Tahlequah Daily Press

November 9, 2012

Human nudity, and why we ‘Yanks’ can’t deal with it

Managing Editor

Tahlequah — While waiting for a lane at the Muskogee Swim and Fitness Center last week, I decided to check out the sauna. Bad idea.

I opened the door, and there perched a rather portly fellow, sitting on a towel and wearing nothing but body hair. “C’mon in!” he said jovially. He must have detected a look of surprise on my face, because he then obligingly offered, “I can cover up if you want me to.”

“Never mind,” I mumbled, and backed out of the room.

We Americans just can’t help it; no matter how progressive we think we are, we still have conflicted feelings about nudity. Our puritanical roots are partly to blame, but when we factor in our warped notions of body image, the situation gets even more confusing. We’re either prudes or perverts; there’s no in-between.

I averted my gaze from the fellow in the sauna. Actually, “gaze” isn’t the correct word; that implies I took in a long, lingering and approving look before I reluctantly turned away. This was more a case of my eyes protecting themselves from optical assault; I registered the image, and made the mental assessment that this guy would look better in a swim suit rather than a birthday suit. But that assessment makes me judgmental. Do men only have a right to bask in the comfort of their skin if they have the body of Daniel Craig and the face of Brad Pitt?

Perhaps if I were fully self-actualized, I would have walked in, sat down, and struck up a conversation. That would have been a risky business because, in this country, if a man’s lounging about naked, he must be a pervert. On the other hand, a woman lounging about naked is merely doing any man in the vicinity a favor – unless she’s unattractive, in which case she’s making a desperate play for attention.

The “pervert factor” makes it impossible to glance either appreciatively or non-committally at the nude form – at least, up close and personal. Americans do plenty of appreciative ogling of photographs (artsy and otherwise) from the comfort of their own homes, without prying eyes to judge them. The photos of the nudes they look at are presumably taken within the confines of a studio, or an area that’s been cordoned off to the public, to avoid offending little old ladies or stoking the passions of those perverted men. And strip clubs don’t count, by the way; that sort of dancing is clearly about lust. I don’t know many who would try to pass that off as a classical art form – at least, not in Oklahoma.

The topic of nudity and its social implications would be better addressed by Charles Letbetter, a former Fort Gibson schoolmate who is now an artistic photographer, and who has several times offended the sensibilities of the Facebook monitors with his (usually) tasteful nude images. Chuck would say nudity shouldn’t be offensive, and that every body, regardless of perceived flaws, has its own beauty. But then again, I haven’t seen Chuck post any pictures of men or women who looked like the guy in the sauna. After all, Chuck does have to make a living, and when it comes to photos of obese, sweating, grizzled middle-aged folks, no one’s buying, except the occasional leering fetishist. See what I mean when I say we’re confused?

Europeans, on the other hand, take it all in stride. When you get into conversations with Europeans, they always want to know two things: why “Yanks” are so hung up on nudity and sex, and why we are so hung up on guns. The last time we went there to visit my brother was in 2006, and a lot of the Euros wanted to know why we kept electing people from the Bush family to office.

In 1999, my siblings and our families visited Greece, and my brother lined up a villa for us on Corfu. One day we decided to go to the beach, and it was – like most beaches in Europe – one where nudity was perfectly acceptable. Some folks had on suits, and others didn’t. Being Americans, we were all wearing suits.

My son, who was about 10-1/2 at the time, was shocked. “These people don’t have any clothes on!” he shouted in horror. My brother told him, “Just wait a few years, and it won’t bother you anymore.”

That’s only half-true: It wouldn’t bother him as long as the nudist was a chick, and as long as she looked good in the raw. Anything else is ripe for ridicule.

For the Europeans, it didn’t matter either way. There were a few younger women with toned bodies sans suits, and you could pick out all the American men on the beach because they were either openly staring, mouths agape and tongues lolling, or (in the case of the men accompanied by their wives) stealing furtive glances. The European men didn’t pay the hot-bods any more attention than they did the older, overweight, saggy-fleshed gals trudging about the beach, garment-free and with equally bare-bottomed kids in tow. The American men, however, would make faces and whisper among themselves: “Look at THAT one! By GAWD, she needs to wear a suit! Gross!”

My sister lives near Cocoa Beach in Florida, and when we visited, the proliferation of thong suits on unsuitable frames was cause for alarm. You ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve watched a 60-year-old, balding man with a gut the size of a beachball strut up and down a patch of shoreline with an embarrassingly bold bulge in front and piece of neon-green floss snarled between the cheeks of his butt. I don’t care how open-minded you are, that just isn’t right. The same was true for the gal with five or six spare tires stacked to all but obscure the scant strip of cloth that passed for a bikini bottom, and the contents of her top aimed downward like flashlights searching for treasure in the sand. Even well-toned thong-wearers who had paid for a Brazilian wax still had pimples and dimples on display.

Face it: Most folks look better with clothes, and thongs don’t look that good on anybody. Call it “art” if you want, but when it crashes through the boundaries of good taste, all you have left is a flutter in your stomach that might cost you your breakfast.

Thank goodness I hadn’t eaten before I swam the other day. Right after my encounter with the free spirit in the sauna, he emerged wearing a pair of trunks and a thick sheen of sweat, passing by me just as I stopped briefly at the deep end. Without making a detour to the shower, he slipped into the cool, clear and formerly pristine pool water, body odor and all.

And I thought the nudity was bad...

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.