Throughout history, clothes have served three basic purposes, only one of them truly practical. As a protection against the cold or too much sun, clothing is genuinely useful. Freezing to death, sun stroke, and skin cancer are all bad. Also, it can protect you against the hazards of your profession. Certainly, a blacksmith is better off with his heavy leather apron than without it. I also wouldn’t recommend that a gardener operate a weed whacker without at least some long pants. And I’m grateful that the people preparing my food or performing surgery on me are wearing the proper attire.
As civilization advanced further away from hunting and gathering, clothing took on another purpose, displaying wealth and status. In Roman times, purple dye was rare and expensive, so wearing clothing in that color showed that you were among the elite. In colonial times, layers of fancy fabrics were symbols of wealth and privilege. Today, a $10,000 silk suit or designer dress serves exactly the same purpose, allowing the economic elites to display their elevated status on their persons. And this is not only for the very wealthy. Young Mexican men like to spend their disposable income on Levi 501 jeans. For them, the iconic American work pants serve the same function as an Armani suit does for Donald Trump, Jr.
Our whole fashion industry feeds on and feeds an obsession with wearing the right thing and the latest thing. To be behind that curve is to be a social leper. This fixation on style is closely tied with a parallel and destructive obsession with the perfect body, setting unreasonable expectations for what it means to be physically attractive, creating crippling body image issues for young people.
When everyone is nude, however, all of those layers of false status are literally stripped away, revealing what we all share, regardless of social strata. The heiress is on the same plane as the hotel housekeeper. No one is elevated, and no one is reduced. Everyone simply is as they are.
The pursuit of physical perfection, and the toxic shaming of those who fall short find little purchase in any place where nudity is merely another mode of dress. Even before I ventured out to places like Black’s Beach or the Glen Eden Sun Club, nudity helped me become comfortable with my less-than perfect body. After growing up skinny as a rail, having the metabolism of a blast furnace in my youth, I found myself in my fifties with an amount of belly hanging over my belt. It was nothing my doctor said I needed to do anything about, but seeing it bothered me. Chalk it up to narcissism, but on my way to the shower, I would avoid looking in the bathroom mirror. I just didn’t want to see myself looking that way. In effect, I was body-shaming myself.
But then I began spending as much of my time at home as possible in the nude, getting dressed only to leave the house. I became used to the way I looked and learned to love the relaxed feeling of doing everything while wearing nothing. Now, when I pass a mirror and see my still-imperfect naked form, it’s just me and the way I look now. It’s like, “Whatever, dude.”
Go to a place where people gather in the nude, a clothing-optional beach or a naturist resort, and you will find people from up and down the social strata. You will also see every from the model-beautiful to the very skinny and the overweight, mixing without judgment. Even those who could justify strutting and preening a little, those who have a body the textile world considers worth showing off, they’re just part of the naked crowd.
Oddly, the people who understood this first appear to have been the communists of the Cold War. Sure, Freikörperkultur (“Free body culture”) was a thing in Germany even before the 20th century, but it was East Germany who encouraged it rather than just tolerating it. Likewise, the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia also officially sanctioned social nudity because they saw it as egalitarian and classless.
I think it’s okay to give the communists credit for this. They were wrong about almost everything else, so it’s fine for them to have something to hang their hat on.
The third function of clothes, in my opinion, barely deserves mention, and that is “decency.” We are conditioned to be ashamed of our bodies, even when they do much match some external standard of beauty, but shame is just another word for emotional fascism. Shame is trying to make people feel guilty when they’ve done nothing wrong. LGBTQ people are supposed to be ashamed for who they love. Women, especially, are supposed to be ashamed for actually enjoying sex. And we are all supposed to be ashamed of simply wanting to enjoy a nice day with nothing between us and the sun.
I should even need to point out that this stems from the false equivalence of nudity with sexuality, the belief that the sight of a naked human form can only be meant to titillate and will inevitably lead to wild and debauched sex. But social nudity forces the brain to decouple the connection between sex and nudity. Two or more people in the nude relate to each other very much like two or more clothed people.
The difference is important. The nude people have no way of knowing if the other person is rich or poor. The nude people do not judge each other’s physical appearance. Also, the two nude people never judge the other’s desire to be nude in a public place.
Show me a nudist or a naturist, and I’ll show you the ultimate egalitarian.