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It's time for us to calm down about public nudity
by Paul Rapoport
As published in the Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) Spectator

The weather is finally turning nice and spring and summer clothes are out. When it gets hot, will more skin be in?

Maybe beaches and parks will be overrun with thongwear. Or should we bring back the neck-to-ankle swimsuits of a century ago?

There are two certainties. If more skin is exposed in public, some will complain. More complaints will bring more media coverage of what's uncovered, so to speak.

The severe anxiety many North Americans have about body exposure puzzles most Europeans. In The Netherlands, higher temperatures mean radically fewer clothes in some instances. Many girls and women go without tops in places that would surprise Hamiltonians.

In Munich's large English Garden, it doesn't take much heat for people to relax wearing nothing at all, in some spots in full view of roads. Gage Park? Not very likely.

In Denmark, two beaches out of hundreds require clothing. Yes, you read that right. There may be whole Danish families that don't even own swimsuits. Maybe they've concluded it makes no sense to get dressed to bathe.

In all these countries, partial or total public nudity is, of course, sporadic. But neither moral outrage nor public disorder greets the occasional zero fashion statement. Men don't go wild and women are unharmed. Adults stay married and children are undamaged. But over here, cries of "indecent!" and "immoral!" are predictable at the sight of any nudity and sometimes the mere thought or representation of it.

In February, the Brooklyn Museum of Art showed a religious painting by Renée Cox, who had painted herself in it. One news headline: "Jesus is a woman. And she's naked." That was too much for New York's mayor, who had tried to close the same museum over a similar incident in 1999. He called the painting disgusting. Did he ever see it? No. And don't ask him about artistic expression or freedom of speech.

In April, a Florida store had to cover a 1.5-metre replica of the famous Michelangelo sculpture, David. Not all of it, of course, just you know where.

But David clothed attracted more attention than David nude. Tourists posed by it and laughed. Its owner planned to wrap its midsection in a leopard-print bandana. "If I have to cover him up," he explained, "I might as well do it in style."

In March, Toronto councillor George Mammoliti proposed a waterfront aquarium for the Toronto Islands. Why? Because "right now the only people using the islands are nudists," he said.

Imagine --- hundreds of freezing skinny-dippers (it was still winter) swarming over the islands, ruining parks and businesses. Mammoliti has said the council-approved clothing-optional beach on Hanlan's Island is a "sexfest."

Of course, he's never been there. He doesn't want to know that such beaches are less sexually charged than most that require clothing.

But there's flexibility even in no-nudity North America. Recently, the U.S. cable channel HBO showed a documentary on photographer r Tunick's Naked States. Tunick went to each state to photograph people nude outdoors, from one to over 1,000 at a time, usually in urban spaces at dawn. The broadcast didn't blur out any body parts.

Many posing for these photos find the experience therapeutic and 99 per cent of the comments on HBO's Web site are positive to ecstatic. Tunick will be in Montreal towards the end of this month.

San Francisco held its 90th annual Bay to Breakers foot race last weekend. This event attracts at least 70,000 walkers, some wearing fantastic costumes in what is really the world's largest parade and street party. Each year, more than 100 people run or walk the 12 kilometres wearing only socks and shoes and maybe a hat. The huge crowds love them. Even the police tolerate the nudity, liberating for participants and harmless for spectators.

These stories reflect opposite tendencies in North America's body culture. Understandably, we have people concerned about body issues, including nudity and sexuality. But it's easy to show that all nudity is not indecent or immoral. It isn't even all directly sexual, despite what Hollywood, much TV, and nearly all advertisers want us to think.

In countries that understand this better than we do, the population seems better adjusted in several ways. Indeed, body aversion in North America may be linked to serious problems, including obsession with appearance. For some this means chasing a superficial youthful "standard" that doesn't exist, women especially having unnecessary surgery at considerable risk and expense.

Casual Fridays needn't be clothesless, nor must everyone let it all hang out. But we should re-examine our conclusions about the body, and toss out fear and rejection along with much that's more false than true.

When r Tunick comes to Montreal, we don't have to think a space alien has landed. When there's an art exhibit with nudity, we can let it be. And if someone reviles a nude beach or park, the best reaction might be to laugh --- or to yawn.


Dr. Rapoport is the Editor of Going Natural, the magazine of the FCN (see below), and the President of the Topfree Equal Rights Association (also see below). He is on the faculty of the School of the Arts, McMaster University, Hamilton Ontario Canada.

Federation of Canadian Naturists.

Topfree Equal Rights Association.

Copyright © Paul Rapoport