The human body, in its most basic natural form is naked. Yet, being naked, in most places, is frowned upon. From Christian myth we learn that since Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden, we have been embarrassed of our nakedness and have sought to cover ourselves up.
Dress can be seen as a form of social control exerted over the human body since it is deemed as shameful and it is also illegal in many countries. Therefore, can the naked human body exhibit a form of resistance in response? The aim of this essay is to critically discuss the idea that the human body can be an expression of resistance against social control and power exerted over the human body through the use of anthropological text.
The Social Skin
In his paper, ‘The social skin’, Turner (2012) explains that:
“The surface of the body, as the common frontier of society, the social self, and the psychobiological individual; becomes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted, and bodily adornment (in all its culturally multifarious forms, from body-painting to clothing and from feather head-dresses to cosmetics) becomes the language through which it is expressed” (pp.486).
By this he is conveying that the human body is the physical boundary between one’s biological and psychological constitution and the rest of society. It is at this intimate point that the personal body stops and the social body starts, and it is from the upper epidermal layer of our skin that due to social expectation, the representation of who we are beings. As Turner (2012) relays, it is through the way one styles the surface of their skin, that one can represent themselves.
The Morality of Nakedness
In a post-colonial, western setting, public nakedness has been associated with dirt, insanity, immorality and as a state of deviance (Masquelier, 2005). This can be seen in the way ‘native’ people have been written about through various academic text where the state of being naked is liked to savagery.
Only, the concept of nakedness is not the same everywhere and there have been examples of places where it might be acceptable for a woman to cover her genitalia with a skirt but it would not be common for her to hide her breasts at any point in public (Masquelier, 2005).
Through this it can be deduced that while nakedness is associated with the ‘other’, lacking civility; the western notion of dress has been associated with civility, and as shall be explained laws, morals, rules and religious ideology.
In the introduction of her book, Masquelier (2005) mentions that the naked body is not a direct alternative to the clothed body as “it carries a wide range of meanings and can have many different implications, some benign, transformative, or even positive, others offensive and radical” (pp. 9).
Nudity in Japan
Kawano’s (2005) essay recounts the 1872 introduction of the Misdemeanor Law in Japan. Here, Kowano (2005) explains that it was fairly common for people in Japan to be publicly naked and it was not uncommon for men and women to share the facilities of the public bath.
Interestingly, she relates that the Japanese were ‘trained’ to look at bare bodies but not ‘stare’, maintaining that “making the undressed body socially appropriate depended not only on practices of bodily adornment, but also on people’s cultivation of different rules of seeing” (pp. 9).
The Japanese seemed to have no issue with the state of things, however, Western influences constructed a new perception of nudity. The government issued a law where it became illegal for both sexes to bathe together in bathhouses as well as to be seen undressed (Kowano, 2005). These rules were notably more enforced in urban areas such as Tokyo rather than rural areas ( Kowano, 2005).
In response to this new rule, Kowano (2005) conveys that the Japanese did try to dress when they saw law enforcement but neglected the law when police were not in sight. This conveys the idea that while they weren’t resisting the new rules, they hadn’t fully accepted these new Western standards – and this goes for not only the citizens but also the government (Kowano, 2005). Kowano (2005) writes that the new rule was:
“insensitive to different ways of seeing, presupposed people’s sexualized gaze on nude bodies and redefined certain forms of bodily exposure as forms of transgression. Thus the transformations favored by Western visitors and sought by Meiji leaders affected not only the rules of covering one’s own body, but also the manners of seeing, but not staring, at the nude bodies of others” (pp. 151).
Thus it is seen that by enforcing these rules, the perception of the Japanese towards the naked body changed, possibly increasing its eroticism. Further to this Kowano (2005) asserts that apart from morphing the Japanese’s image of exposed skin as something amoral, it also ushered in new ideas of public and private areas since citizens had to learn where and when it was socially acceptable to remain naked.
In this case it can be noted that while there was a glimmer of resistance when the Japanese tried to remain naked, hidden from the eye of enforcement, ultimately the human body proved to be controlled by social control and power. This verifies Douglas’s (1996) view in her work titled ‘The two bodies’ :
“The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, sustains a particular view of society” (pp. 61).
American Strip Clubs
Frank (2005) presents an autoethnographic piece in which she describes her experience working as a female dancer in the American strip-club scene. She reflects that nudity is a ‘social process’ as there seems to be the need for a witness to perceive one’s nakedness (Frank, 2005).
One might consider this to be a very intriguing statement when considering that she worked in an environment where
“nudity is commodified, standardized, and regulated and where bodily revelations are sought and purchased, provide a dynamic illustration of the production of nudity and its meanings”
his genre of dancing, Frank (2005), asserts is viewed by women as a good source of income which also gives them the ability to rebel against social norms. However, in a very apt way Frank (2005) explains that:
“bodily surfaces are at times used to transgress embodied conventions and contest the existing moral order of a community. Yet at the same time, it is important to recognize the many ways that social inequalities of gender, class, and race, as well as extremely conservative ideologies about nudity and sexuality in the U.S., influence both the production and consumption of exotic dance. In this way, nudity is not necessarily or unproblematically a vehicle of social contestation, but can also provide a means of reinscribing the very categories upon which the status quo rests” (pp. 99)
In addition to this, she goes on to relate that the act of dancing might not be as liberating as one might think. This is because there were rules and regulations set on the way the dancers were allowed to move, touch their own body and even shave their own pubic hair in accordance with the law (Frank, 2005).
She also maintains that as dancers, she and her peers regulated their daily actions and routines based around how they wanted to present themselves on stage (Frank, 2005).
A third way that she finds controls the way the dancer portrays her image is through the way, she perceives would be most popular with clientele and what her patrons ask of her (Frank, 2005). In her own words:
“As a dancer, I often found myself prohibited from expressing myself in the way that I wanted—by the laws prohibiting me from touching particular parts of my body, by the managers who regulated my outfits and interactions, and even by the customers, who wanted particular kinds of moves, poses, and looks” (pp. 100, Frank, 2005).
On the other side of the coin, the seductive nature of seeing a woman undressed might cause excitement simply because it is an experience which much pertains to the fantasy of the ‘other’, whereas Frank (2005) explains, the audience is having a touristic experience.
Frank’s (2005) experience does not find her being controlled in the terms as in Kowano’s (2005) example in Japan. Her account relays the idea that rather than being controlled through clothing, exotic dancers are controlled in the way they move – which arguably, may be more frustrating due to their profession.
Nudity in Ritual
Another way of the human body possibly expressing resistance through nudity is during ritual. We see this in Masquelier (2005) ethnography set in Niger, a predominantly Islamic country. Here, she was studying the Bori community which was the pre-Islamic religion that persisted in minority in Niger (Masquelier, 2005).
Masquelier (2005) recalls an event that happened to one of her informants, and someone she considered a friend during a possession ritual where the informant was the bodily host.
According to Tuareg tradition, in exchange of allowing the spirit to manifest in a physical way, enabling them to communicate their needs, these spirits provide safeguarding, healing and sound advice to the community.
On this particular event, her informant was channelling Dan Ganda, a spirit who re-enacted her mythical tale in which she strips down. This was an overpowering experience for Masquelier’s (2005) informant who seemingly had no control over her body and ended up undressing herself. Masquelier’s (2005) notes:
“In daily life as in bori possession rituals, padding the body with cloth variously signifies prestige, wealth, or respectability. In contrast, nakedness is often taken to be a sign of deprivation, instability, liminality, and social deviancy” (pp. 125)
As a consequence, her informant was left in shock when the possession ended (Masquelier, 2005). To add insult to injury, she was also shamed by one of the elders in the community as they exclaimed that she should have worn more undergarments as she should have been aware that the spirit would react in such a way (Masquelier, 2005). That being said, no one else blamed the young woman since it was obvious she had no control over her body and the spirit was to blame (Masquelier, 2005).
The ethnographer asserts that we need to analyse the context in which this possession occurred. Dan Ganda’s exhibit might have occurred in response to restrictive nature women were living under due to Islamic ideology. As Masquelier (2005) explains, there had been many revisions in the law that continuously separated women from the rest of society and placed more sanctions on the woman’s body and the way she should dress.
Masquelier’s ethnography (2005) can be linked to Douglas’ (1996) views pertaining to whether the natural body acts in accordance to social control. Douglas’ hypothesises that “bodily control is an expression of social control— abandonment of bodily control in ritual responds to the requirements of a social experience which is being expressed” (pp. 74, 1996, Douglas).
The Niger ethnography seems to prove Douglas’ words as she further explains that social control over the physical body must be embedded in political thought or ideology in such a way (Douglas, 1996). Besides the theological reasoning, Masquelier’s (2005) informant might have had an outward reaction to the political climate of Niger at the time.
Lastly, Bastian (2005) gives us an interesting account of nakedness or oto in Nigeria through the years. She explains that there were certain places that were reserved for oto but it was greatly frowned upon to be naked in other areas, like the marketplace (Bastian, 2005).
Through images, we see that dress varies between their concept and the Western concept (Bastian, 2005). Of greater interest to the topic in question, however, is the way Nigerian women used their bodies, to stand up for their rights against colonial leaders. Bastian (2005) writes about the event that occurred during the Women’s War of 1929, which saw women assemble in protest towards colonial buildings:
“the women ‘‘made demonstration’’ by singing, dancing, and destroying the offending buildings with their bare hands. The demonstrations were bad enough, from the point of view of the colonialists, but were made more intimidating by the fact that many of the marchers wore little, if anything, on their persons” (pp. 45, Bastian, 2005).
She explains that the most fierce women in the area attended the protest naked and used genital cursing to taunt men. This was done, according to Bastian (2005), by asking men if they wanted to look at their “to look at their mothers’ genitals, a profound insult among southeastern Nigerian women to the present day” (pp.45), so much so that Nigerian men typically always backed down before the women needed to expose themselves further. In a true display of resistance, Bastian (2005) describes nakedness as a ‘human weapon’ where
“Women were willing to give up their personal identities and become part of an undifferentiated, female, reproductive mass, representing, in a graphic manner, the wrath of the earth goddess herself—including the deity’s power to destroy those who would pollute her” (pp.59).
In this last example, it is evident that it is possible to use the human body, even the naked body as a weapon of resistance. This, however, comes at a price, since as we see in the quote above, these women had to give up a part of themselves to make such a profound impact on their oppressors. Consequently, this conveys that the idea of ‘expression of resistance’ is flawed and it is rather, a reaction to social control in power.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the relationship between resistance and social control in relation to body is highly complex. Whilst it sometimes seems like one can exert some kind of resistance from what is oppressing society and the body it seems like one is still playing a part in the reality of social control and existing power dynamics.
Bastian, M.L., 2005. The naked and the nude: Historically multiple meanings of Oto (Undress) in Southeastern Nigeria. In Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface. pp. 34–60.
Douglas, M. 1996. The two bodies. In Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. London and New York: Routledge
Frank, K., 2005. Body talk: Revelations of self and body in contemporary strip clubs. In Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface. pp. 96–121.
Kawano, S., 2005. Japanese bodies and western ways of seeing in the late nineteenth century. In Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface. pp. 149–167.
Masquelier, A., 2005. The naked spirit: Disrobing, deviance, and dissent in Bori possession. In Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface. pp. 122–148.
Masquelier, A., 2005. Introduction In Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface. pp. 1–32.
Turner, T.S., 2012. The social skin. HAU journal of ethnographic theory, 2(2), pp.486–504.