I am curious about how some people manage to approach nudity without the social connotations of vulnerability, sexuality, and invasiveness.
February 27, 2007 1:53 AM   Subscribe

I am curious about how some people manage to approach nudity without the social connotations of vulnerability, sexuality, and invasiveness.

I think most of us approach nudity as something that has to be private and the presence of any nude person is considered as something uncomfortable because we are intruding on their personal space. There is also the common idea that seeing people in the nude entails imagining them in a sexual context, whether you like it or not.

Yet doctors and artists who draw nude models seem to not have any problems with this. They probably don't have any feeling of intruding on a person's privacy or making that person vulnerable. They also don't probably see the nudity in a sexual context either.

So my question, is how do doctors/medical workers or artists manage to not have the same social baggage with regard to nudity that many others do?
posted by gregb1007 to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
it's the context it's in. going to life drawing is not a sexual context. the models is being paid to do a job, and he or she poses. Also you yourself aren't nude so it distances yourself from the experience. Even further distancing yourself is the fact that you are an observer and are seeing the nudity from the perspective of an artist that wants to understand human form and study how a person is structurally put together. Thats the role you play when you are there and it's reenforced by you believing everyone else is there for the same reason.

What I really believe it comes down to is maturity, an understanding of your surroundings and your perception of the context.
posted by joelf at 2:02 AM on February 27, 2007


I'd agree with joelf about the maturity and the situation. I'm not a doctor or artist and I'm certainly not uncomfortable or aroused by someone's nudity in and of itself. Now a naked person could do something to make me uncomfortable... but so could a clothed person. And I could be aroused by a naked person... but it'd have to be a pretty sexual situation already.

In an old apartment I had a large framed Modigliani print (this one) on the wall. A friend came over and said to me, "Man, how can you have that on your wall all day?". I said "Er... what's the matter with it?". He said "I've got a hell of a stiffie". We had to go in the other room so he could concentrate or behave normally. I guarantee you I never achieved erection from glancing at this silly print, but my friend found it uncomfortable being in the same room, and he was all red in the face as well.

I don't want to cast myself as the blasé libertine and my friend as a horny repressed sex maniac, but the fact is that what to me was mainly a study with some interesting lines and forms was to him a signal to perspire and mate. So I'd say it's whatever you're bringing to it.
posted by baklavabaklava at 2:15 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems almost to obvious to say, but you get used to anything.

If you were a tribesman in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea, you'd be freaked out by the sight of someone in a suit. Being mostly naked most of the time is natural in some cultures, and being mostly clothed most of the time is natural in others.

If you were in some situation where the people around you were all unclothed, it would take no more than a couple of days for that to seem normal.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:49 AM on February 27, 2007


I agree with joelf. I think nudity is a question of context. As with most things, you process the experience somewhat differently based on your expectations.

For me, seeing people naked in the change rooms at the gym is no big deal now, but the same degree of exposure 5 years ago would have alarmed me. I'm convinced that is a byproduct of my upbringing. Incidentally I'm Catholic, but I do think my parent's conservatism with respect to nudity is unrelated. I was just taught that some things are private, and nakedness is one of them.

Even now, the same degree of exposure, say if a stranger wandered into my unlocked hotel room where I was taking a shower would feel invasive to me. Maybe that's a safety concern more than nudity. A better example of context then: I know I freak out a little when my bathing suit loosens after diving or something at a public pool, only a few metres away from the showers where I strip down a little while later to shower in full view.

On preview: I think it is a combination of context and desensitization. I'm non-chalant about nudity in the context of utility (gym showers) and art (I won't be posing any time soon, but I don't "react" to paintings like OP's friend) but I still feel like a dolt if I walk in on someone at an inopportune moment with respect to nudity.
posted by KevCed at 2:53 AM on February 27, 2007


I did some artists' modelling years ago; didn't worry about "vulnerability, sexuality, and invasiveness" at all. And never got the impression that there was anything to worry about from the artists.

Perhaps there's a bit of a cart-horse issue? As in, doctor and artist types start out viewing bodies as interesting what-not rather than sexual what-not?

One artist told me I had a 'very art deco figure.' I might've been a nude figure, but I was still just a figure.
posted by kmennie at 3:07 AM on February 27, 2007


The first few times a doctor has to examine a naked patient, the doctor might feel a little bit awkward, but that comes early in the career, when everything the doctor does feels a bit awkward. After examining a long stream of aching, complaining, infectious, runny, drippy, scabby, itchy, grumpy naked people, a doctor starts to lose any notions of naked=arousing, at least in a medical context.
posted by pracowity at 3:16 AM on February 27, 2007


I've worked as an model for life drawing classes, and it's definitely more complicated. Young people in their first class typically can't relate to you as a human being who might want a coffee when everyone else does. They cope by treating you as an object; I remember in one class a student complaining, "It moved!" when I lifted an ankle that had become numb.

They have trouble seeing, too. When you walk around during break and look at their work, you realise that most students are reproducing images they carry in their minds, and not actually looking at the model.

More experienced artists are able to see you both as a study in line and as a whole human being, including a sexual being. (Modigliani clearly saw the model in baklavabaklava's painting as a sexual being; he was presumably sleeping with her.) I've posed for artists who flirted with me and with others who took a parental interest in me.

Medical students go through a similar learning curve as they try to balance their understanding of the patient as a body with readable signs and symptoms and a human being with fears, hopes, relationships and concerns about modesty. A good doctor succeeds in integrating these different points of view; not all doctors are fully successful. But even for the geekier and less experienced, context is all. An ER physician has no trouble at all distinguishing between a hot date and extracting a broken lightbulb from the vagina of a schizophrenic woman. They are simply two different experiences and do not call on the same sets of responses.

I fantasise that I am a fearless exhibitionist, but I am actually shockingly reticent. I won't undress on an isolated beach for fear that someone might see me. But take me to a public sauna and I'll walk around happily all day with other naked women, men and children.

One of the pleasures of a nude beach or a spa full of naked people is certainly looking at the naked people, but the pleasure is not all sexual. As one example, pictures of naked infants are universally popluar but for most of us it has nothing to do with wanting to have sex with the infant. The infant is simply innocent, pleasingly vulnerable, very infant-like and displaying health. All good things we like to see.

Some of the sexual context is removed by the absence of clothing. In a spa, Britney Spears is naked exactly the same way as your grandmother. Outside the spa they dress differently and it's clear that Britney wants to turn you on.
posted by kika at 3:34 AM on February 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


I had a few friends of mine in college who didn't view nudity in the sexual/vulnerable sense. I am one of those people who highly dislikes nudity. It's not that I'm aroused by it, but it's moreso that it makes me uncomfortable to be around people who are nude. I don't like myself being nude either, even in the shower or at the doctor's office.
They explained it to me as that being naked was just their shape. Being clothed changed that shape. Either way, they were okay with it and accepted it. I still can't wrap my head around it, but I accept it, and they would at least try and be somewhat clothed around me (at least a towel).
posted by sperose at 3:35 AM on February 27, 2007


As part of training, a medical student goes through practice sessions with actors posing as patients. It's as much for remembering the multiple procedures and making a correct diagnosis as it is for getting accustomed to nudity and physical contact. The sessions are recorded or even viewed live from another room, which further removes any sence of intimacy. Medical exams are very much scripted, which helps physicians keep the proper mindset and protect them from any behavior or comments that might come off as inappropriate. There are even practice patients for rectal exams. The mind boggles.

A few years ago I interviewed for work as a practice patient. I didn't know beforehand that my coworkers and I would be watching each other half naked. I'm not sure how I would have handled watching people I would get to know pretty well get breast exams and whatnot, but I imagine I would have kept it together. I didn't get the job--just as well since I was lying about my acting experience (none at all, actually). I noticed that almost all of the guys working there were gay. I wondered if that was on purpose or because it's the sort of job you normally only hear about through a friend. And no, the place where I applied didn't do rectal exam training.
posted by hydrophonic at 5:04 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's something you can train yourself out of; some people have done it already, some people haven't. Want to learn? Get your friends together to watch movies or whatever and all take off your clothes.

Sure, it'll be weird for the first twenty minutes or so; after that, you won't even notice anymore.

Most people attach a sexual condition to nudity because they only ever witness nudity in sexual situations. Do mundane things naked together and you will no longer care.
posted by mr_book at 5:46 AM on February 27, 2007


A nude person is more vulnerable to both the weather and injury. If you happen to live in a place where the weather isn't a problem (tropics) and where armoring yourself costs more than just being careful (low technology and/or resources), then nudity may be right for you.
posted by DU at 5:57 AM on February 27, 2007


This is not complex. Just go to a nude beach and lay out in the sun or go get a massage. The tie betweeen nudity and sexuality just isn't that strong. You just have to switch contexts.
posted by rdr at 6:12 AM on February 27, 2007


Adding another component to the mix - as far as others' nudity is concerned, their attitude towards their being unclothed makes a difference, too.

My being nude in front of others almost never bothers me (I actually have that dream where you find yourself naked in public, but instead of freaking out, I scoff at the people who are pointing out that I'm naked. "What? It's just a body! Get over it!"), but if someone else feels uncomfortable, say, changing in front of me, it makes me feel uncomfortable, too.

Same goes for the sexual connotation. Doctors (and artists) aren't normally getting turned on by seeing naked people in the course of their work. However, I'd guess they'd have a different reaction to someone who was acting overtly sexual while being naked.

If you want to be more comfortable being nude, yourself, it's something you can get used to. If you live alone, hang out half-naked doing something like reading or watching tv. Progress to not getting dressed immediately after a shower. I suppose it's more difficult if you both live with others and share a bedroom with someone, but maybe you could hang out in the bathroom before and after showering, while undressed. It's not the same as being in front of others, but it will make being nude in front of others easier than it would be otherwise.
posted by INTPLibrarian at 6:36 AM on February 27, 2007


It's something you can train yourself out of; some people have done it already, some people haven't.

Likewise for some folks, it's something you have to train yourself into. I grew up in a family where nudity wasn't a big deal, so, you know, I don't feel like nudity is a big deal. Generally, I avoid being undressed around other people to keep them from being uncomfortable, not because I care. Do you care that you are wearing shoes? That people can see your naked feet? It's just like that.
posted by dame at 6:38 AM on February 27, 2007


A couple trips to a nude beach and you'll understand: body taboo is silly. I've enjoyed such places since I was a teenager. Before that, as a child, I liked the feel of the wind on my bits (lots of private outdoors places where I grew up, and the freedom to get in to them).

It's 84F in my office now, and fairly humid. I'm naked, and about to head for the pool. Unfortunatly, I wear trunks in the pool for the sake of my neighbors, during the day. I'll put on some shorts to protect the family jewels when I get busy afterwards. My home here is a walled compound. Totally private except by the pool (how stupid is that?) where the neighbors have windows. I love being able to sit outside naked, or wandering between buildings.
posted by Goofyy at 6:45 AM on February 27, 2007


If you really want to explore this, why not draw some nudes? Here in New York, there are studios which host weekly sessions with nude models, and anyone can come in and draw for like $15, you don't have to be a professional artist or anything. I bet they have something similar in your area, too. Really, it's not that weird, even the first time. It just becomes clear once you do it.
posted by lampoil at 7:09 AM on February 27, 2007


I agree that it's partly about context. Nudity -- in and of itself -- doesn't make me uncomfortable. But I would be uncomfortable if I was the only naked person at a party. But I'd also be uncomfortable if I was the only person wearing a tuxedo at a party where everyone else was wearing jeans and t-shirts. And I'm sure I'd be uncomfortable if I was the only clothed person at a nudist camp.

But there's more to it than that: unlike dame, I was raised to keep nudity private. I can have the most liberal mindset in the world, intellectually, but that can't stop me being affected (at least somewhat) by the training I got as a child. Such training, I'm sure, affects some people more strongly than others.

For me, it affects me most when I -- or someone else -- disrobes in front of other people. I've been to nude beaches, and I enjoy them, and I'm totally comfortable on them -- EXCEPT for the moment I take my clothes off (or see someone else doing so). It always feels like crossing a Rubicon. Once the clothes are off, I'm fine.

By the way, I wouldn't want this to change. I enjoy that little feeling of danger. It's fun for nakedness -- or disrobing -- to be a special. I wouldn't ever want it to be ordinary. Nor would I want to be so prudish that I couldn't stand being around it.

One more observation: many people seem to feel that being naked in public is okay, as-long-as no one gets aroused or shows arousal. I'm not mocking this attitude. I share it to some extent. But it's too bad. It's "Victorian." I'm not advocating people leering at each other, but it would be nice to live in a culture in which people could be open and honest about being turned on. (On the other hand, as with my desire to keep a little danger in stripping, would such a free society take some of the fun out of sex?)
posted by grumblebee at 7:14 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is not complex. Just go to a nude beach and lay out in the sun or go get a massage. The tie betweeen nudity and sexuality just isn't that strong. You just have to switch contexts.

I do not suggest this. As a woman, at 18/19 I tried going to the naked beach near my college in hopes of gaining some confidence in my body. It was terrible. There are lots and lots of people who show up at a naked beach expecting a sexual encounter. There are some parts of naked beaches that are well known (if you know) for their (often gay) sexual hide-outs.

If you aren't already comfortable with naked bodies, your own and others, please don't start at the beach. Fully clothed people at a naked beach shouldn't be that suspcious, but it is to some. Some truly don't notice either way.
posted by bilabial at 7:29 AM on February 27, 2007


You don't strip in front of your doctor. They or their nurse gives you a gown, leaves the room, and lets you change. A study was done (can't find it online) showing that almost all women fold their clothes and even hide their underwear.
The doctor comes back in and examines you, then leaves the room to let you get dressed again before coming back in to talk to you. It's a very elaborate process which helps to detach the body from the person/sexuality.
Similarly, posing as a life model has rules that tend to be followed. Again, models typically don't strip in front of the artist(s).
So, doctors and artist both take specific steps to get around the issues you describe. Even a doctor would probably be uncomfortable with a fully naked person wandering around the exam room.
posted by katemonster at 7:40 AM on February 27, 2007


So my question, is how do doctors/medical workers or artists manage to not have the same social baggage with regard to nudity that many others do?

Same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice.
posted by MsMolly at 7:57 AM on February 27, 2007


A study was done (can't find it online) showing that almost all women fold their clothes and even hide their underwear.

I understand the point of the study in this case, but still: I have to put those clothes back on later and if I just toss them in a wad on the floor, I'll be all wrinkled when I leave the doctor's office!
posted by pineapple at 8:01 AM on February 27, 2007


You don't strip in front of your doctor. They or their nurse gives you a gown, leaves the room, and lets you change.

The doctor comes back in and examines you, then leaves the room to let you get dressed again before coming back in to talk to you. It's a very elaborate process which helps to detach the body from the person/sexuality.


I can't speak for every doctor in these countries, but in various experiences in Australia, the UK and the Netherlands where I've had to partly undress at the doctor's, I've just whipped my clothes off then and there. (I have been given a robe on a few occasions too, but it's always been in a hospital context). At my GP here in Amsterdam, for Pap smears or other exams, there's no robe - you just take off your jeans/skirt & undies and jump on the table. I wonder how much of this has to do with what I consider to be a generally more relaxed attitude to nudity here. It's definitely not necessarily considered to be related to sex at all.

This is purely anecdotal, of course. But I think that this question's basic premise, that nudity=sex, is stronger in US society than in some others.
posted by different at 8:08 AM on February 27, 2007


for Pap smears or other exams, there's no robe - you just take off your jeans/skirt & undies and jump on the table.

Here it's an ob/gyn who does those exams and they usually also do a breast check, so you have to take off everything.

And, yes, the idea that nudity=sexuality is very American.
posted by pineapple at 8:17 AM on February 27, 2007


My family lived in Oslo, Norway for a year starting around when I turned four. The amount of time I got to spend naked around the house, at the beach, etc... was wonderful. After experiencing that freedom, nudity taboos in the U.S. really bothered me growing up, especially after I realized that while I still wanted to be casually naked I was becoming ashamed of or alarmed by nudity just like everyone around me. So yeah, one more for cultural/situational conditioning.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 8:22 AM on February 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Here it's an ob/gyn who does those exams and they usually also do a breast check, so you have to take off everything.

Aha, now I get it. Yes, I would definitely want a robe in that case - sitting around naked could get a little chilly ;)

To the OP: Sorry for what I now realise was a derail - it was unintentional. But maybe it's interesting for you to know that the nudity = vulnerability/sex thing can also be a cultural construct.
posted by different at 8:23 AM on February 27, 2007


Well, artists (and sadly, many many many photographers) do sexualize nudity. Many artists have had relationships with their models.

You need only spend a few minutes reading the fora on places like modelmayhem to see how many (male) photographers sexualize nude models.
posted by jdfan at 8:30 AM on February 27, 2007


the idea that nudity=sexuality is very American.

A yes, that old American dream, to always expect opportunities, even when there really aren't.

It took me awhile to get used to the idea a lot of the saunas in the Netherlands have mixed dressing rooms. Never because my body could have been seen, though. But then I reckoned that the women who couldn't stand to share the showers and dressing rooms would have gone during the special hours the saunas are closed for men.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2007


I've been naked on stage in two different (legitimate, professional) plays, but told myself it wasn't ME that was naked, but my CHARACTER.
I did not feel self-conscious.
Perhaps if you tried some variation of "emotional distancing" it would help you, too?
posted by Dizzy at 8:36 AM on February 27, 2007


If you see a lot of nude people either in a life drawing or medical context, something you'll realize very quickly is that the majority of them are unattractive. Think about it: unless you're bi, roughly half of them aren't even going to be the right gender for you to get excited about.
posted by juv3nal at 9:36 AM on February 27, 2007


I once took a studio art class that was in a room that could only be reached by passing through another classroom. That other classroom had a Life Drawing class that semester that started earlier than our class, and so almost every time I went to class, there was a naked person in there. By the end of the semester it was no big deal, but I suspect that if I had seen the same naked person in my dorm or at the cafeteria, it would have been just as surprising as it was the first time I walked into the classroom.

That is to say, the setting of the nudity has a lot to do with it. For a doctor, I suspect that seeing nudity in their exam room is no big deal, but if the same person stripped in the waiting room, that same doctor would be just as taken aback as you or I.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:38 AM on February 27, 2007


Another data point: I've read that long-time nudists have a rather high rate of sexual dysfunction. The theory presented in the article — sorry, it was ages ago — was that this was the flip side of a culture that desexualized nudity. On the one hand, you don't get automatically aroused hanging out with other naked people; on the other hand, you don't get automatically aroused being in bed with another naked person either, so it's harder to hide it if you're bored, distracted, or just not in the mood.

The author suggested that more of us would have trouble performing every now and then if we hadn't all trained ourselves to respond so strongly to all nudity.

It makes me wonder how the sexualization of nudity fits in with our ideas about masculinity. If losing your erection makes you less of a man, then you've got a strong, strong incentive to maintain that automatic reaction, no?
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:45 AM on February 27, 2007


I think nudity can sometimes be both sexualized and no big deal. It's a matter of attention, of what recedes into the background. A photographer making erotic art with nude models may feel arousal on some level, but that's not the focus -- one focuses instead on producing the photograph.

To make an analogy -- you might find yourself engaging in a (clothed) conversation with someone you find attractive, but with whom you have no intention of pursuing that attraction. Unless you're like that guy who couldn't remain in the same room as a Modigliani print, the attraction just recedes into the background context of the conversation, like the time of day, the weather, the location, etc.
posted by treepour at 9:59 AM on February 27, 2007


It's context.

I think I have shared around here before that a long time ago I was an art student. We had naked models in our classes, and no one thought a thing of it. However, one day one of the models was dashing across campus to get to a class, and her robe flapped open exposing a breast. People were shocked and were talking about it-the same folks who would be drawing said breast and the rest of her and not thinking a thing of it.
posted by konolia at 10:31 AM on February 27, 2007


When I took an art class, we had to draw a nude model. I was all embarassed at first, but after a minute I just concentrated on drawing and became submerged in the technical aspects, and stopped being embarassed.

I also saw someone (in a discussion sort of similar to this) quote a doctor telling a newbie doctor that in that field you see so many diseased genitals that if there's any arousal it just drains out after a few.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 10:43 AM on February 27, 2007


This is not complex. Just go to a nude beach and lay out in the sun or go get a massage. The tie betweeen nudity and sexuality just isn't that strong.

I'm not sure this experiment would confirm what you think it would. When I used to live in Austin, several people I knew who went to Hippie Hollow complained that there were lots of clothed men on the beach who made no attempt to conceal that they were there to leer at the nude women.
posted by jayder at 1:35 PM on February 27, 2007


Hippie Hollow was one of the first nude beaches I went. Lovely place, weird jerks coming by in boats to 'lear' at the naked people.

I've been to less risque beaches since, and found them equally delightful. There is real beauty in watching a family play together, naked, on a sunny beach.
posted by Goofyy at 5:10 AM on February 28, 2007


There might also be the "what if a photo of me nude gets on the Internet" factor. For example, I used to be totally uncomfortable with the idea of nudity. Now I'm better with it, and I'm intrigued by nude modelling; however, I know that if photos of me nude get out and about, I'd be in trouble. The likelihood of it coming back to bite me would probably be small, but it's there and that's what's stopping me from going any further.

How do some people cope with that? I've seen art projects where people are nude/topless for a non-sexual reason. Does that ever come back to haunt them negatively - losing a job, etc? How'd they cope with the possibility?
posted by divabat at 1:37 PM on February 28, 2007


seeing people in the nude entails imagining them in a sexual context
Seeing people in clothes sometimes entails imagining them in a sexual context, and most people are able to deal with that.

I've done nude modeling for artist drawing sessions, and it was not a sexual context at all. In this case, the model's privacy is not being intruded on as they have agreed to this role, and the artists are expected to stay in their role. Shouting 'Yowza! Hot stuff!' and trying to grope the model would get you kicked out.

Most artists/doctors/etc don't have any difficulty in seeing nudity in a sexual context when it is intended that way.
posted by yohko at 1:04 AM on March 1, 2007


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