The old apes rose up and began to walk with their heads held high. They wandered far through lush, cool forests and found at its edge an open savannah ripe with meat to hunt and food to forage.
They quickly found their thick fur far too heavy in the glaring heat and sweltering sun of this new land, and survival here became uncertain. But our ancestral line is a blessed one, and nature—through environmental pressure and sexual selection—found a way to keep their large brains, the jewel of our species, cool.
The thick fur receded. The skin beneath became exposed and darkened, and sweat began to pour from their bodies.
These apes became naked, and it was good.
“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. ( The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
To be naked is to be without disguise.
To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”
― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
We are not alone on this earth in having bare skin, but we are undoubtedly the most aware of it. In nature, no other animal is as preoccupied with how much of the body is shown, and how much must be covered up as we are. We alone experience the shame, the exhilaration, and the outrage over the exposed bodies of others and of our own. We may not be the only ones born so nude, but we alone experience our nakedness.
Among the primates, our closest relatives in nature, we alone lost our fur when—we believe—the genes that determined hairlessness, and the linked genes affecting the number of sweat glands, began to be selected for in warmer climates.
Now, Each of us comes into this world uncovered, and our first sensations are the bonding that occurs when our skin first meets the skin of another. This first skin to skin bonding is critical for our emotional well-being and the way our skin is treated and our nakedness acknowledged during the coming formative years affects us for the rest of our lives.
Depending on your culture, when you were born, and how you were raised you will have a different feeling about your nakedness. You may cover yourself from head to toe, by choice or by law or you may live somewhere where covering is impractical, uncomfortable, and unnecessary. You may live somewhere in which the social norms and laws don’t agree with your own level of inhibition. In those places nakedness can become a protest, a resistance, a revolution.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
― The Bible, Genesis 3:7
I’m not sure if anyone knows which came first, the need to cover up or the taboo of exposed skin.
As we moved out of Africa and off of the sweltering savannah, we once again needed protection. The fur could not be grown back, but we had our minds. We no longer had to wait on nature, we could compensate and enhance, and we started with clothing. We took the hides and fur of our kills and made simple cloaks and coverings to keep us warm and to keep us hidden.
Our ancestors, the ones who stepped out onto the savannah, while critical to our future existence, they were not us. They would not recognize what they saw if they could look into our eyes. The ones who chose to cover up, they carried the true seed of humanity.
I would argue they made us more us than any form of humanoid to come after. Even the Neanderthals, with their simple cloaks, they knew us too. For what we had in common was the elements and the desire to overcome them, but we had over them was the desire to make more out of our coverings.
“It’s the invention of clothes, not nature, that made “private parts” private.”
— Mokokoma Mokhonoana
Adam and Eve if they existed, may have found they were naked when they ate from the tree of knowledge but what need was there to hide their bodies from each other?
Beyond the need to protect the body and the skin from harm, why is there such a pervasive feeling of shame when it comes to exposure? The story of Adam and Eve’s shameful awakening perpetuates an idea that with the loss of ignorance and innocence must come modesty and that nakedness is an evil. Clothing became a way to control the masses.
As society spread and culture grew more complex clothing became a clue to who you were, where you were from, where you stood in rank and relation to your peers, to the rest of the tribe. The more we spit, came together, mixed, warred, and grew, our clothing changed to reflect who we were becoming.
Your clothing could indicate what beliefs you held, what Gods you worshiped, and to which king you were loyal. Clothing could tell someone if you were married or not. It could tell you if someone was a servant or citizen, and if they were an “us” or a “them,” to let live or to dispatch to their death. Clothing has become a way to place us firmly in a niche and to keep us there. The naked ceased to have a place at all and nakedness became invisibility.
We’ve come a long way since those simple fig leaf coverings and cloaks, haven’t we?
And now what is nakedness to us? In western cultures particularly, after so much indoctrinated objectification and shame, the nakedness of others is no longer seen as a person’s natural or normal state. Seeing the bare skin of another human being elicits strong emotions and reaction. We may feel lust, disgust, shame, or envy. We may feel disturbed and filled with rage. The nude figure is susceptible to lust and objectification now and is often displayed as an art, which is only another kind of decoration and disguise meant to provoke. Nakedness has become a message, just another kind of clothing.
Now the loss of clothing has become a loss of identity, of ego, of self, a specific humiliation. Physical nakedness is both an exposure and a loss of social standing leaving you feeling lost and afraid. Few among us could suffer being so seen in front of our tribe. The skin, the real gateway to the human soul, must be protected.
Our skin, its color, the scars, the calluses, the softness, it’s all part of who we are and where we have been. The skin, the largest and most exposed organ, displays our whole being. Nothing is hidden. So, much like the ego, a facade must be created to cover what is fragile. What is underneath must be protected with layers of illusion and lies a protective “identity” has to be displayed like a shield. So whether through covering up, or by alteration, a new nakedness is placed over the first, and forgotten.
But our attempts to cover only reveal us further, not so much for who we are as individuals, clothing lies the way that language does, but it reveals who we are together. Even in cultures where nakedness is mundane, there is ornamentation, an alteration of the skin in some way with paint, tattoo, scarification, piercing, and more, and more extreme.
“Nakedness has no color: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.”
— James Baldwin, No Name in the Street
To be truly naked even with only ourselves is an exhilarating and titillating experience. To be so naked with another person takes a great leap and a risk. When we lost our fur, we became defenseless against nature. We also became defenseless against one another.
Our fur protected us from all sorts of disease and danger. Our skin has made advances, but no one can deny the trade-off has been only barely in our favor. Parasites and bacteria have an easier time, and we are defenseless against the teeth and claws of our predators. Worse, what protection do we have against the bare touch of another human being? Nothing so weaken us as nakedness pressed against nakedness.
And this is the human experience. We are not alone in our exposure to nature, but we are the only animal brought to such heartache, fear, desire, or rage over the touch or the lack thereof, of another person’s skin. We may cover and alter our skin, we may shame ourselves and others, and we may use, abuse, and objectify the nude, but there is no doubt what we crave to feel our own skin freely and to feel the skin of another with no loss of dignity and no threat of obligation.
We’ve forgotten what we gained when we lost our protective fur. We gained direct contact with our world. There is nothing between us and the sun, the grass, the rain, and the wind. There is nothing at all between us and pure pain and pleasure. There is also nothing between us and one another. We have access to the closest intimacy and with it comes terror and fragility.
With it comes the greatest rewards and the kind of suffering that runs from the epidermis straight to the heart.
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Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter N under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all.