The Naked Truth: Celebrating the Body Without Fear

By Barb Grady

            I was showering in the locker room of the Pointe South Mountain fitness center when I heard a cry for help.  I exited my shower to find a woman collapsing and her daughter attempting to hold her up.  I assisted the daughter in lifting her mother and placing her on her back.  The mother had fainted after becoming overheated in the Jacuzzi.  Once the situation was under control and the mother recovering, I observed the reaction of others around me to my nudity.  I was unaware of the discomfort of the crowd gathering, as I administered assistance to the mother.  As the paramedics were called, someone handed me a robe.  Nudity with openness and ease is not generally seen in my locker room, where women walk around in towels, sit in the steam room in towels, and wear bathing suits to soak in the Jacuzzi.

            In the US, we equate nudity with sexuality and thus view it as forbidden.  Like seeds in the wind, we transmit these attitudes to our children.  As I undressed in the locker room to take a shower, a four year old walked by and glared at me, eyes wide open.  “I can see her private parts,” she whispers to her mother.  At four, her age of innocence is gone.  Several small girls in bathing suits strolled by.  One look at me makes them giggle with hands over their mouths.  No, I am neither fat nor flabby—merely naked.  At age two, children gleefully throw off their clothes, but as early as age three nudity embarrasses them.

 Since in this country we are embarrassed by nudity, we cover our bodies from our children’s eyes and cover our children’s bodies as well, preventing them from viewing each other naked.  We put colorful bathing suits on our infants and children as they frolic in pools or at the beach.  In addition, childcare workers, fearing dissension from parents ill at ease about childhood sexuality, restrict children from going to the bathroom together, “hiding” together, or undressing together.  Naturally the more something is forbidden, the more piqued a child’s curiosity will be and the more they will seek to uncover the naked truth—thus their staring and giggling.

By contrast, in other countries, nudity is accepted as natural, including between parent and child, and we do not find such attempts to conceal it.  In Europe, parents routinely bathe and undress with their children, and in Japan, the family bath is a tradition that continues until prepuberty.  In Israel, friends related how struck they were as they observed children romping freely in the nude at the beach, as they do throughout Europe.  A Swedish student of mine once told me she did not get her first bathing suit until age ten!  In France, women bare their breasts at beaches, a common practice throughout Europe.

With normal exposure to nudity, children have the opportunity to place their bodies within a continuum of development—from little budded breasts to voluptuous ones; from a flat tummy to a rounded pregnant one; from a hairless, fingerlike penis to an elongated, and sometimes erect, one embedded in a crop of hair.  Such knowledge, wrote Margaret Mead, enables children to develop a cultural script of certain parts of their body—and thus their self—as acceptable and consequently to grow up more relaxed about the naked body.  Lacking this knowledge, children are more likely to perceive the human body as a forbidden and erotic object and see their own body as inadequate or even dirty, and to experience anxiety as it develops. 

Our children do see nudity in the media, but in an exaggerated, eroticized form.  Thus, when their bodies do begin to develop, they compare themselves to unrealistic images, resulting in self-image problems.  These self-image problems may exhibit themselves in many self-destructive behaviors.

The repression of sensuality has a long history in our country.  The people who sailed on the Mayflower brought with them the puritanical notion that the pleasures of the flesh were sinful, an attitude that continued through the stiff-laced Victorian era.  Even the affectionate touch of the mother was viewed as sinful.  In The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, a parenting Bible for the first quarter century, John Watson viewed mother love as inherently sexual.  He warned that while mothers might appear to coddle their children to make them happy and to express their love, the root of this desire was “a sex-seeking response in her, else she would never kiss the child on the lips.”

Unfortunately, Watson’s legacy continues to haunt us: Cultural ghosts that equate bodily pleasure with evil sexual impulses creep between the bedcovers at night as we wrap our baby’s little rounded body against ours; when we whip out a breast to feed her; when we kiss her alluring plump body; when we languish in the bathtub with her, enraptured by our mutual warm nakedness.  These lingering phantoms make it hard to unabashedly enjoy the pleasure parents and children take in the sumptuousness of each other’s bodies.

Such uneasiness is destined to get worse.  In our current sexual climate, where an alarming 30 percent or more of all children are sexually abused, we have become vigilant of any act that might imply sexual misconduct toward children.  Because childhood molestation has been hidden for decades, our quick suspicions are well founded.  But there can be a backlash: innocent acts by parents may be misconstrued.

Consequently, though less than 1 percent of all reported child sexual abuse cases occur in childcare settings, fear of accusations have been enough for some daycare centers to institute a restricted-touch policy.  Caregivers are told not to let hugs come from children, not to put children on their laps, and not to help children in the bathroom or change their soiled clothing without another adult present as witness, since this could involve touching a children’s naked bodies. 

At the elementary and high school level, accusations of child sexual abuse have become so prevalent that the president of the National Education Association advises teachers to, “Teach but don’t touch.”  Putting hugs on the endangered list is not the answer.  In spite of our hands-off policies, child physical and sexual abuse is on the rise.  Tiffany Field, a psychologist at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, discovered that children who are not touched by their teachers are more aggressive; experience greater attention, sleeping, and eating problems; and get sick more often. 

Human Sexuality

Human sexuality begins at birth.  As a mother rubs her baby’s arms, nibbles her baby’s toes and fingers, strokes her babies head and cheeks, the baby receives a lesson in the language of sensual pleasure.  Later he or she will also stroke, cuddle, and tenderly fondle another.  The more flesh meets flesh, the more pleasurable and sensual life is for the baby.  Mothers also feel sensual pleasure in touching their infants.  If a mother is nursing, she may even become sexually aroused as oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone, rises during sex and while lactating.  Nursing and sex are similar in that the uterus contracts, the nipples become erect, body temperature rises, and the woman becomes flushed.

These feelings are called love and, in a normal parent, are pleasurable not seductive.  Comfortable touching with our mother and father creates ease with human intimacy, emotionally and sexually.  Fathers given their newborns to hold, bathe, diaper and feed are more affectionate with their babies, more likely to bond with them, and less likely to sexually abuse their daughters.

As for shared family nudity, it is lewd only in our mind’s eye.  Research has found that when children sleep next to their parents, and see them naked, they tend to become adults who are more relaxed about touch, their body, about nudity, and about sexuality.  The key is how relaxed we are about our own sexuality, how in touch we are with our own bodies and sensual nature.  Having children requires that we examine our beliefs about nudity and our bodies.  A friend once told me that her son became modest at age three and wanted to be covered at all times.  I asked her about her feelings about nudity in her home and she told me that neither she or her husband or her older daughter were “allowed” to leave the bathroom uncovered.  This family rule had been clearly articulated both in action and words. My friend did not see the connection between her behavior, home rules and his modesty.

What are your beliefs about nudity?  How comfortable are you with your naked body?  How comfortable are you with the naked bodies of your children?  My hope is that this article provides some food for thought and generates self awareness. 

For More Information

De Freitas, Chrystal. Keys to Your Child’s Healthy Sexuality. Haupauge, NT: Barrons Educational Series, 1998.

Engel, Beverly. Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Fostering Your Child’s Healthy Sexual Development. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.

Heller, Sharon. The Vital Touch: How Intimate Contact with Your Baby Leads to Healthier, Happier, Development. Owl/Holt, 1997.

Human Sexuality: What Children Should Know and When They Should Know. Infants to preteens, $3.00, Planned Parenthood Federation of America; 800-669-0156.