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

What does swimming with dolphins have to do with naturism?

[Note: Most links here are still valid.]

Science news flash:

Swimming With Dolphins Can Alleviate Depression

Swimming with dolphins is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, say researchers in this week’s British Medical Journal.

Their findings support the theory of biophilia, which shows how human health and wellbeing are dependent on our relationships with the natural environment.

Hmmm. And what is “biophilia”, you ask? Hint: it’s not some perverted sexual practice. Instead, try this:

Biophilia is the love (philia) of Nature (bio).

E. O. Wilson popularized the word in a book of the same name published by Harvard University Press, 1984. He used it to describe what he asserts to be an instinctive bond between human beings and other species. He defined biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”, and argued that they are determined by a biological need.

It has since been developed as part of theories of Evolutionary Psychology, in particular by Stephen R. Kellert in his book The Biophilia Hypothesis (Island Press, 1993) and by Lynn Margulis. Kellert’s work seeks to determine common human responses to perceptions of, and ideas about, plants and animals, and to explain them in terms of the conditions of human evolution.

Here’s another article on the dolphin research:

Do animals induce a sense of wellbeing?

The idea might sound like new age mumbo-jumbo. But wait – this week, scientists writing in the British Medical Journal said that swimming with dolphins really does alleviate depression.

It supports a theory put forward by the sociobiologist Edward O Wilson. According to his idea of biophilia, human health and wellbeing are dependent on our relationships with the natural environment. This means that animals and natural scenery help us feel better, and our happiness around nature is somehow hard-wired into the brain. [Emphasis added.] A growing body of clinical evidence suggests that Professor Wilson might have a point. In a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2001, public health scientist Howard Frumkin of Emory University, Atlanta, reviewed the evidence for the health benefits of four kinds of contact with the natural environment: contact with animals, plants and wilderness and viewing landscapes.

OK, so what does that have to do with naturism? Um, wait, “naturism”, “nature” — hey, why is this fondness for going around naked called “naturism” anyhow?

The term goes back quite a ways. I’d need to review naturist history for a more complete answer, but I know the term was in use in Europe as far back as 1930 — and it’s still preferred in Europe over “nudism” even now.

Undoubtedly related to the whole idea of “getting back to nature”, dontcha think? The whole Garden of Eden mythology? [The words “nature” and “genesis” share — along with “native” and “genital” and many other words — an Indo-European language root.]

In Joni Mitchell’s words

We are stardust, we are golden [no tan lines]
We are caught in the devil’s bargain [civilization, clothes]
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

However, this isn’t merely a Hippie idea. Stripping off one’s clothes has long been a metaphor for returning to nature. For instance, in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ memoir Cross Creek there is a story about a trip she took with her friend Dess, on the St. John’s river in Florida, in a small boat. On this occasion, Marjorie and Dess were clothed, but

[Dess] lives a sophisticate’s life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise.

Why do so many people find naturism to be relaxing, soothing, and an antidote to stress and depression? Say, you don’t suppose it could be… biophilia?

Makes a lot of sense. Why do you suppose naturists like beaches and swimming so much? Yeah, the best way to swim is naked, but also there’s all that… water, that our ancestors crawled out of hundreds of millions of years ago… the place that dolphins eventually returned to and now call home.

As essayist Janet Lembke says in Skinny Dipping,

Bare skin is the one and only right criterion for receiving water’s gracious acceptance or any acceptance whatsoever from that element. But Pliny also seems to say something more: Stripping off not caution but the stale, crusty garments of preconception, peeling sensibly down to raw, new nakedness, is the only way to enter and be properly embraced by the world.

I’ve written quite a bit more about nakedness and nature here, so I’ll close for now. But here’s one thought to take away — why don’t the august savants who publish in places like the British Medical Journal just cut to the chase and do some serious research on what naturism can do to alleviate depression?


Related story: Getting Close To Nature Is Good For You

More references on biophilia:

Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis

The Biophilia Hypothesis

Originally posted November 29, 2005

INF definition of naturism

The International Naturist Federation adopted a definition of naturism at their 1974 world congress. Since I never can find that definition easily when I need to refer to it, I’ll put it here:

Naturism is a lifestyle in harmony with nature, expressed through social nudity, and characterized by self-respect of people with different opinions and of the environment. Social nudity constitutes an essential characteristic of naturism, fully exploiting the beneficial effects of the sun, the air, and water. Naturism restores the balance between physical and psychic dimensions, with leisure spent in a natural environment, through exercising the body, within the fundamental principles of hygiene and dietetics. Furthermore, Naturism fosters many activities by nurturing creativity. Complete nakedness is the “best-possible suit” to realise the return of humans to nature, and it surely is the most visible mark of naturism, even though it is not the only one. Nudity has a balancing effect on humans by reducing the tensions caused by the taboos and provocations of modern society, showing the way to a more simple, healthy, and humane way of living.

I think that’s pretty good, though one can quibble with it in various ways. It’s sort of long, making it a little tough for newcomers to take it all in at once. It makes “social” nudity a requisite, though many naturists feel they are practicing the lifestyle even when they are naked by themselves, especially in the outdoors. And so on. This isn’t the place to go into a detailed essay about it. (But if anyone wants to talk about it, feel free to comment.) I just wanted to put it up here.

Originally posted November 26, 2005