I recently read Live Nude Girl: my life as an object by Kathleen Rooney. The book chronicles Rooney’s experiences in being a live nude model, discusses the history of nude modeling, and delves into the psychology of nudity in general. I quite enjoyed the book.
What I felt was missing completely, and quite a glaring oversight I thought, was a conversation about how nudity, nakedness, being without clothing, grows and changes as we age. How, when, and where our parents and our teachers and our friends and perfect strangers direct us towards being clothed rather than not.
Babies start out not really caring what they’re wearing. Oh, they might have opinions if their clothing is too tight or too hot or too cold, but really, that’s about it. Being naked is fine, so long as they’re comfortable. At some point in the following years, children learn to be shy about people seeing their unclothed bodies.
Some of that is good, of course, because we are expected to be clothed in public. Even little babies are expected to be clothed in public. When my daughter was just a week or two old, my husband took her up to his office to meet his coworkers. It was the height of summer, and she was wearing just a diaper with optional blanket. A woman walked by, and told my husband what a cute son he had and asked the baby’s name. My husband thanked her, and said her name was Julia. The woman was obviously horrified as soon as she learned she was looking at a female baby’s chest rather than a male baby’s chest. She said, in utter repulsion, “But she’s naked! Can you DO that?” Thus began my daughter’s inexorable march towards clothing.
By the time they are teenagers, of course, young people are rarely naked outside of the home.* (I want to be clear: I have nothing against nudity, in fact I think nudity is good for people. But the majority of places in our American culture are not clothing-optional, but clothing-required, and it is this overwhelming trend that I am discussing.) In fact, by the time they are teenagers, many young people are not even naked in their homes other than in the bathroom or their private bedrooms. Plenty of parents become uncomfortable with their children’s evolving puberty and either ask or shame them into covering up in the home. Of course plenty of children also cover up of their own accord, even amongst parents who continue to be perfectly comfortable with nudity.
The issue with nudity in the home, and how parents react to it, is that the beginning of many young people’s comfort and awareness of their bodies and their body image comes from their immediate family. Of course a substantial portion comes from peers, but the family can impact young people far in excess of what parents are fully aware of. Those little side comments that many parents don’t really think about, like “Oh, look at those!” and “You’re beautiful even though you’re tall,” and “I shouldn’t see that!” can have life-long effects on the way young people feel about their body and their nudity all the way through adulthood.
We are at our most vulnerable when we are naked, and a parent having any sort of negative reaction or surprise to their child’s nudity can have huge impacts. Instead, parents who feel additional guidance about modesty is needed, should wait to have those conversations until a time when their child or teenager is fully dressed, and the conversation needs to be on a cognitive level rather than an emotional one. In fact, any reaction to an young person’s nudity or evolving puberty that is spoken by the parent as soon as they feel it is probably poorly conveyed and has the potential for causing a lifetime of hurt.
B0dy shape, size, and development is a particularly touchy subject – often for both young person and parent. So take some time with it, and let the conversation develop slowly over time rather than rushing into it. There is plenty of time.
*Naturists aside, of course.