I just got my grades back for my final assignment for my last unit and I’m so happy. I got 87% which is a High Distinction and my tutor started her comments with “Wow”. Maybe I’m bragging a little bit but I’m SO STOKED. It took a lot of work and there were elements I was concerned about but turns out I needn’t have worried. She made two comments total for the whole thing and they were both compliments on how it was going. I’ve posted my essay below – it’s a bit longer than anything I’d usually post but hopefully you don’t mind.
Aaargh! That’s such a relief. I definitely deserve a glass of champagne tonight. And it just so happens I’m going to a champagne degustation in 1.5 hours – how handy is that?
I’m standing on the front steps of our house. Naked. It’s summer and a breeze ruffles my hair and winds its way through my legs like an affectionate cat. The next door neighbour’s kids are outside making a ruckus and I can smell a barbecue somewhere. Before me stretches the wide, green expanse of the front lawn and the glorious mid-afternoon sunshine seems as if it was made for four year olds like me to play in. The great outdoors beckons and who am I to deny it? I make a break across the grass, only to hear my mum’s voice sing out from inside.
Nothing to do with my lack of clothes, you understand. Simply telling me to put on shoes. Only recently I was the unhappy recipient of my first bee sting and she doesn’t want a repeat of that tearful incident. I ignore her and run the gauntlet, only stopping to lean against a light post and tug at the bindis that hitch a ride in my feet. Stowaways safely overboard, I carry on my merry way to my neighbour’s house where I menace them with my toddler charm and bare butt.
I can’t quite remember when it stopped being acceptable for me to do all things naked but I do miss the freedom of my early years. As a child, your body is just a body. You live in it. It gets you from A to B. It gets sick. It gets cuts and bruises and, eventually, it grows hair and bumps in the weirdest places. And that’s when parents usually start getting noticeably twitchy about nudity. Apparently the teenage body is something far more sinister than any of its previous iterations.
In her Huffington Post article, Katherine Ripley (2016) says, “nudity is not inherently sexual; our culture makes it sexual. Ever notice how little kids run around with no clothes on and don’t care? They haven’t yet developed the concept of body shame. That’s something that we teach them” (para. 6). We aren’t born ashamed of our nakedness, it’s something we learn over time.
In a 1997 conference about his work, Jacques Derrida spoke about the shame and embarrassment he felt when his cat saw him naked and his subsequent realisation of the ridiculousness of these emotions (Derrida & Wills, 2002, pp. 372-373). Animals don’t understand nudity; they don’t know they’re naked. Derrida describes them as “naked without knowing it … without consciousness of good and evil … They wouldn’t be naked because they are naked. In principle, with the exception of man, no animal has ever thought to dress itself” (Derrida & Wills, 2002, p. 373). What other species on this planet wears underwear, ball gowns and fur-trimmed, sleeveless puffy vests (hopefully not all at the same time)? Humans are the only ones with a concept of nudity. We’re the only ones that feel shame when naked and I, for one, worry a lot about a society that can’t look itself in the eye without clothes on.
In January I was with my partner at a five star resort near Uluru. Picture this scene, if you will: we laze by the pool in our swimwear (minus a bikini top, in my case), sipping icy cocktails and shooing the flies away from our sandwiches. The only sound is the droning of insects and the wind rustling over the sand dunes. It’s hot, like next level hot, like I-can’t-even-sit-still-in-the-shade-and-not-feel-like-I’m-overheating hot. The pool is our salvation, glistening and shimmering, an oasis surrounded by hell’s own tiles. You can almost smell your skin sizzle if you’re foolish enough to step on them without shoes.
A door opens at the main house and a woman hurries towards us. In stark contrast to our swimwear, she wears safari shorts, a long sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. The dust swirls up around her feet while the wind tries to steal her hat. The landscape seems bent on turning her away, but on she comes. She skirts the pool to stand in the sun before us. Her eyes glance at me and skitter away, searching desperately for somewhere to look, while her mouth tries to find the right words. Jewels of sweat form on her brow and upper lip. I watch her through my fly net, I know exactly what she’s here to do. This has happened many times before, both overseas and in Australia.
“I’m really sorry but I have to ask you to put your top back on,” she says, muttering something about there being children in the main house (which has an excellent view of the pool). My boyfriend is sitting next to me, also topless. The irony of this is not lost on me as I meekly oblige her request.
“But he doesn’t have a top on either,” I want to say. Except I’d never say this. I’m one of those people who secretly seethe when someone pushes in front of them in line but would never actually speak up. Inside my head, my indignation sparks up a one-sided, totally imaginary debate: “My breasts are dirty and shameful because they’re filled with fatty tissue and might one day be used to feed a baby? God forbid a child, who probably fed from a breast at some point in their life, should have to actually see one!” Later, I ask my partner what he thinks. “They’re just breasts,” he says. “You’re not hurting anyone by having them out and, if someone doesn’t want their husband or kids looking at them, then don’t look!” I couldn’t agree more.
In an article for Young Naturists America, Jones (2016) states,
… Breasts are not sex organs, but they are frequently viewed as sexual objects … They are used to sell all kinds of different products and to serve heterosexual male pleasure. But at the same time, women are shamed into covering them up … In the U.S., female breasts and nipples are treated as though they’re immoral and too dangerous to be shown in public. It all goes back to our sexualization of the female breast and it’s also part of our patriarchal society’s efforts to control women’s bodies and sexuality (para. 14, 60).
It’s not always our breasts that are the focus; it can be our legs, our asses, hell, even our ankles – what it comes down to is control. Control over someone else’s body and what they choose to do with it.
As humans, we’ve run the gamut between body freedom and intense body shame and modesty. In Nudity, Therapy and Joy, Aileen Goodson (1991) discusses how Victorian women covered themselves from head to toe, with only their faces exposed (para. 81). Some even ate wearing “fingerless mittens” to prevent temptation to sin at the sight of what must clearly have been some very seductive hands (Goodson, 1991, para. 81). And these beliefs didn’t stop in the 1800s, many modern day Muslim women wear traditional body and face coverings for similar reasons of feminine modesty, some by choice and others because they are required by law or religious custom (Ramirez, 2015).
Yet, not everyone subscribes to the belief that more (clothing) is more. There are tribes living in remote places in Brazil, Africa and Papua New Guinea that feel no need for clothing. They live the way they always have, unashamed and unconcerned by their nudity. The Amazonian Tupari live in relative isolation, adorning their bodies with nothing but paint, jewellery and, if you’re a Tupari man, a yellow leaf to cover your penis (Caspar, 2005, para. 2 – 3). Other cultures haven’t been so lucky.
Western colonisation (read: invasion) is notorious for forcing ‘primitive’ people to abandon any behaviours deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the conquerors. The residents of one Tongan village faced “fine and imprisonment” for not adhering to the European dress code (Goodson, 1991, para. 91). Missionaries tried to ‘civilise’ their African counterparts by making them wear Western clothing, the purpose of which was often lost in translation, as evidenced by African women wearing bras “above their breasts for use as pockets” (Goodson, 1991, para. 92). Goodson (1991) remarks, “The natives were subjected to the same kind of embarrassment in having to be seen in clothing as we, in a clothed society, would feel upon being forced to abandon ours” (para. 92).
We were born naked yet, at some point, we determined being naked was an outrageous situation that must be fixed. Instead of being the most natural thing in the world, our bodies became something to be hidden away. Sure, in some climates, clothing is essential for survival but it has long stopped being just about protection from a brisk breeze or a potentially fatal blizzard. In the Western world, we wear clothes so no one will see (and judge) our bodies but also because, to religion, a naked body means one thing: sex. Somewhere along the line, the concepts of nudity and sex got terribly confused and, as is often the case with matters of morality, women got totally shafted.
In almost all instances, organised religion has promoted the concept of the body as dirty and sinful. Ever since Eve took that fateful bite of the forbidden fruit and convinced Adam he should try some, we’ve all been fucked (and clothed, if the Bible’s to be believed). And while religion applies its anti-nudity laws to both genders, it’s the females of the species that get the most scrutiny. After all, Eve’s mistake proves women are the weaker sex, more likely to succumb to temptation yet wily enough to convince others to join in their orgy of sin. While burdened with additional reproductive responsibilities, women’s bodies were also built for pleasure, something religion says men are incapable of resisting without a layer or two of clothing in place.
And so a woman’s body became a possession, something her parents must keep under wraps until a husband is ready to claim it; it was never her own, to do with as she pleased. She must remain modest and chaste because the slightest slip of a nip or glimpse of an upper thigh could make a man ravenous with lust, unable to prevent himself from committing terrible acts, and, of course, that temptress must be to blame. To be honest, not much has changed, we still maintain that a woman who dresses provocatively is ‘asking for’ whatever happens to her. As Ripley (2016) says, “We still haven’t let go of the idea that women who reveal their bodies to the world are promiscuous and morally corrupt” (para. 7).
As a teenager, I often felt I had no control. My body was changing in ways I didn’t like but couldn’t stop. It was a confusing time and one of the only means I had to express myself was through clothing and makeup. If I couldn’t decide what my body was going to look like, I could at least dress it in a manner I felt best suited me. Looking back at those photos, I realise how horribly wrong I was but what can you do? ’90s fashion is an unforgiving beast.
At fourteen, I went to a party wearing my little sister’s mid-riff top, blue velvet mini-skirt and platform heels. I thought I looked good. I felt stylish and confident. The platform heels made an always undersized me feel almost normal short person height. Yet, a friend’s mother gasped when she saw me.
“Did your mother see you leave the house like that?” she asked.
The joke was on her though because my mother had seen me and approved and my step-father had dropped me off at the party. I was skinny as a twig and not at all ‘womanly’ so I guess neither parent saw what the big deal was. In their eyes, I was still a child but, child or not, those moments marked my first steps towards womanhood. Those comments were taken to heart and affected the way I felt about my body. In ten words, I went from being an excited teenage girl who thought she’d dressed appropriately for her first party with boys to someone who walked into the room feeling self-conscious and ashamed because I wasn’t wearing enough clothing. In Jamaica. In the middle of summer. When it’s hot.
I experienced the same thing as I got older and the focus shifted from ‘pretty’ to ‘sexy’. That’s when the shaming kicks into overdrive. As soon as sex comes into play, a woman’s body becomes fair game. Everything is picked at and scrutinised until we’re frayed and shamed. There’s only one way to be a ‘good girl’ and, if you dare deviate, well… There’s hell to pay.
From a certain age, girls are encouraged to cover their bodies, to be modest so as not to attract the ‘wrong kind of attention’, so no one will harm you or, worse, think you’re a slut. Girls that don’t cover up are whispered about, ‘oh, she just wants attention’ or ‘only whores dress that way.’ The implication is that women who dress ‘inappropriately’ are doing so for men, to attract and appease the male gaze, but never for themselves. Emily Ratajkowski, of ‘Blurred Lines’ music video and Gone Girl movie fame, says it perfectly in her essay for the online feminist magazine, Lenny.
The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men’s desires. To me, ‘sexy’ is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up? (Ratajkowski, 2016, para. 8)
As a sexually precocious teen and early-twenties ‘veteran’ of the sex industry, I did all the wrong things if I ever wanted to be considered a good girl. I danced naked for strangers. I wore the teeny tiny outfits. I made the first move if I liked someone. I had multiple sex partners without a relationship. You name the transgression, I probably did it and I certainly suffered the consequences. The stares, unsolicited comments and gropes from men who felt my outfits made me fair game. The anger and aggression of boys who didn’t feel I had the right to reject them if I’d already slept with their friend. The judgement of girls who equate a woman’s worth with modesty and chastity.
Sometimes I questioned my choices when the fallout seemed too much and my only value seemed tied to my viability as a sexual object. But it was my body and my sexuality and I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me how I should behave. Most friends were fine with my choices. Some envied my ability to be so free with my body. Others didn’t agree but said nothing. One went one step further.
After hearing of my decision to work in the sex industry, one girlfriend left a note in my mailbox explaining why she could no longer be friends with me. Apparently my willingness to share my naked body with strange men was not something she could stomach. I should contact her when I saw the error of my ways and she would whole-heartedly accept me back into her life. I crumpled the note in my palm. We never spoke again but I often think of her and wonder if she ever regretted her decision.
My path is not for everyone and that’s ok. I’m not advocating that we should all walk around naked and dance on poles. I believe that however we choose to dress or express our sexuality should be our choice, not something forced upon us by a society that can’t handle the thought of a woman in control of her body. As Ratajkowski (2016) says, “I struggle to find … a space where I can have ownership and enjoyment of my gender. Honoring our sexuality as women is a messy, messy business, but if we don’t try, what do we become?” (para. 11).