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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Where did the idea come from? How did this notion begin that the human body is something to be ashamed of, and can we identify who was involved in perpetuating such a mindset? I was already flowing along on this stream of thought after writing my [1]previous post about the story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis, and was given further impetus by being reminded (in a quiz panel program that I happened to be watching) that evidence for the [2]wearing of clothing can be traced back to some 170,000 years ago – but no further.

A young Muslim woman contemplates her world. What are acceptable standards of dress in a culture generally turn out to be standards which are considered acceptable by men about women. The more that men fear a woman’s autonomy, the more strident is the call for a woman to cover herself, and clothing becomes a means of control, whether in Islam, or in Jewish Orthodoxy, or elsewhere.
Since this period in human history also relates to a follow-up on ice-age climate conditions, it is a reasonable assumption that the introduction of clothing into human society had a lot more to do with basically keeping warm than it did with any notion of modesty. Protection and insulation against the cold would also have allowed an expansion into more northern latitudes, and the wearing of clothes also would have opened up new areas of culture, as specific styles or choices of dress evolved to denote social status, group identity and other cultural markers.

Neanderthalers return from a successful winter hunt: a scene which took place in what is now France over 35,000 years ago. When considering the origins of clothing, the basic need to keep warm and survive seems to have taken precedent over any connections with modesty. Painting by Zdeněk Burian.
This is compelling stuff, because it is, after all, about us. Whether we are African, European, Indonesian or some other ethnicity, this is our common story, our shared history. All of the diverse cultures which exist and have existed have evolved over time. All have a worthy story to tell, and the way things are now became that way over many succeeding generations, and either evolved further or were preserved as traditions, with these two processes often running parallel with each other. Our clothing can define us, whether that is a specific regional style or the global ethnicity of a pair of jeans. And when clothing is the social norm, discarding it can even become a powerful statement of protest.

Protesters in Brussels are forced to the ground by police during a visit by the Russian President. Nudity can be, and is, used to make a political statement. I can think of any number of ways to conclude this courageous young woman’s painted-on slogan. Who is really being shamed here? Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are still behind bars in Moscow.
(But see my added note below about their release.) 
So clothing – or the lack of it – can make a compelling statement, and send signals to others about who we are and what we stand for. And it does not necessarily follow that covering the body in some way is always modesty-driven, because many styles of covering actually serve to emphasise what is covered. But what about shame? If you who are reading this believe that you are a creation of God, how is it possible that you then presumably feel a sense of shame about what that same God has created? By inference it suggests a sense of shame in your God. This sense of shame is not a natural thing. It is not something which we have as young children. It is something that we have to learn, something that we are taught, something that is instilled into us by the authority figures and the society in which we live.

Xingu dancers before and after being included on the tourist route. Shame has to be learnt, and tourism as well as earlier missionary activity has played its part in teaching shame to indigenous cultures. The Xingu are now under considerable pressure from a variety of external forces.
This sense of shame is something other than a natural modesty. In the language of science humans are habitually bipedal – we walk upright on two legs. This simple fact means that, when naked, our genitals are ‘on view’. To avoid sending potentially confusing signals, it’s just socially more comfortable to keep things covered when sex is not the order of the day. So an appropriate degree of modesty makes social sense. It is the feeling of [3]shame, of feeling that what we have is in some way intrinsically ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’ that is so crippling to the human psyche. Shame has to be learned, and the teacher, apparently, is religious belief.

What constitutes acceptable standards of dress can be both cultural, regional and belief-driven. Bathers (left) on a beach in Rio de Janero, and (right) on a beach in Gaza.
When it comes to our attitudes to sin, few individuals have coloured Western thinking more than Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, now located in Algeria, but then a province of the Roman Empire. Augustine lived in a world in flux: the Christian Goth Alaric had previously led his conquering army into the Roman Forum. The centre of Western civilization had been penetrated, and the society of that time had been shaken to the foundations. In his writings of the 4th-5th-centuries, what Augustine set out to do was to give early Christians a sense of their own identity, and the formulating of doctrine was the course which he set for himself.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve. Masolino de Panicale’s 15th-century fresco before (left) and after (right) restoration. The strategic wisps of foliage were added by unknown prudish hands at a later date. Evidently the artist – and his Church commissioners – had less qualms about the element of nudity.
Augustine devoted years of contemplation to the subject of sin. His conclusion was that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve was actually present in the human seed at the moment of conception. So in Augustine’s vision of things, there was no such thing as the innocence of childhood, because a new-born baby was already born [4]corrupted with the taint of the Fall, and all humanity was contaminated. Shame, therefore, was the right and proper reaction to this condition, and the phrase ‘naked and ashamed’ is now a familiar one.

This 1954 film poster assures us that Garden of Eden was ‘Photographed in COLOR at a REAL Nudist Park under the supervision and with the approval of THE AMERICAN SUNBATHING ASSOCIATION’. Apparently this eager reassurance was not quite enough, and Hollywood sensibilities demanded an extra added palm frond and the removal of the racy tag line before the poster was distributed.
These ideas of Augustine’s were radical for their time. Before this, such commentators as Clement of Alexandria were actually connecting the Fall in Eden, not so much with carnal desire and an awareness of being naked, but with the more fundamentally moral question of disobedience to God. It was Augustine who placed the emphasis on the shame of the flesh.

A spread from the May 2009 National Geographic, which was distributed in Islamic Indonesia only after the board of censorship had busied itself with a felt pen. Don’t tell me that the members of the board didn’t keep one or two uncensored copies for themselves. Photo by Mike Cheong.
For my friends in Indonesia: the uncensored spread from my own Dutch edition. When a black felt pen hides something this innocent, there is an added sense that such petty censorship also robs these women of their dignity.
Augustine’s extended attention given to this subject in his book [5]City of God makes for some weird reading, preoccupied as he seems to have been with the subject of physical sexual arousal. Augustine is clearly disturbed by the notion of genital autonomy, which he concludes is part of God’s punishment for man’s disobedience, and he laments the fact that sexual arousal apparently cannot be controlled by the intellect. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if Augustine were alive and writing today as an unknown author, we probably would conclude that he should seek counselling as a matter of [6]urgency.

In this anatomy reference work for artists published in 1920, the model’s classical pose in general and her Grecian hairstyle in particular signal that the intentions of the photograph are academic and respectable – intentions which are emphasised by the determinedly technical caption. The result is an innocuous flesh-and-blood version of a marble statue.
Instead, as we know, it has not been Clement’s ideas, but Augustine’s, which down the centuries have gone on to exert an influence upon Western society more wide-reaching and profound even than the borders of belief, and upon those who might not even be aware that their behaviour and attitudes are being influenced by what Augustine thought and wrote. That a broadcast glimpse of Janet Jackson’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ can send a nation into an uptight spin is example enough of our troubled mindset about bodily exposure, and of the way in which the human soul has been scarred by the legacy of [7]scriptural doctrine.

Whether you believe or not that the human body is created by God does not make it of itself intrinsically shameful, otherwise we would not have to be taught that it is. That we not only have to learn this, but perpetuate the idea in our turn by teaching it to impressionable others – with all the centuries-old baggage of guilt and sin which go along with such a notion – is the true reason for shame.   

[1] Please see my post Eve's Story.

[2] No clothing exists from that distant time, but this date can be surmised from the time that head lice evolved into lice which live only on the body underneath clothing. Even humble parasites can be useful to anthropology.

[3] Launched with the interstellar spacecraft Voyager in 1977, this now-famous plaque (above) depicts humans of both sexes. Designed by astronomer Carl Sagan, and drawn by his wife Linda Salzman Sagan, it brought howls of protest from both sides of the American religious morality divide, with one side protesting the ‘indecent’ display of nudity, and the other pointing out (which cannot be denied) that the man’s penis is shown, but not the woman’s labia. Not only has the woman been coyly de-sexed: she has been reduced once more to the passive role, while it is the man who raises his hand in greeting to possible unknown alien discoverers. Now travelling beyond our solar system, Voyager will reach the nearest star system in some 40,000 years. Apparently not content with laying our religious guilt trips and sexual stereotypes on our fellow earth-dwellers, we are now transporting them to the stars.

[4] The doctrine behind this conclusion will be the subject of a future post.

[5] Augustine's text can be read online at: City of God.

[6] Note added September 7 2013: Apparently I am not the only one to view Augustine in this way. The author Laurence Gardner describes these doctrines of the early Church as 'an unhealthy sexual paranoia'. It is worth remembering that nowhere in scripture is the concept of Original Sin actually mentioned.

[7] The connection of guilt with religion is ruthlessly underscored in the language of my own country of the Netherlands. Due to the influence of Calvinism here, the Dutch words for pubic hair and a woman’s labia are schaamhaar (shame hair) and schaamlippen (shame lips) respectively, with schaamstreek (literally: region of shame) being the term for the groin. Language can itself have a powerful influence upon our attitudes and the way in which we perceive things.

Melissa A. Toups, Andrew Kitchen, Jessica E. Light and David L. Reed: Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa, in vol. 28, issue 1 of Molecular Biology and Evolution journal. 
Robert Metcalf: Unrequited Narcissism: On the Origin of Shame. University of Colorado, Denver, September 2006. Studies in the History of Ethics.
Elaine Pagels: Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Alfred Fripp, Ralph Thompson and Innes Fripp: Human Anatomy for Art students. Seeley, Service & Co., 1920.
Josef Augusta and Zdeněk Burian: Prehistoric Man. Paul Hamlyn, 1960.
Mike Cheong’s blog is at Garden of Eden artwork by John J. Lomasney.

‘Putin protest’ photos by FEMEN. In this second photo of the sequence (right), one policeman kneels on the woman's back while another prepares to force her hands behind her back to cuff her, which is what a third photo shows. I thought that my neighboring country of Belgium was a democracy. The Ukranian-based protest group FEMEN also protests against such religious issues as church dogma and sharia law, which has in turn prompted counter-protests against FEMEN's demonstrations by Muslim women wearing determined smiles and signs which say DO I LOOK OPPRESSED?. But oppression can at times move in subtle ways. How did such clothing cover-up doctrines originate in the first place, and who introduced them? If anyone can conclusively establish for me that these religious dress codes were not originated by men (either independently or in the name of their god), then I will publish their comment here. The current Iranian law for adultery specifies that prior to stoning men are to be buried up to their waists (thus leaving their arms free), and women up to their shoulders (with their arms also buried). Anyone who can manage to extricate themselves before dying is spared. Do the math.

Note added January 2014: Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (seated left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (seated right) were released late last month, but as they only had two months of their sentence left to serve, they concluded (as I do) that their 'early' release was a sop to the West in the light of the coming winter Olympics in Russia. Pussy Riot have now disbanded but plan to continue together to raise awareness of injustice within the Russian political and judicial system.


  1. Beautiful blog you have and a great selection of images. As a lifelong naturist and student of history, I think I can add a bit of perspective to your essay. I do not believe that shame is intrinsic to human beings, nor do I believe, as you suggest, that it has something to do with our standing upright. Human beings stood upright for millennia before shame and clothing developed. I would argue that it has more to do with the Ice Age and climate change. Notice how desert cultures, like those of the Hebrews and the Arabs, feel a greater necessity for covering the body as opposed to people living in Greece or the Amazon, where the climate is ideally suited to human habitation. Also, as a nudist, I have never had any problem separating sexual urges from innocent/non-sexual activity, despite hundreds of naked women around me.

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Nick. Yes, the anthropological evidence in the form of parasites does indeed argue the case for climate being the driving mechanism behind the wearing of some form of clothing. As necessity made way for custom, social ranking and what I refer to as other cultural markers (clan status, eligibility, etc.) would have emerged as factors - although the wearing of clothes still need not necessarily be related to a sense of shame, which, as I suggest here, seems to have been driven by what constitutes the foundations of what are still contemporary religious beliefs. My main conclusion here is that, since such religious doctrines were propounded by men, the instilling of a sense of shame was - and still is - a means of power and control. You might find my related post about this subject also of interest:


You are welcome to share your thoughts.