A Picture and 1,000 Words: Naked in Public

Published on
the Toronto Star

A Picture and 1,000 Words: Naked in Public

Ryan Bigge

It's safe to say that Philip Carr-Gomm is the rare man of letters who would admit to reading Playboy for the centerfolds, rather than the articles. His new book, A Brief History of Nakedness, is exactly what it sounds like, complete with numerous photographs such as the one seen above. But rather than providing flimsy justifications for his ogling, the book instead offers a sustained mediation on the spiritual, cultural and political implications of being naked in public.

The 50 peaceful women seen here are part of Baring Witness, a group of Iraq war protesters who posed nude in West Marin County, California, in November of 2002. As Carr-Gomm argues, "Nakedness makes a human being particularly vulnerable but in certain circumstances strangely powerful, which is why it has become so popular as a vehicle for political protest." According to Carr-Gomm, by disrobing, protesters demonstrate that they are both fearless and have nothing to hide.

At least, that's the ideal situation. Sometimes the political intentions of being in the buff can get lost, as happened during the recent expressions of G20 activism. "There's a naked guy at Queen and Peter," @one_more_night tweeted. "I think he's protesting clothes."

For a cold, northern country, there's a surprising amount of clothing animosity in Canada. (Our country's first nudist club formed in 1918, while it took until 1929 for the United States to be able to say the same.) In his book, Carr-Gomm mentions the Toronto-based Naked News ("the program with nothing to hide"), Montreal-born artist Cosimo Cavallaro (who, in 2005, created a chocolate sculpture of a nude Christ entitled Sweet Jesus) and the World Naked Bike Ride (created in 2004 by Vancouver's Conrad Schmidt).

And, of course, the Doukhobors. A radical sect of Ukrainian Christians, the Doukhobors (which translates into "spirit wrestlers") were considered heretics by the Orthodox Church and generally irritated the Russian government. So in 1899 the Doukhobors were encouraged to move their troublemaking to Canada, where they were promised 65 hectares of free land, a bracing climate, equitable laws, peace and prosperity. More than a third of the population (nearly 8,000) said yes, but by 1903 they were unhappy, and an extremist faction called the Sons of Freedom emerged, inspired by the Quakers and Leo Tolstoy. As Carr-Gomm notes, the Sons of Freedom "decided to mount a sustained campaign of protest against the government, whom they believed had reneged on their promises regarding land rights and were enforcing compulsory education in government schools."

In May of 1903 over 45 Doukhobors protested by marching naked, were charged with "nudism" and sentenced to jail. Naked skirmishes between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors continued into the 1970s.

The Doukhobors were a rare instance of a religious sect demanding political reform through nudity. But there are plenty of historical examples that demonstrate the more purely spiritual aspects of nudity. And given that Carr-Gomm is the author of six different books with the word "druid" in the title (including In the Grove of the Druids and The Druid Way), it's unsurprising that the spirituality of being in the buff captured his attention.

Druids performed certain rituals naked, or as they called it, sky-clad. Not that the druids had a monopoly on weirdness. As Carr-Gomm notes in a section about folk-magic: "English customs included sweeping a room naked on Midwinter night to then dream of your future husband, entering a lake or river naked at midnight to discover his face revealed on the surface of the water, and undressing at a crossroads on St. George's night." (Presumably, if none of these tactics worked, then your future husband was just not that into you.)

But even some Christians have adopted the pioneering work of Adam and Eve and embraced "naturism." As Carr-Gomm points out, there are Christian Nudist Convocations along with provocatively titled books such as The Naked Christian: What God Sees When He Looks Right Through Me.

Given the general level of permissiveness toward being starkers, even a family newspaper like the Star can publish the Baring Witness women seen here without having to worry about angry mobs rioting outside 1 Yonge St. (Although the paper would go bankrupt if it was forced to pay $550,000 per nipple, which is the fine that CBS received from the Federal Communications Commission for the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.) Spencer Tunick has built a career out of his photographs of multitudes of naked people posing in public places. And neither Puppetry of the Penis nor the Canadian version of the television show How To Look Good Naked generated much outrage.

To be shocking now requires "supernakedness," which is how one reviewer described performance artist Annie Sprinkle's show A Public Cervix Announcement. (The curious should use their imagination to figure out what supernakedness might entail. Or, failing that, consult Google.) As if to acknowledge that the coyness of the traditional nudie calendar is no longer effective or eye-catching, Eizo, a German medical imaging company, released an X-ray pin-up calendar in June. Each month a woman is posed provocatively, but the only thing visible is skeletal structure and high heels. Truly revealing, but not very sexy.

As Carr-Gomm notes, it seems impossible to believe that back in 1945, the BBC's guide for comedy writers warned against using the word "naked" as a punchline. Today this prudishness is history. At the very least, it allowed humorist David Sedaris to joke about spending a week at nudist trailer park in his 1997 essay collection Naked. "I've noticed that when forced to go into town, the costumed nudists appear ornery and uncomfortable, like cats stuffed into little outfits for the sake of a wacky photograph," he writes. "They claw at their buttons and zippers, their eyes wild and desperate."

Which is to say that not every nudist has a political agenda. The Baring Witness women might want peace through nudity, but many others go naked only for peace of mind.

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