Naked

The idea of nakedness has long enthralled or appalled me. From the masterpieces of the Dutch masters with those half-dressed women draped over chaise longue, surrounded by cherubs, babies or interested men, to those dreams in which I find myself half dressed, no skirt or underpants, those dreams in which I find myself fearful of exposure or discovery.

I watched a Youtube clip the other day where the film makers arranged for a young mother breastfeeding a small baby to sit on a park bench in the middle of a busy street somewhere in America.

They filmed her and watched and waited as passers-by saw fit to insult the woman for her disgusting behaviour. Men and women alike.

Even when she responded, ‘I’m just feeding my baby,’ they said she should be doing it in private.

And then, by way of contrast they chose another beautiful and well-endowed model to sit on this same bench with her breasts half exposed. This time although people passed by and many looked – one man even came over and began to chat the woman up – not one of them threw insulting language her way.

The point of the story?

Well they then placed the two women side by side on the same bench and waited. They also propped a male type of minder against a fence nearby and when people stopped to insult the mother feeding her baby, this male minder asked the question:

‘Why is she, the women with the low-cut cleavage okay and she, the breast-feeding mother not?’

The typical response from the one or two they recorded – both men I observed, ‘She’s hot,’ referring to the full breasted model, but ‘She’s disgusting,’ referring to the breastfeeding mother.

So, nakedness in all its many forms can trouble us. It’s not nakedness per se, the nakedness of a new born, of a small child in a bath, though.

It’s the prurient eyes of adults, some adults, including the distorted minds of the paedophiles who can fast shift that naked innocence of childhood into something else, something to be exploited.

And it’s not long after we get into double numbers in age, ten years and over that we begin to feel uncomfortable about being seen naked.

So, nakedness is clearly connected to the sexual.

My analyst once told me that a father who walks around naked in one family, or a mother or any parental figure who walks around naked in one family, might signify very little given the intent of their nakedness. Comfort, convenience whatever but in another household, such as my own, a father sitting in his chair in the loungeroom stark naked carries a heavy weight.

The weight of exhibitionism, as if like a peeping Tom he draws pleasure out of disturbing his children and his wife by his nakedness.

This then in contrast to the folks who take themselves off to nudist camps.

I suspect the motivation behind nudist camps are many and varied but some of them might well be as seemingly innocent as wanting to go back to nature, so called, of waning to go back to the way things were for us when we were born. Wanting to be free of the pressure of clothing, even though clothing is a great help when it’s freezing cold and you’re in danger of hypothermia and death if you don’t rug up.

And there you have it, a potted history of nakedness, though I left out one essential point here and that is the imbalance between those who are naked and those clothed. And the way this reflects something of our misogynistic world today.

Those men in suits who look on at the naked woman in the garden from that famous painting of Suzanna and the Elders.

As Hannah Gadsby points out in her famous ‘Nanette’ performance. What was wrong with women in these centuries that they could not do up their blouse buttons and so found themselves with one breast popping out inadvertently?

Even writing this risks censure and titillation, the topic itself so troublesome. Most likely because it brings out the vulnerability in us all.

The Nazis stripped naked the Jews on their way to the gas chambers, for all sorts of complicated reasons, like wanting to get at their valuables, but also, I think to disarm and humiliate them, wanting to render them like cattle on their way to her slaughter.

Nakedness is inevitable for us humans, but it’s also loaded.

 

‘Do it in the dark’

In the yellow lunch box in which I collected the negatives my father left before he died, I came across a single shot cut loose from another longer line of negatives, which I sent off to be developed.

I imagine my father took this photograph in the days after he had bought a device which enabled him to take the equivalent of today’s selfies.

In this photo my father sits side on, profiled against an otherwise blank wall. He is naked except for his glasses. It’s a grainy shot and my father’s pose is typical of olden day photos in that he sits on a chair facing away from the camera with a stern expression on his face.

My eye is drawn to the thin line along his crossed leg, the way it travels across his body to emphasise the thinness of the man. And his glasses, the only other item in the photo beyond the edge of the chair, his body and the wall are dark and heavy.

His shadow falls to the front. It emphasises his profile and perhaps it’s this shadow he was trying to recreate.

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I have another small photograph of my father wrapped in tissue paper for protection. It has faded with age and the image of my father in its centre is difficult to discern. I use a magnifying glass. In it, he is lounging on a cane chair in front of a bunk bed, fitted with mosquito sheets. The picture was taken by one of his fellow soldiers when my father was stationed in Java, Indonesia. At least in this photo he is not entirely naked.

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To my adult self, my father’s effort at photographic art fails.

To my childhood and adolescent self, it is the image of an exhibitionist, a man who took his clothes off in front of his wife and children, not because it was hot, but in a bid to disturb them by exposing something of his sexual hunger as an act of violence, thrusting things into view that should have stayed hidden, if only from his children.

From today’s perspective nakedness is scarcely remarkable when every second image on the Internet involves some element of nakedness, or self-revelation, particularly of the female form.

The sight of a naked man, a selfie taken in the sixties or seventies, might not seem so strange, and there are plenty such photos in the books my father kept on his shelf in the days of ‘Do it in the dark’, but to me, my father’s nakedness is matched only by the shock I felt when I first discovered it and its correlates in the photos my father took of my mother, nearly naked but not quite in the Camberwell house, presumably taken some years earlier.

The fact the photo was kept hidden suggests my father wanted it that way.

Fifty years later I bring it to life and reflect yet again on my ongoing struggle with what is seen and unseen.