharing the same genetic structure and having so much in common. If we recognised this then there’d be less need for conflict; for social phobias or racism; for any fear of otherness. Imagine a world without all of that for a second and you’ll see that it’s a world turned upside down. So it’s probably best that we all dress up as the clever creatures we pretend to be, and leave equality to the clothed corpses on the battlefield.