views updated


NUDITY . People are nude in the most innocent moments as children and later at times of profound vulnerabilityduring sex and orgasm, while bathing, in sickness, and under the care of medical personnel. Much later, bodies may be exposed to adult children and other caregivers. And finally, one is exposed again in death, when one's body is prepared by morticians and other specialists in the ritual care of the dead. And yet it would be naivetoo innocent of gender and sexuality and their capacity to mark human interactions with the signs of dominance and submissionto equate nudity only with innocent vulnerability. The man who wears a raincoat to the park and displays himself to hapless observers is not innocent in his vulnerability but is driven by the awareness that exposing one's sexual organs can strike fear in the beholder.

From the female figures exposing their labia to protect cathedrals built in the Christian West to the ithyphallic and sexually gymnastic figures decorating supporting struts and exterior walls of temples in South Asia (said to prevent damage caused by lightening strikes), examples of the naked body striking an aggressive, "keep your distance" pose abound in the history of religions. Apotropaic rituals often utilize nudity. Images of nude humans, animals, deities, demons, and monstrous hybrids can be found in (and on the borders of) many configurations of sacred space.

Nudity and Sexuality

To display one's naked body in an inappropriate context can certainly engender powerful emotions in those who observe the spectacle. Why are social conventions being flouted? Is this person crazy, or worsea menace, a pervert, an evildoer? Religious discourses often provide contexts for making such judgments. Sociobiological theory pertaining to sex and the capacity of the human body to organize social life by means of sexuality provides a framework for exploring these religious discourses. Although feminists and queer theorists regard Desmond Morris's work warily, the patriarchal, hetero-normative assumptions behind the story of human evolution that Morris imaginatively reconstructs in his magnum opus, The Naked Ape, help link the patriarchal norms of many religious strictures around nudity to a sociobiological vision of how sexuality organizes human social life. Despite his ostensibly secular, agnostic stance, Morris tells a story of the human past that resonates nicely with patriarchal religious codes and the myths of origin in which many such codes are grounded.

Sociobiologists like Morris say that humans are naked apes: highly evolved animals who have found it evolutionarily adaptive to maintain stable monogamous pair-bonds through the constant receptivity to sexual arousal that humans, with relatively hairless bodies, enjoy. Humans are unique among mammals in the unprotected, furless condition. Humans have replaced shaggy coats of fur with clothing, keeping only vestigial fur patches around the scent organs that send aromatic messages to mates. Human females need not wait for their estrus cycles to connect them to the rewards of sexual intimacy with their mates; the female of the species is bound to her mate largely by the constant possibility of sexual pleasure.

According to Morris, the heterosexual pair-bond developed at the beginning of human evolution and provides the key to the survival and success of Homo sapiens. Humans are sapient because we form strong familial bonds that yield more brainpower in offspring. The sexual fidelity of the heterosexual couple allows human infants to develop slowly, cared for by a stable set of parents, which allows for maximal cognitive development and minimal instinctual "hardwiring." The young, swaddled in clothing, are still nursing when the offspring of other species are already engaging in acts of sexual reproduction and parenting their own young. That is surely innocence but of a special sort. Human young remain "in the nest" long after sexual awareness has dawned in them. Without constant restraint of sexual urges, the primal pair-bond between parents would be threatened by the intrusion of incestuous sexual activity in the family.

Obviously the disciplined observation of sexual impulses and the policing of sexual expression are spheres where religious discourse about purity and impurity, proper and improper, dignity and shame, right and wrong can be helpful, as the work of Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault makes abundantly clear. To be on the wrong side of these polarities moves one into the realm of sinister forces, of monstrosity and excess. Nudity in this context acts with the force of the ganz anderer, a terrifying absence of familiar contexts, an overwheling disruption of the familiar order.

With rare exceptions, public nudity is a category mistake. Aside from cases of social abjection (such as corporal punishment in which the criminal's transgression against society is publically inscribed through the savaging of the criminal's body), most of the contexts in which one undresses before another are private affairs, affairs in which one's body is under the gaze of selected others, invited and authorized to observe one's naked body. Even in climates where clothes can detract from comfort, primary (and often secondary) sexual characteristics are rarely displayed for all to see. Unless one has joined a colony of nudists, public nudity cannot help but engender powerful emotions. Hence the apotropaic function of public nudity: the naked flesh wards off harm by its manifest refusal to follow the rules, to know its place.

Rituals of Passage

Indeed as a symbol of category violation and liminal moments in transition between categories, nudity figures prominently in any number of ritually conferred changes of state: in the initiation of children into adulthood, in mortuary rites that send off the dead, in mourning practices that reconfigure the social world of the living, and in fertility rites that annually renew nature's infancy and potency after the senescence of winter. The works of Mircea Eliade and Victor Turner amply illustrate the utility of the symbol of the naked body in mediating such transitions between states. Baptism (at least for Paul and Christians influenced by him) entails an imitatio Christi whereby the neophyte suffers a symbolic death and rises again, transformed. Conversion to Judaism originally involved nudity and played on a wide symbolic range of religious symbols of rebirth and purity. The Brit Milah or ceremony of circumcision that Jewish males undergo as a mark of the covenant entails a change of state inscribed in the alteration of the exposed sexual organ. In many Islamic countries, boys become men through the exposure of their genitals in rites of mass circumcision.

Holy Shamelessness

For those ascetics whose social death frees them (at least in theory) from all social labels, nudity can signify the refusal to occupy a fixed social status, as among the Digambara ("sky clad") Jain mendicants of India. Narratives about the conversion of high-status Christian men such as Saint Anthony also suggest a divestiture of social privilege and status symbolized by public disrobing. But for a woman, sartorial divestiture can be a double-edged sword. What for a man clearly signals the opting out of the social world can sometimes for a woman suggest a promiscuous freedom within that world or at least within the demimonde where "loose" women circulate. Mahādevī of Karāaka, a twelfth-century South Indian poet-saint, reportedly left her Jain husband (who refused her the right to worship the Hindu god Śiva) and wandered naked as a mendicant. Although in medieval India the practice of nudity as a sign of having renounced all possessions and all attachments to self-image was common in male monastic communities (as it still is in the early twenty-first century in both Jain and Hindu ascetic circles), it was highly unusual for a woman to go uncovered. The threat of rape, concerns about provoking sexual desire, and aversion to the sight of menstrual blood are cited in Jain texts translated by P. S. Jaini in Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women as reasons why women should not attempt the practice of nudity. But in the community of Ligāyat Śaiva Hindu saints that Mahādevī joined after leaving her husband, she was not only supported in her practice of nudity but was encouraged to completely eradicate shame from her consciousness. It is said that when Mahādevī sought admission into the community of saints, she was asked to explain why, having abandoned her clothes, she arranged her hair so that it covered her breasts. Only after explaining that she did this as a concession to human weakness and not out of shame was she accepted as a member of the community.

But Mahādevī eventually left the community of saints and took up a life of solitary wandering. And her poems indicate that she attracted a great deal of unsolicited attention in her wanderings and was often accosted. Justifying her nakedness by reference to a monistic worldview that renders shame ludicrous, Mahādevī's recorded sayings suggest that she responded with an attitude of holy shamelessness:

People, male and female, blush when a covering comes loose. When the lord of lives drowned without a face in the world, how can you be modest? When all the world is the eye of the lord, onlooking everywhere, what can you cover and conceal? (Ramanujan, 1973, p. 131)

When one recognizes Śiva as the unmanifest reality behind every phenomenal appearance, there is nothing of which one should be ashamed. It is all God, whether breasts or buttocks or eyes which behold them. Such responses to interlocutors suggest that this poet-saint challenged cultural expectations about proper female self-presentation without conceding any ideological ground to those who found her behavior shameful.

Holy Shame

In these cases of ascetic nudity, as in the ritualized passage from one social status to another, nudity can instantiate the innocence and vulnerability of the infant as well as the knowing stance of the exhibitionist. When God is omniscient, Mahādevī suggests, there's no point in covering one's genitals. To cover them only shows one's ignorance of divine omnipresence and omniscience; exposing oneself shamelessly displays one's understanding of the nature of reality. The naked neophyte also dispenses with shame in the knowledge that his or her ritualized state of nudity will lead to a properly exalted status in which propriety in dress will be observed.

In the narrative of the Garden of Eden and the first humans' transition from innocence to the knowledge of good and evil (told in the Hebrew Bible's second creation account), self-awareness leads the primordial human couple to cover their nakedness. Adam and Eve's awareness of their transgression against God's command is heralded by a sudden desire to cover themselves. The fruit that the serpent had promised would make them wise also opened their eyes to their own nakedness, and they sewed together fig leaves to cover their genitals. Here wisdom is not shameless. Indeed to have shame, to be modest in covering one's sexual organs, is to show an understanding of one's place in the divinely created order.

This order is reflected, if Elaine Scarry is correct, in the emphatic embodiment of inferiors and the relative disembodiment of superiors (such as deities, kings, patriarchs, and other powerful persons) in the ancient Near East that Scarry describes in The Body in Pain. Thus while Morris might regard the shame surrounding the patriarch Noah's nakedness (Gn. 9:2027) as having to do with worries about incest, Scarry would suggest that it would demean a patriarch to be exposed involuntarily to the gaze of his children. Noah's sons must walk backward into his tent to cover the old man's naked body when the drunken patriarch involuntarily exposes himself. The lineage of the son who looked at Noah's nakedness (the Canaanites) is cursed, whereas the lines of those who cover his nakedness (Shem and Japeth) are blessed.

Social inferiors are not to see the genitals of their superiors on pain of death in many cases. In his introduction to People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz provides support for Scarry's linkage between the relative disembodiment of deities and that of powerful humans in the ancient Near East when he notes that the same author (the J source) who tells the story of Noah's nakedness also recounts that, when Moses asked to see God, God allowed Moses only to see his backside (Ex. 33:23). Eilberg-Schwartz suggests in his introduction that Israelite literary sources are "extremely reticent about describing the divine body" and that even those sources that insist that the body of God is visible to certain humans avoid describing that body above the feet (Eilberg-Schwartz, 1992, p. 31). When this God of the Hebrew Bible manifests himself, he is as likely to take the form of fire or light as to take the form of flesh. When God permits himself to be materialized in the tabernacle (as described at the end of Exodus ), he provides instructions for multiple layers of curtains, skins, and bronze gratings. The result, Scarry asserts in The Body in Pain, is that God materializes in veiled form, coming before people as "the veil, the materialization of the refusal to be materialized, the incarnation of absence. It is a realm of exclusion, entered only by the priests (whose bodies are, like the altar that is the symbolic representation of the human body, themselves surrounded by layers and layers of woven garments)" (Scarry, 1985, p. 211).

Seen in this light, the modesty shown by Adam and Eve after eating the fruit seems to exalt them above the condition of animals and the lower orders of creation. The first humans showed wisdom in their refusal to be seen in the nude. Of course as punishment for their disobedience the primal couple suffered the wages of embodiment: death, pain in childbirth, and the sweat of labor. It took the profound embodiment of God enfleshing himself in Jesus and suffering the ultimate humiliation of corporal punishment to restore humans to their rightful place, according to Christians.

In the Hebrew Bible, the covenant between Yahweh and his people is marked on the exposed flesh of male Israelites. The incarnation of Jesus, Scarry suggests, changes that dynamic of a vocal but invisible God underscoring the embodiment of his people through the cutting of flesh. Now God not only shows himself but also turns the knife on himself, as it were, incarnating as a low-status human who would be exposed, humiliated, and tortured in a public execution. The willingness of Jesus (and through him God) to be mocked and exposed before the public is replicated again and again in the actions of Christian martyrs prior to the conversion of Constantine.

For women martyrs the stakes were especially high, as Margaret Miles, Virginia Burris, Elizabeth Castelli, and others have shown. In Christian accounts of women's martyrdom, the unclothed female body often stands out as a powerful symbol. One can find in many accounts a discrepancy between the prurient interest of the audience and the unashamed innocence of the martyr. Flying in the face of cultural expectations that their appearance is immodest and degrading, many women martyrs do not regard themselves as debased. In their visions, Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old Carthaginian, and Febronia, the twenty-year-old Syrian martyr, regender themselves and see themselves as muscle-bound gladiators, stripped naked for athletic struggle with Satan's minions, as Margaret Miles recounts in Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. What could be a moment of acute humiliation becomes an opportunity for righteous aggression whereby opponents of Christianity are put to shame. The Syrian martyr Mahya tells the ruler who had ordered her stripped naked, "It is to your shame that you have done this; I am not ashamed myself" (Miles, 1989, p. 58). Being stripped of clothing can thus serve to highlight a devout woman's subjectivity and agency in two ways. Nakedness can serve as a means of resistance against culturally determined understandings of the body for someone whose values are counter to those prevailing in the culture, and nakedness can also serve as a means of shaming those who look, turning passivity into agency and victimization into victory.

Nudity and the intended shame that it was meant to incite ricochets back on the oppressor in a much-anthologized modern retelling of the Hindu epic heroine Draupadī's story by the Bengali writer and activist Mahasveta Devi. In Devi's short story "Draupadi," known to English readers through Gayatri Spivak's 1990 translation, Draupadī is called Dopdi, a tribal version of the name Draupadī. The narrative is set in the time of the Naxalite peasant uprisings in twentieth-century Bengal. Dopdi is a communist revolutionary who is captured, stripped, and gang-raped. Although her captors believe that this form of torture will force her to name her comrades, Dopdi does not do so. In the morning the guards bring her a pot of water so she can clean the blood off her body and dress in preparation for a visit to the quarters of Senanayak, the commanding officer. At this point Dopdi causes a commotion that sends shock waves through the camp. She knocks the water pot to the ground, then tears the garment they have given her and walks out into the sunlight naked with her head held high. Gaining advantage from what might otherwise be a shameful situation, Dopdi uses her ravaged body to shame Senanayak. Spivak's translation of Mahasveta Devi's text is terse and powerful at this climactic point in the narrative:

Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dried blood. Two breasts, two wounds. "What is this?" He is about to bark. Draupadi comes closer. Stands with her hand on her hip, laughs and says, "The object of your search, Dopdi Mejhen. You asked them to make me up; don't you want to see how they made me?" "Where are her clothes?" "Won't put them on, sir. Tearing them." Draupadi's black body comes even closer. Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is terrifying, sky-splitting, "What's the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?" She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak's white shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, "There isn't a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me, counter me." Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid. (Devi, 1990, p. 104)

Refusing to cover herself, this heroine uses her ravaged body as a weapon by which to censure the man who has sanctioned the use of gang rape as a weapon against her.

For all her righteous shamelessness, however, Draupadi-Dopdi never challenges the presupposition that it is shameful for a woman's body to be exposed to the gaze of men as Mahādevī does. The way that Dopdi shames Senanayak is by saying, "There isn't a man here that I should be ashamed." This statement suggests that if he were a man by virtue of his just conduct and unquestionable virtue as an officer, she would cover her naked body out of deference to his position. But since he is not a man, she need not acknowledge that she is a woman. Thus she is able to shame him by treating him as a junior male, a male before whom a woman can expose more of her body than in the presence of other men without violating the rules of deferential distance.

Dopdi's stance echoes the situation of the epic heroine Draupadī, for the man who claims ownership over Draupadī and orders her stripped of her sari is a villain, a cheater who wins her in a crooked dice game. Draupadī uses her considerable intelligence and quick tongue to try to prevent exposure, telling the villain that she is menstruating. But in the end she is forced before the assembly of men and her sari rudely pulled away from her body. But the force of Draupadī's virtue counters that of Dushasana's wickedness. As the garment is pulled away, another one appears underneath it. And when that one is removed, another appears. Dushasana pulls yards and yards of fabric until finally he is overtaken by exhaustion. (According to some versions of the tale, it is the god Ka who causes Draupadī's garment to miraculously lengthena surprising turn of events, given that this same god is represented in other contexts as a practical joker who steals women's clothing while they are bathing.)

The phenomenological situation of nudity includes not only a naked body observed by other people but also the state of mind and self-concept of the subject who is exposed as the object of vision. Thus to understand any one instance in which public exposure of the naked body occurs in a religious context, the subjective as well as the objective dimensions of the disrobing must be understood. Who objectively dominates whom? What does nudity mean subjectively for the person exposed? What does it mean for the observers? Is there a moral victory to be won, perhaps separate from the scorecard of social dominance and submission? Who, in the end, is the victim and who the victor? If humans are indeed naked apes, the possibility of sexual interaction marks every human situation with the signs of sexual fidelity or infidelity, familial protection or abandonment, submission or dominance, shame or shamelessness. The sentience of these various possibilities and their subversion generates a wide range of meanings whenever a body is publicly exposed.

See Also

Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Art, and article on Myths and Symbolism.


Bataille, Georges. The Tears of Eros. Translated by Peter Connor. San Francisco, 1989.

Burris, Virginia. "Reading Agnes: The Rhetoric of Gender in Ambrose and Prudentius." Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995).

Castelli, Elizabeth. "Visions and Voyeurism: Holy Women and the Politics of Sight in Early Christianity." In Colloquium Proceedings. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Devi, Mahasveta. "Draupadi." In The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women, edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom. London, 1990.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington, Ind., 1990.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture. London, 1958.

Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité. 2 vols. Paris, 1976.

Foucault, Michel. "Excess." In Readings: Acts of Close Reading in Literary Theory, edited by Julian Wolfreys. Edinburgh, 2000.

Jaini, Padmanabh S. Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women. Berkeley, Calif., 1990.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Naked Man. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1981.

Miles, Margaret. Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. Boston, 1989.

Morris, Desmond. The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal. London, 1967.

Ramanujan, A. K. Speaking of Shiva. Baltimore, 1973.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York, 1985.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "The Garments of Shame." History of Religions 5 (Winter 1966): 217238.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago, 1969.

Liz Wilson (2005)

About this article


Updated About content Print Article Share Article