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Nudity And Culture

Appreciating the human form in a pornographic age
The Three Graces (Louvre)

Taking one’s American children through museums poses certain challenges. You have taught your children to respect the ideal of modesty, and then there are statues and paintings of nekkid people everywhere. How do you explain that?

This is how we do it: we explain to them that the human body is beautiful, and that the art they’re seeing was created to explore the beauty of the human form. Sometimes people draw or photograph the human body in a way meant to show its ugliness (I mean pornography, but my little ones don’t have that concept yet), and that’s what we turn away from and reject. But the body itself was created by God, who said it was good. When we have true art, we are taught to think of the body as beautiful.

I’m not sure how well this works yet, but it does enable my 13 year old son and I to stop at statues like The Three Graces (above) in the Louvre, and talk about form and line and beauty. Yes, there are three naked women made of marble in front of him, but we have, I hope, taught him to see with unsmutty eyes. I hope too that when the day comes that he is actually confronted with smut, he will recognize the difference, and turn away.

All of which came to mind when I read Conor Friedersdorf’s reflections on the bare breast, in light of the BC girl who killed herself in shame over her breasts having been exposed online. He writes about traveling in Europe as a college student, and going to a beach in southern France, where women sunbathed topless (as is the norm here — it wasn’t a nude or semi nude beach):

At first my female classmates sunbathed in the American style. 45 minutes later they said to hell with it, took their tops off, and left the guys feeling slightly awkward and titillated for about 5 minutes, when everyone’s notion of normal re-calibrated. That’s how fast the mental adjustment happens.

Most people have the same experience at nude beaches. It feels weird, and soon enough… it doesn’t. In places where women must wear head scarves, exposed locks can turn heads. In New York City, exactly no one thinks bare heads are sexually provocative, and New Yorkers have their heads turned on beaches in Rio until they don’t. Sexual attraction is a force of nature. It is a proper function of civilization to bound it.Though shalt not rape is a useful norm. Treat others as you’d want to be treated is a useful normIt is shameful to let people see your breasts is a useless norm. Those who think otherwise at once give men too much and too little credit — too little in that the site of bare breasts is not enough to corrupt men; too much in that no matter how women dress, there is no getting around the fact that many men will lust after them.

That happened to me too, in college, on the beach in Nice. I was freaked out for about five minutes, after which it became normal. It was instructive for how much context matters in thinking about these things. Similarly, when we had our firstborn child, we were living in New York City, where public breastfeeding wasn’t a big deal. For our second and third children, we were living in Dallas, where it was far more controversial. It unnerved people, and not just a few people, either. How crazy can Texas be about this stuff? This actually happened in the Dallas area a few years ago:

Jacqueline Mercado, a 33-year-old Peruvian immigrant, and her boyfriend Johnny Fernandez simply wanted to keep memories of the childhood of her children when Jacqueline went to Eckerd Drugs to develop photos that she took of her children in a bath. The good people at Eckerd Drugs in Richardson, Texas saw not frolicking kids but child porn and called the cops. Later, after searching their home, police and child welfare officials found a picture of Jacqueline breast feeding one the children. That was it: Texas prosecutors secured a grand jury indictment against the parents for “sexual performance of a child,” a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The charge was based on the breastfeeding picture, even though defense attorneys produced paintings in leading museums that show the same maternal act.

Richardson police were satisfied that the bathtub pictures themselves were pornographic — a ridiculous position that we have seen in other cases.

This kind of thing is what happens when a culture has what I consider to be a disordered view of the human body, specifically the breasts. It runs parallel to pornography, this leering, panicked modesty. It is challenging to teach one’s children how to tell the difference between art and pornography when it comes to depictions of the nude human form, but it is necessary to try, especially in an increasingly pornographic culture like ours.



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