Nudity & Nudism – two essays


Ruth Barcan BA DipEd UoN PhD UQ, is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Sydney

Nudity is paradoxical-a bodily state that is seen as so banal or matter of fact that it is rarely given sustained conceptual or academic treatment, while all the while most societies subject it to intense regulation via customs, taboos, and laws. Nudity is customarily imagined as a “natural” state-since we are all born naked-and yet its powerful social and cultural regulation means that it is anything but simple or natural.

Nudity might seem so uncomplicated as to need no definition; it is simply the state of being without clothes. But this is too simple. In the past, the word naked could mean clad only in an undergarment. In fine art, the term “nude” almost always includes semiclad or lightly draped bodies. So too, in some legal jurisdictions, the erect penis is legally “nude” even when covered in an opaque fabric. Conversely, some uncovered parts of the body-an elbow, a nose, a wrist, a face-are unlikely to be considered naked. Definitions of nudity, which are subject to historical and cultural variation, rely on assumptions about what counts as clothing. Defining nudity can also be an ideological or political matter. Are ornamentation, tattooing, feathers, skins, jewelry, or even hairstyles forms of clothing? This can matter greatly, as in the colonial context, where nudity was often seen as a sign of savagery.

Nakedness Versus Clothing

Nakedness and clothing help define each other. They can function as “nuclei” of humans’ “sense of order” (Clark, p. 4), as in the following sample list of fundamental sense-making oppositions in the Western tradition:

Nakedness vs. Clothing
Natural vs. Cultural
Unchanging vs. Changeable
Invisible vs. Visible
Truth vs. Lies
Pure vs. Corrupt
Human Nature vs. Human Society
Pre-, Non- Anti-social vs. Social

These terms are valued according to context, blurry at their edges, and occasionally reversible. Thus, nakedness has been able to be imagined as both an indecent state needing to be covered by “culture” (clothing) and a pure state far superior to the indecent cultural masquerade of clothing. The nakedness of “savages,” for example, has been imagined as evidence of their inferior humanness-but it has also been subject to romanticization (the “naturalness” of the “noble savage”).

Metaphorical Meanings of Nudity

In the Western tradition, nudity can, broadly speaking, attract both positive and negative metaphorical meanings. Mario Perniola has argued that these opposing meanings arise from the different metaphysics underlying the Greek and the Judaic traditions. In the Platonic tradition, he argues, truth was understood as something to be unveiled. Nudity, therefore, accrued metaphorical meanings of truth, authenticity, and innocence. Moreover, in sculptural and athletic practice, the ideal human figure was naked. In the Judaic tradition, however, in which the Godhead was imagined as gloriously veiled, nakedness was more likely to signify degradation, humiliation, or loss of personhood. It is important to stress that this is a simplification; there was internal complexity within, and interchange between, the two systems of meaning. In any case, metaphorical meanings and lived practice did not always match up; nor were the idealized meanings of nudity open to all types of naked bodies (for example, those of women, older men, or slaves).

The Naked and the Nude

English has two major terms for the state of undress: nakedness and nudity. Nakedness is the older word, coming from the Germanic family of languages. Nude is of Latin origin, entering the language in late Middle English. The original connotations of these terms persist-nakedness tends to suggest a raw, natural state, while nudity suggests a state of undress refined by culture into an aesthetic state.

Within fine arts, this etymological nuance has been elaborated into a full-fledged aesthetic distinction between the naked and the nude, a distinction most famously articulated by Kenneth Clark. Put simply, Clark’s opposition is this: nakedness is the “raw” human body, the human body without clothes. Nudity results when the artist works on that raw material. Thus, the nude is not a subject of art but a form of art (p. 3). John Berger glosses it thus: nakedness is a starting point and the nude is “a way of seeing” (p. 53). Nakedness is imperfect and individual; the nude is ideal and universal. Nakedness is nature; nudity, culture. The artist’s work de-particularizes the model’s nakedness, lifting it into ideality.

“It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model which the students are industriously drawing will know that this is an illusion” (Clark, p. 3).

Conceptually, the difference relies on the myth of an unmediated original bodily state-as though there were in the first place some raw “nature” untouched by culture. The opposition also depends on underlying value judgments that have made it politically unpalatable to some. Some feminists, for example, have seen much to criticize in Clark’s denigration of the naked as a pitiful state. We are, says Clark, “disturbed” by the natural imperfection of the naked body, and we admire the classical scheme that eliminates flaws, wrinkles, and signs of organic process: “A mass of naked figures does not move us to empathy, but to disillusion and dismay. We do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect” (p. 4). For many feminists, such unabashed idealism is not only conceptually untenable, it is politically suspect, since it denigrates the (traditionally feminized) body.

“[I]n our Diogenes search for physical beauty, our instinctive desire is not to imitate but to perfect. This is part of our Greek inheritance … ‘Art,'[Aristotle] says, ‘completes what nature cannot bring to a finish'” (Clark, p. 9).

Clearly, the idealizing processes Clark describes are not limited to classical art. They are the backbone of the glamorizing tendencies of contemporary consumer culture, as critics such as John Berger first pointed out. Contemporary advertising favors smoothed, youthful surfaces, and it employs its own techniques, including image manipulation, to ensure that bodily ideals do not “disturb” us with signs of imperfection. It is not hard to see why feminists have by and large been less than enthusiastic about the distinction between the naked and the nude, since they are critical of the pressures that such idealization puts on women, especially, and argue that dissatisfaction with the “natural” body is a major cause of psychological and cultural malaise.

See also Nudism.


Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. Oxford: Berg, 2004.

–. “Female Exposure and the Protesting Woman.” Cultural Studies Review 8 no. 2 (2002): 62-82.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Explores the naked/nude distinction in art and advertising.

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956. Classic discussion; source of naked/nude distinction.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing through Clothes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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

Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1992. Feminist text that includes an extended critique of the naked/nude distinction.

Perniola, Mario. “Between Clothing and Nudity.” Translated by Roger Friedman. In Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Part Two, pp. 236-265. Edited by Michel Feher, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi. New York: Zone, 1989. Outline of nakedness in Greek and Judaic traditions.


By Ruth Barcan

Nudism is the practice of nonsexual social nudity, usually in mixed-sex groups, often at specially defined locations, such as nude beaches or nudist clubs. Nudism can be differentiated from the practice of spontaneous or private nude bathing (“skinny-dipping”) in that it is an ongoing, self-conscious and systematic philosophy or lifestyle choice, rather than a spontaneous decision to disrobe. Nudists believe in the naturalness of the naked body, and in the medicinal, therapeutic, or relaxing properties of unself-conscious social nudity. They believe that modesty and shame are socially imposed restrictions on the freedom of the naked body, and that eroticism is not a necessary condition of nakedness. They frequently emphasize the importance of total nudity, arguing that partial concealment is more sexual than total exposure.

Early Nudism

Nudism arose in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, and spread through Europe, the United States, and Australia. The so-called “father of nudism” was the German Heinrich Pudor (real name Heinrich Scham), who coined the term Nacktkultur (“naked culture”) and whose book Nackende Menschen (Naked man [1894]) was probably the first book on nudism. Richard Ungewitter (author of Die Nacktheit [1906]) is more widely known as the founder of nudism, his reputation having survived Pudor’s accusations of plagiarism.

Nudism flourished in Germany, France, England, elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States, but its advocates often had to fend off legal challenges or accusations of depravity. While nudism had distinctive national flavors, and there was occasionally some rivalry (especially between the French and the Germans), there was also considerable communication, influence, and overlap between nudist cultures. Nudism was known by many names: in Germany, as Nacktkultur, Freikörperkultur (free-body culture), orLichtkultur (light culture); in France as nudisme, naturisme, or libre-culture (free culture), and in England as Gymnosophy or naturism.

Germanic nudism was a proletarian movement, mostly communitarian and ascetic in style. Its constituency was largely the unemployed and the working poor. By and large however, nudism was a movement endorsed and organized by educated people-physicians, scientists, lawyers, clergy, and, in France especially, occasionally by members of the aristocracy. Nudism produced an extensive proselytizing literature. Key nudist figures or writers of the 1920s and 1930s included: in Germany, Adolf Koch, Paul Zimmerman, and Hans Surén; in France, Marcel Kienné de Mongeot, the Durville brothers, and Pierre Vachet; in the United States, Maurice Parmelee and Frances and Mason Merrill; and in England, the Reverend Clarence Norwood, John Langdon-Davies, and William Welby. Nudists often met with religious opposition, but there were also many openly Christian nudists, who argued that it was time for Christianity to rid itself of superstition.

Early nudism was a medical, philosophical, and political movement. Its key contentions were the therapeutic benefit of unhindered access to sun and air, and the psychological benefit of an open relation to the naked body. Nudist writing commonly begins with cross-cultural and historical examples demonstrating the relativity of shame and modesty, before proceeding to expound the psychological, moral, social, and physical benefits of nudity. Clothing was considered to be both an instrument of class oppression and a major cause of ill health. Nudists claimed that an excess of shame and modesty bred psychological complexes, unhealthy relations between the sexes, and produced bodies that were both unhealthy and an affront to beauty.

The contribution of nudism to the aesthetics of the race was regularly cited as one of its benefits. Maurice Parmelee, for example, argued that nudism would contribute to a more “beautiful mankind” (p. 179). Some nudist clubs banned the disabled and the corpulent as a punishment for unhygienic lifestyles, but other nudists were troubled by too strong an emphasis on the aesthetic:

“While extreme cases of deformity and mutilation can be so distressing and painful to view that there may be some justification for such exclusion, it is of supreme importance that the gymnosophy movement be maintained on a lofty humanitarian plane (Parmelee, pp. 179-180) “

The relation between nudism and eugenics was complex, and use of an aesthetic discourse is no simple marker of eugenic thought or of fascism. Although Pudor, for example, was overtly anti-Semitic, Karl Toepfer warns that there was no “deep, inherent connection” between Germanic body culture and Nazism (p. 9).

Nudism was neither simply reactionary nor progressive. On the one hand, it was a trenchant critique of modernity. Nudist physicians lamented the soot-choked air of industrial cities and the lack of exposure to fresh air and sunlight of most working people. Socialist accounts argued that this physical malaise was compounded by the role of clothing in effecting oppressive social stratification; clothes were seen as masking the innate equality of all people. Some nudist writing is characterized by a romantic and nostalgic evocation of nature, a conception no doubt aided by the use in England and France of the euphemistic alternative “naturism” (a term that, incidentally, appears to be gaining some favor in contemporary nudism as a more “acceptable” term than nudism). For many writers, however, nudism was emphatically not a return to nature. As Parmelee put it, the idea that nudists want to discard anything artificial or man-made was “manifest folly” (p. 15). Scientists and physicians saw nudism not as a return to Eden (although this trope certainly occurred in nudist writing), but as a path forward to a shining new modernity in which science, rather than superstition, would lead the way.

Nudism was thus not (only) nostalgic but also saw itself as modern and rational. Nudist writing intersected with a raft of other modern discourses-heliotherapy (sun-cure), sexology, socialism, feminism, and eugenics. Caleb Saleeby, for example, was a fervent advocate of nudism, heliotherapy, and eugenics (he was Chairman of the National Birthrate Commission and author of a number of books on eugenics). Sexologist Havelock Ellis considered nudism to be an extension of the dress reform movement for women, and Maurice Parmelee saw it as a powerful adjunct to feminism. Ennemond Boniface was a socialist nudist, who fervently believed that nudism was an alternative to bloody socialist revolution, and would bring about a new naturist era in which all would be equal under the sun (see sidebar). For many, nudism was not just a therapeutic practice; it was a revolutionary plan for an egalitarian utopia.

Contemporary Nudism

There are a number of forms of contemporary organized nudism, each with a somewhat distinct culture: nude beaches, nudist resorts, nudist clubs, and swim-nights. “Clothes optional” resorts are becoming more common in some countries, as part of the growth of naturist tourism.

The utopian and political underpinning of early nudism has largely disappeared. Nudism has remained a minor practice, and it has by and large mutated into a “lifestyle” chosen by individuals rather than either a medical practice or a program for social reform. Contemporary nudists tend to be more private and less evangelical about their practice, and they are unlikely to see it as connected to any form of radical philosophy or politics. The major benefits are, they believe, a relaxed lifestyle and a healthy body image.

Nudism and Capitalism

The French socialist Ennemond Boniface predicted that nudism would bring about the end of capitalism:

“[T]here will be an exodus … from the cities, and the willing return … to the good nourishing earth. Little by little, men will desert the monstrous, nauseating agglomerations [of our] towns, in order to found … new and increasingly numerous naturist towns. Then … the factories, those places of hard labor where decent folk are imprisoned, will progressively become empty. The ferocious reign of the industrialist and his accomplice the banker will be over” (Salardenne, p. 93).

Body image is, in fact, the one social issue around which nudists are likely to be united in their opinion. Whereas for the early nudists, one of the prime benefits of nudism was that it would promote healthy, beautiful bodies and, by social selection, contribute to the elimination of unhygienic or unappealing bodies, contemporary nudists see nudism as a way of escaping the debilitating effects of the modern obsession with the body beautiful. They believe that nudism teaches one to be comfortable with one’s body, whatever it looks like.

See also Nudity.


Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. Oxford: Berg 2004.

— “‘The Moral Bath of Bodily Unconsciousness’: Female Nudism, Bodily Exposure and the Gaze.”Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 15.3 (2001): 305-319. On contemporary female nudists’ accounts of the benefits of nudism.

Clapham, Adam, and Robin Constable. As Nature Intended: A Pictorial History of the Nudists. Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press, 1982. Useful history.

Clarke, Magnus. Nudism in Australia: A First Study. Victoria: Deakin University Press, 1982. A comprehensive study.

Merrill, Frances, and Mason, Merrill. Nudism Comes to America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.

Norwood, C. E. (Rev). Nudism in England. London: Noel Douglas, 1933.

Parmelee, Maurice. Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy. London: Noel Douglas, 1929. An account of the benefits of nudism by a nudist physician, with an introduction by Havelock Ellis.

Pudor, Heinrich [Heinrich Scham]. Naked People: A Triumph-Shout of the Future. Translation by Kenneth Romanes. Peterborough: Reason Books, 1998 [1894]. Earliest nudist text; little read.

Salardenne, Roger. Le nu intégrale chez les nudistes français: Reportage dans les principaux centres. Paris: Prima, 1931.

Saleeby, C. W. Sunlight and Health. London: Nisbit and Company, 1923. A eugenic view.

Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.