Monday, 9 March 2009

Last Horizon

I see some Blogland people have managed to miss the fact that, for the last few days, I've been relaying the main points of a BBC2 documentary 'What's the problem with nudity?' Horizon delved into the reasons why many of us are embarrassed about our bodies. By taking a group of volunteers and subjecting them to a series of physical and psychological tests, scientists were hoping to change attitudes to the naked human form. Questions raised struck at the heart of human physical and social evolution. Recap over, it's back to where I left off.

Although we undress ourselves every day, this is not normally done in front of other people, let alone a roomful of strangers. Four of the group were asked to do something more intimate than any of them feared, namely undress the remaining four people, as they stood on platforms in front of the partner. They could not escape the intense emotions this simple act produced. But what purpose does this sensitivity to nudity serve, if any? An evolutionary psychologist may have found an answer; two emotions play a roll in sexual modesty, embarrassment at the lesser end of the spectrum, or shame at the higher end, caused by gross, or inappropriate exposure of one's sexuality.

The professor interpreted this feeling of shame as a defence mechanism. The subject is acknowledging unacceptable behaviour by exhibiting shame, and asking not to be hurt, or punished because of it. He said that nudity, the flaunting of sexuality, is a threat to the basic social contract, where a monogamous relationship gives a secure beginning for human babies, who take so long to mature. Because of the large size of our brains, in order for the skull to be small enough to pass through the birth canal, babies are born prematurely, before these brains have reached their full size. As the instinct behind mating is always to preserve the gene pool, parenting young until they reach maturity is what that basic, social contract is all about. Living in large, social communities, it is easy to see how temptation to go against this code can be all too easy. So it would seem, we have been conditioned to sexual modesty because of this understanding.

Finally, the volunteers were pushed beyond the limits of social acceptance, and asked to paint the bodies of the people before them using colour coding to denote the areas they would be most comfortable to touch: green, no problem: yellow, less comfortable: red, strictly taboo. Over the course of the days spent in each others company, the eight people were less stressed at this exercise, and were mostly happy to paint green bodies. Minimal amounts of yellow were painted on one lady's breasts with red nipples, yellow and red on one female's pubic area and red around one male's genitals; the vast majority of the paint was indeed green.

And the conclusion drawn by the scientists? As the state of nudity is the state of being human, essentially, having a naked skin, and understanding the evolution of it, is understanding everything about being human. Sexual modesty exemplifies our uniquely human, emotional morality, for only humans feel shame, the moral emotion that enforces cultural standards.
For scientists, the extreme emotions that nudity can cause, will always be a paradox, for the human state of nudity and hairlessness, is the apex of human evolution.

All the participants were comfortable, by the end of their days spent together, to share a final meal totally naked, all inhibitions apparently overcome. But the very last test for the volunteers at the end of the experiment, was to see if they would accept the final challenge and leave the privacy of the house to appear naked in public. Six out of the eight walked down the steps of the building, crossed the pavement and climbed into the waiting black taxi cabs as naked as the day the were born...


  1. Oh, imagine the look on the faces of the innocent bystanders (and of the cabdrivers). Very interesting series of articles you wrote on this. Humans are very complicated.
    Still, I'm not tempted to go out an about naked. And not just because of the temperatures ;-)
    (Tumtum does have a mondaymorning look doesn't he? I hadn't noticed before you mentioned it.)

    Hugs xx

  2. (i) I have recently heard that in a sense we are born three months too early; your explanation about brain size may be what is behind that statement.

    (ii) I am amazed at the immodesty of children.

    (iii) Did they say why females are more body-shy than males? They even seem to be this way in front of each other. Boys shower together after gym class, but I gather that girls frequently don't shower at all for reasons of modesty ... or the drying of hair. :)

    (iv) Do you find any humour in this phrase that you used: embarrassment at the lower end ...?

  3. Eh, I think it's just about all societal conditioning. If we were told from infancy that our elbows were dirty bits and not to be shown, we'd all wear elbow pads and the dirty geezers would be the ones who lusted after a sight of your elbow.

  4. Interesting. (And I bet ol' Suldog would be the first one hunting elbows.) *wink*

  5. Interesting! I think besides sexuality, it's worry over how we look nekkid too! esp women it seems !

  6. I've been gone the past week with company visiting... so I've missed the other posts here, I'll be reading them in a minute... but this is definitely not something I can even comprehend. I get what the show was about and why they are doing it.. but nope, doesn't work for me. Especially since it's what makes us civilized and not like animals. Clothes protect us, both from the evils of weather, but the basest intsinct/desire that the human body has besides eating... which is sex.. LOL! They try and promote safe sex now, how much more worse would it be if we were all to walk around like animals and had to deal with the primal urges of newly discovered teens... they would be like dogs, taking whatever-whenever. (More than they do now!) Also, I would LOVE to see a psychologist practicing what he preaches on live television.

  7. GMof6 - you really do need to begin at the beginning of these Horizon posts, and read carefully. Nobody was suggesting people should go naked; the documentary was exploring why nudity should be problematical, when naked skin is part of reason why humans evoled into the beings we recognise today.
    I think they did a good job, looking into so many different aspects of the subject.

  8. Me again...I also believe they proved groups of people can be naked without immediately viewing each other as no more than sex objects; shows there's hope for as all, in my book!

  9. Were these people paid or were they true volunteers? I think that only an extrovert would participate in an exercise such as this.

  10. There is no way you could have gotten me to participate in the experiment.

  11. I could never do this. Ever. But found it fascinating that others did and left the building naked, after dinner, but painted. Was there wine? Lots of wine?

  12. "In olden days a glimpse of stocking
    Was looked on as something shocking,
    But now, God knows,
    Anything Goes." -- Cole Porter

    I understand that in Victorian times the sight of a female ankle might drive a man into a sexual frenzy. Legs (referred to as "nether limbs," never as "legs") were considered so sexy that even the legs of furniture were covered lest they send the mind reeling in an untoward direction.

  13. that was excellent piece of work

  14. very interesting jinsky....i think i would paint mostly green :)just a tenny dab of red here and there!!
    Hope u are well and sleeping soundly LOL

  15. Yes, Jinksy, very interesting. I think being part of a group might have played to their accepting things as they did. I've been a part of different cultural groups (all clothed, by the way) and comfort zones settle after a short time when there is trust in a common goal. Very cool to think about, though. Thanks.


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