Prisoners of our society

There’s an article that’s the product of a high school class writing assignment, which is being discussed in various naturist/nudist forums. You may well have read, or at least read about, the article, by Reina Neves. Reina writes very well, but it still says a lot about the fascination of our culture with nudity that a high school essay was published in a local newspaper (Honolulu) and has received widespread attention (well, at least among naturists).

Feelings about nudity complicate our lives

When I read a Seventeen magazine article titled “I’m a nudist” written by “Kim,” an average girl describing her life as a nudist, it got me thinking about how people are raised.

Actually, the article about Kim (unless there’s more than one) wasn’t in Seventeen, but in CosmoGirl, and we wrote about it here.

But that’s a minor point. The more important point is that Reina is spot on to be thinking about “how people are raised” has much to do with their feelings about nudity. Reina goes on to say

Any child who was raised with a different point of view finds that it becomes a part of them. Kim was raised a nudist; therefore she understands it and is comfortable with it. The same goes for kids who are raised by prejudiced parents; they are more likely to be prejudiced themselves or at least tolerant of prejudiced attitudes.

I’m sure there were some people who read Kim’s story and didn’t agree with her lifestyle. They were probably raised conservatively or taught that nudity is taboo. In my family, my mom, sisters and I are pretty comfortable around each other nude, but we would never go nude in public or around my brother or other people. I guess it’s that way because my mom is somewhat liberal. It all depends on how a person is brought up.

As astute as Reina’s observations are, I think she’s missing something. She goes on to say

To me, I thought it was odd, but cool that Kim was so open. I think it’s pretty brave of her to tell her friends and her boyfriend something like that, knowing not everyone will accept and understand her lifestyle. I respect the fact that she doesn’t let society influence her lifestyle. I don’t think I could ever live like she does. I have been too influenced by society to change my mind.

As much as I’d like to be able to get my mindset out of that cycle, I don’t think it is possible for me. I think society twists certain subjects just for no good reason.

Notice the paradox introduced by the last sentence. Reina here recognizes that society has “no good reason” for how it twists certain subjects — presumably including nudity. And yet, in spite of this recognition, she doesn’t think it’s possible for her to change her mindset to one more like that of Kim, the nudist.

Huh? It’s as if she’s saying that once she’s attained the ripe old age of seventeen (which she is), it is no longer possible to adopt a freer mindset, even though she can see the appeal of it and the lack of good reason behind the conventional point of view.

Of course, most naturists can see this is wrong — since most naturists were raised in the same society as Reina, and in a non-naturist family besides. (Although naturism does come more easily for those without such handicaps.) Quite often naturists do not discover their fondness for nudity until they are past thirty or forty, perhaps much past.

The point is, a person’s opinions and proclivities are not cast immutably in concrete before adulthood. Fortunately. In fact, people can change these things at any time, before or after adulthood, even apparently fundamental aspects of one’s personality. Even though change is often not easy, it is possible. And one thing, especially, that makes it difficult is the mistaken belief that change is nearly impossible.

There are two primary influences on a person before adulthood — the person’s family and society as a whole (including one’s peer group and institutions such as school). Reina doesn’t clearly make this distinction, though she perceives that her family experience was perhaps more liberal than average.

However, the really interesting thing is that psychologists are moving away from the idea that parents and family have the largest influence on a growing child. Two other factors — genetics and social influences (peer group, especially) — are being recognized as significantly more important. Some investigators, such as Judith Rich Harris, think that parental influence is almost negligible.

That may be too extreme. Most people, I think, can identify at least some ways in which they were influenced by their parents. And the relative importance of different types of influence surely varies from person to person. But one thing that emerges from research is the clear importance, especially on teenagers, of the peer group.

Teens generally want to look like, talk like, act like, think like, and (especially) dress like their friends. And in matters of dress, provocative or risque clothing may be OK with most teens — but certainly not nudity. Case closed.

So I have to wonder whether Reina’s certainty that she couldn’t be a nudist has a lot more to do with her age than with her “fundamental” personality and her upbringing.

Actually, I think Reina’s a lot closer to being a naturist than she realizes. She is willing to think about nudity objectively, and not condemn it as “gross”, “disgusting”, “offensive”, “immoral”, or something of that sort. (“A long time ago, people could look at nudity as beauty in an aesthetic way. I look at nudity in that way if it is presented in a tasteful, artistic manner,” she says.)

There’s really only one thing between Reina and an acceptance of nudity for herself — fear, due to peer group attitudes.

Too many of us are like inmates of the insane asylum that is our society. Most are too afraid to even gaze out the window and ponder what the bigger world outside is like. A few are not.

Some lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, occur to me. Prufrock is a meek, timid soul. Near the end of the poem, he says

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.

My advice: Reina, eat the peach! You’ll love it.

Originally published January 7, 2006