Why Are People Ashamed of Being Naked?

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Genesis tells us about the moment humans first "realized" they were naked, quickly followed by the moment they were first ashamed of being naked -- but it doesn't explain why humans were ashamed. Animals are naked (albeit furry), and for tens of thousands of years, so were human beings. So what changed -- and if we wanted to, could we change back, and unlearn our shame? Recently, some British researchers attempted to find out.

Their theory is that the shame of being naked was codified in (most) human societies as a way of protecting mating pairs. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that humans are among the few mammals that mate for life -- and they're also ashamed of being naked.) The thinking goes that humans' natural gregariousness and need to interact outside the family group, coupled with nakedness, created too many temptations to stray from the mating pair.

That's where our shame of nudity comes in. Over thousands of generations, we've learned that showing off a naked body sends out sexual signals that threaten the security of mating pairs. And we've chosen to agree that that is a bad thing. Shame is the ideal emotion to enforce that code of conduct. Because it feels unpleasant, we avoid it at all costs.

So what was this crazy study? As part of a BBC television program, a group of psychologists took a group of ordinary British folks, and in a few days attempted to break down some of the societal prohibitions regarding nakedness amongst them, to see if they could ever start to feel comfortable being naked in the presence of strangers. From the BBC:

Eight ordinary people - none of them nudists - were recently brought together for an experiment filmed by the BBC's Horizon programme, to test some of the scientific theories that explain why naked bodies make us so uncomfortable. Among them were Phil, 39, from Birmingham and Kath, 40, from Dorset. Kath's greatest worry was that people would laugh at her. Some of the men in the group were more concerned about inappropriate excitement.

After a series of experiments, Phil and Kath, who had been so self-conscious at the start, each came face-to-face with a newly stripped fellow volunteer. They were invited to paint the body in front of them, colour coding every patch of skin to show how uncomfortable they felt touching that part of the body - red for no-go; yellow for squirming and green for fine.

Phil drew the line at colouring his subject's genitals, but Kath had lost all her inhibitions. Within moments she'd painted her subject completely green. Every inch. Over a couple of days, the volunteers had unlearned many of the social conventions that normally govern their life, and reached a new consensus that permitted them to be naked in each other's company.

It chimes with the psychologists' theory that we are not born with a shame of nudity. Instead we learn it, as an important behavioural code that allows us to operate in human society.

What do you think? Is being clothed an outmoded societal remnant, or is it still necessary to "protect mating pairs"?

March 11, 2009 - 3:22am
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