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Nude woman and man

Nudity, or nakedness, is a state of being in which a human person is not wearing clothing, or more specifically not covering the genitals.[1] Modern humans are the only primates that are essentially hairless and the only animals that wear clothing. For humans, nudity and clothing are connected to cultural categories such as identity, values, and moral behavior.

In Western societies, there are two contradictory cultural traditions relating to nudity. The first comes from the ancient Greeks, who saw the naked body as the natural state and as essentially positive. The second is based upon the Abrahamic religions, which have viewed being naked as shameful and essentially negative. The interaction between these traditions has resulted in Western ambivalence, with nudity representing both positive and negative meanings in individual psychology, in social life, and in representations such as art.[2]

In Africa, there is a sharp contrast between the attitude toward nudity in Islamic countries and the attitude toward nudity in certain sub-Saharan countries that never abandoned precolonial norms. Most countries in Asia--with the exception of Japan--avoid public nudity, but do so in keeping with the cultural value of social propriety rather than Western conceptions of shame.

Societies use clothing (or the lack thereof) as a marker of social status and may define different standards regarding nudity for men and women. At the extreme, individuals may intentionally violate norms regarding nudity; those without power may use nudity as a form of protest, and those with power may impose nakedness on others as a form of punishment.

Meaning and usage

Although the general term "nudity" may be defined in English as the complete absence of clothing, the meaning of nakedness is culturally complex due to different meanings of states of undress in differing social situations.[3]

Synonyms and euphemisms for nudity abound, including "birthday suit", "in the altogether", "in the buff" and "state of nature", the latter also referring to the state of humans before the existence of organized societies.

In the United States the legal definition of "full nudity" is exposure of the genitals; and "partial nudity" includes exposure of the buttocks by either sex, or exposure of the female breasts.[4] Legal definitions are further complicated by laws regarding indecent exposure, which generally requires more than exposure, but the intention to offend.[5]

Naturists make a distinction between sexual and non-sexual nudity. Studies of naturism find that its practitioners adopt behaviors and norms that suppress the sexual responses while practicing social nudity.[6] Norms include refraining from staring, touching, or otherwise calling attention to the body while naked.[7]

Few broad academic studies have been made, perhaps because nudity takes its meaning from a particular context, with no agreed-upon definitions from one research situation to another. The social sciences until the middle of the 20th century often studied nakedness, including nudism, in the context of deviance or criminality.[8] However, more recent studies find that naturism has positive effects on body image, self esteem and life satisfaction.[9]

Many discussions of the human state of undress, particularly in the arts, make a sharp distinction between the terms "naked" and "nude". In The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark describes the classical European view of "The Nude" as a genre of fine art depicting the unclothed human form as an idealized representation of human virtues (especially beauty), while the naked body in real life rarely had such virtues.[10] A generation later, John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, defined being naked as being oneself without clothes, and defined being nude as being seen as an object by others for their pleasure.[11] The debate over objectification has continued, recently energized by the #MeToo movement.[12]

Positive associations

The positive associations of nudity include honesty, openness, innocence and humility, being without artifice.[13]

Negative associations

The negative associations of nudity include poverty, immorality, shame, and death.[14]


Evolution of hairlessness and clothing

The relative hairlessness of homo sapiens requires a biological explanation, given that fur evolved to protect other primates from UV radiation, injury, sores and insect bites. Many explanations include advantages to cooling when early humans moved from shady forest to open savanna, accompanied by a change in diet from primarily vegetarian to hunting game, which meant running long distances after prey.[15] However, the explanation that may stand up to modern scientific scrutiny is that fur harbors ecroparasites such as ticks, which would have become more of a problem as humans became hunters living in larger groups with a "home base".[16]

Early hominids had light skin covered with dark fur, similar to modern chimpanzees. With the loss of fur, high melanin skin soon evolved as protection from damage from UV radiation. As hominids migrated outside of the tropics, varying degrees of depigmentation evolved in order to permit UVB-induced synthesis of previtamin D3. The lighter color of female skin may be required to permit synthesis of the relatively higher amounts of vitamin D3 necessary during pregnancy and lactation. Human skin color is highly adaptive, changing more than once in human evolution, thus skin coloration is of no value in determining phylogenetic relationships among modern human groups.[17] Researchers at the University of Utah in 2004 found that human skin contains photoreceptors like those in the retina, allowing it to mount an immediate defence against damaging ultraviolet radiations. They suspect that the protein that protects the skin from sunlight evolved following the loss of protective hair, which happened about 1.2 million years ago.[18]

The wearing of clothing is assumed to be a behavioral adaptation, arising from the need for protection from the elements; including the sun (for depigmented human populations) and cold temperatures as humans migrated to colder regions. A genetic analysis estimates that clothing lice diverged from head louse ancestors at least by 83,000 and possibly as early as 170,000 years ago, suggesting that the use of clothing likely originated with anatomically modern humans in Africa prior to their migration to colder climates.[19] What is now called clothing may have originated along with other types of adornment, including jewelry, body paint, tattoos, and other body modifications, "dressing" the naked body without concealing it.[20]

Nudity in ancient Mediterranean cultures

The majority of ancient Egyptian wore a minimum of clothing, while children and slaves were naked. More clothing was worn by those of high status.

Male nudity was celebrated in ancient Greece as in no culture before or since. They considered embarrassment at having to disrobe for sports a sign of barbarism.[21]

While ancient Rome continued the creation of heroic nudity in art, public nudity became unacceptable, with the exception of public baths (Thermae), which were segregated by sex.

Nudity in early China

In stories written in China as early as the 4th Century BCE, nudity is presented as an affront to human dignity, reflecting the belief that "humanness" in Chinese society is not innate, but earned by correct behavior. However, nakedness could also be used by an individual to express contempt for others in their presence. In other stories, the nudity of women, emanating the power of yin, could nullify the yang of aggressive forces.[22]

Nudity in Japan

Nudity was common in Japan before the effects of Western influence, which began in the 19th century and became extensive during the American occupation after World War II.[citation needed]

Nudity in tropical cultures

In warm climates such Africa and Brazil, complete or near nudity was common for both men and women before contact with Western cultures, leading in the colonial era to the Western stereotype of the "naked savage".[23]

Nudity in Western history

The meaning of the naked body in the societies based upon the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was first defined by the myth of Adam and Eve; a story of the creation of the first man and woman naked, and unashamed until they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The association of nakedness with shame and anxiety became ambivalent in the Renaissance, when the art and writings of ancient Greece offered an alternative tradition of nudity as symbolic of innocence and purity; which could be understood in terms of the state of man "before the fall". Subsequently, norms and behaviors surrounding nudity in life and in works of art diverged during the history of individual societies.[24]


Although there is a common misconception that Europeans did not bathe in the Middle Ages, public bath houses, segregated by sex, were popular until the 16th century, when concern for the spread of disease closed many of them.[25]

The parts of the body that needed to be covered in Christian Europe did not always include the female breasts, which in 1350 were associated with nourishment and loving care; but by 1750, artistic representations of the breast were either erotic or medical.[26]

The Victorian Era is thought of as entirely restrictive of nudity, yet throughout the United Kingdom in the 19th century workers in coal mines were naked due to the heat and the narrow tunnels that would catch on clothing. Men and boys worked completely naked, while women and girls (usually employed as "hurriers") would generally only strip to the waist; but in some locations be naked also. In testimony before a Parliamentary labour commission, it was stated that working naked in confined spaces " is not to be supposed but that where opportunity thus prevails sexual vices are of common occurrence."[27]

United States

Public pools

Public swimming pools in the U.S. were the product of municipal reform movements beginning in the middle of the 19th century. Civic leaders had not intended them for recreation, but for health and sport, and use was limited to men and boys. Initially, the working class swam in the nude, as they had always done in lakes and rivers.[28]

Social attitudes maintained that it was healthy and normal for men and boys to be nude around each other and schools, gymnasia, and other such organizations typically required nude male swimming in part for sanitary reasons due to the use of wool swimsuits. There was less tolerance for female nudity and the same schools and gyms that insisted on wool swimwear being unsanitary for males did not make an exception when women were concerned.[29][30][31]

Communal male nudity in the United States and other Western countries was not a taboo for much of the 20th century.[32] In a 1963 article on the swim program in Troy, New York, boys swimming nude while girls would wear suits was stated without comment.[33] Particularly in English-speaking countries, males have historically been more likely to be expected to engage in practices such as nude swimming in swimming pools, or to be mandated to have communal showers with no privacy in schools,[34] based on the cultural beliefs that women need more privacy.[35]

School gym facilities in the United States became co-ed in order to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which put an end to nude swimming.[31]

General attitudes

In 1974, an article in The New York Times noted an increase in American tolerance for nudity, both at home and in public, approaching that of Europe. However, some traditional nudists at the time decried the trend as encouraging sexual exhibitionism and voyeurism, and threatening the viability of private nudist clubs.[36]

Modern societies

Norms related to nudity are highly associated with norms regarding personal freedom, human sexuality, and gender roles; which vary widely among modern societies. Situations where nudity is accepted vary from total privacy to openly public. Many make the distinction between nudism practiced within the confines of "nudist camps" or clothing-optional resorts with access limited to members or paying guests; and naturists, who seek more open acceptance of nudity in everyday life, such as beaches and parks.[37]

Some people are made anxious by being nude or being in the presence of nude people; if this anxiety begins to interfere with their normal functioning or well-being, it is called gymnophobia.[38]

Private nudity

According to a 2004 United States survey, 31% of men and 14% of women report sleeping in the nude,[39] while a 1996 BBC survey revealed that in the UK 47% of men and 17% of women do.[40] In a 2019 survey of American sleep habits, only 17% said they sleep entirely naked.[41]

A 1999 survey by the Federation of Canadian Naturists found, besides other things, that 39% of Canadians "have walked or would walk around their house nude".[42]

Social and public nudity

People have a variety of views on nudity, both of their own as well as those of others. This would depend on their level of inhibition, cultural background and upbringing, as well as on context. A society's attitude to public nudity varies depending on the culture, time, location and context of an activity. There are many exceptions and particular circumstances in which nudity is tolerated, accepted or even encouraged in public spaces. Such examples would include a nude beach, within some intentional communities (such as naturist resorts or clubs) and at special events.[citation needed]

Nude woman and man in Malaysia

In general and across cultures, public indications of sexual arousal are commonly regarded as embarrassing, both to the person aroused and the onlooker, and for this reason those parts of the human body that would indicate arousal are normally covered. Arousal is most evidently indicated by the sex organs and women's breasts, which are routinely covered, even when other parts of the body may be freely uncovered. Yet the nudity taboo may have meanings deeper than the immediate possibility of sexual arousal, for example, in the cumulative weight of tradition and habit. Clothing also expresses and symbolizes authority, and more general norms and values besides those of a sexual nature.[citation needed]

While some European countries, such as Germany, are rather tolerant of public nudity,[43] in many countries public nudity may meet social disapproval or even constitute a misdemeanor of indecent exposure. In 2012, the city council of San Francisco proposed a ban on public nudity in the inner city area. This was met by harsh resistance since the city is usually known for its liberal culture.[44][45] Similarly, park rangers began filing tickets against nudists at San Onofre State Beach in 2010, also a place with long tradition of public nudity.[46]


A group of naturists on a beach in Crimea, 2008

Naturism (or nudism) is a cultural and political movement practising, advocating and defending private and public nudity. It is also a lifestyle based on personal, family and/or social preference. Naturists reject contemporary standards of modesty, which discourage personal, family and social nudity. They instead seek to create a social environment where individuals feel comfortable in the company of nude people, and being seen nude, either just by other naturists, or also by the general public.[47]

Nudism arose in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and spawned a proselytizing literature. Nudism's other common name, naturism, signals its core contention that the naked body is natural and that modesty and shame are cultural impositions with deleterious effects on psychological, sexual, and social well-being. Early nudism was in dialogue with sexology and feminism, its proponents believing that it was a practice that could combat social inequality, including sexual inequality. As a socially marginal practice based on the naturalness of nakedness, nudism has, however, always had a complicated relationship with sexuality and pro‐sex discourses.[48]

Nude beaches

The compete nudity on beaches vary in location from geographically isolated (Moshup's Beach, Aquinnah, Massachusetts[49]) to adjacent to urbanized areas (Haulover Beach, Miami, Florida[50]); both of which are legally sanctioned clothing optional areas of larger public parks. There are also those that are part of private resorts.

In a survey by The Daily Telegraph, Germans and Austrians were the most likely to have visited a nude beach (28%), followed by the Norwegians (18%), Spanish (17%), Australians (17%) and New Zealanders (16%). Of the nationalities surveyed, the Japanese were the least likely, with only 2%.[51] This result may indicate the lack of nude beaches, but otherwise the Japanese are open with regard to family bathing nude both at home and at onsen.[52]

Scandinavia is cited as the most open-minded region in the world not only regarding nudity but most sexual attitudes and behaviors. However, this openness does not extend to child pornography or sexual misconduct.[53] While there are many clothing optional beachs in Denmark and Norway, only in Sweden is nudity technically allowed on all beaches.[54]

Communal bathing

The trend in some European countries (for instance Germany, Finland and the Netherlands) is to allow both genders to bathe together naked. Many German spas allow mixed nude bathing. For example, the Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden has designated times when mixed nude bathing is permitted. Most German (not to mention French, Spanish and Greek) beaches and swimming pools offer FKK (clothing-optional) areas. In general, continental Europeans have a more relaxed attitude about nudity than is seen in the British-influenced world. Some have attributed this difference to the influence of Queen Victoria's husband Albert, who was raised in a very restricting religious sect (see Victorian morality).[citation needed]

Nude men in sauna

The sauna, originating from Finland, is attended nude in its source country[55] as well as in most Scandinavian countries and in the German-speaking countries of Europe.[56] This is true even when a swimsuit must be worn in the swimming pool area of the same complex.[55] Saunas are very common in modern Finland, where there is one sauna for every three people[57] and became very popular in the remainder of Europe in recent decades. German soldiers had got to know the Finnish saunas during their fight against the Soviet Union in the Continuation War, where Germany and Finland fought on the same side. Finnish hygiene depended so exclusively on saunas, that they had built saunas not only in mobile tents but even in bunkers.[56] After the war, the German soldiers brought the habit back to Germany and Austria, where it became popular in the second half of the 20th century.[56] The German sauna culture also became popular in neighbouring countries such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg.[a] In contrast to Scandinavia, public sauna facilities in these countries commonly do not segregate genders while still keeping the rule of general nudity.[b][58]

In Japan, public baths (Sentō) were once common, but have become less so with the addition of bathtubs in homes. Public baths are segregated by gender.[59] Similar establishments in Korea are Jjimjilbang.[60]

In Russia, public banyas are also attended nude, however, they are always segregated by gender, either by having separate sections or by days of the week. Shared areas (such as swimming pools), if present, can only be attended in bathing suits.[citation needed]

Non-Western traditions

Nudity is considered shameful in the conservative society of India, although nude beaches can be found in Goa and nude saints like those of the Digambara sect of Jainism and Hindu Sadhus are respected and worshipped.[citation needed]

HRH Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini of Eswatini (centre), dancing at Umhlanga, 2006. She wears a red feather crown, distinguishing her as a royal female.

In sub-Saharan Africa it is the norm among some ethnic and family groups including some Burkinabese and Nilo-Saharan (e.g. Nuba and Surma people) in daily life or on particular occasions not to wear any clothes or without any covering below the waist – for example, at highly attended stick-fighting tournaments well-exposed young men use the occasion to catch the eye of a prospective bride.[61] The assertion of post-colonial culture has resulted in the adoption of traditional dress for certain events, such as the Umkhosi Womhlanga (Reed Dance) by the Zulu and Swazi[62]

In Brazil, the Yawalapiti, an indigenous Xingu tribe in the Amazon Basin, practice a funeral ritual known as Quarup, to celebrate life, death and rebirth, and also involves the presentation of all young girls who have begun menstruating since the last Quarup and whose time has come to choose a partner.[citation needed]

Gender differences

In many cultures, different standards continue to apply for males and females, and different norms may exist within a single country.[citation needed]

Toplessness and "topfreedom"

Three topless women on a European beach.

In some cultures, toplessness is regarded as partial nudity, and the exposure of breasts or nipples may be regarded as indecent exposure. However, in many western societies and in appropriate settings, such as while suntanning, toplessness is not, of itself, normally regarded as indecent.[citation needed] In the United States, however, exposure of female nipples is a criminal offense in many states and not usually allowed in public (see indecent exposure), while in the United Kingdom, nudity may not be used to "harass, alarm or distress" according to the Public Order Act of 1986.[63] Different standards apply to art, with one example being the dome of the US Capitol featuring a fresco depicting goddesses with their breasts exposed.[citation needed]

Prosecution of cases has given rise to a movement advocating "topfreedom", promoting equal rights for women to have no clothing above the waist, on the same basis that would apply to men in the same circumstances. The term topfree rather than topless is advocated to avoid the latter term's perceived sexual connotations.[64]

Breastfeeding in public is forbidden in some jurisdictions, not legislated for in others, and a legal right in public and the workplace in yet others. Where it is a legal right, some mothers may be reluctant to breastfeed,[65][66] and some people may object to the practice.[67]


In their study on the effects of social nudity on children, Smith and Sparks conclude that "the viewing of the unclothed body, far from being destructive to the psyche, seems to be either benign or to actually provide positive benefits to the individuals involved.[68] A psychiatrist recommends allowing nudity to be a natural part of family life when children are very young, but respect the modesty that is likely to emerge with puberty.[69]

A nude woman, child, and man at Lake Senftenberg in the 1980s

Gordon and Schroeder report that parental nudity varies considerably from family to family.They say that "there is nothing inherently wrong with bathing with children or otherwise appearing naked in front of them", noting that doing so may provide an opportunity for parents to provide important information. They note that by ages five to six, children begin to develop a sense of modesty, and recommend to parents who wish to be sensitive to their children's wishes that they limit such activities from that age onwards.[70]

Psychologist Barbara Bonner recommends against nudity in the home if children exhibit sexual play of a type that is considered problematic.[71] In a 1995 review of the literature, Paul Okami concluded that there was no reliable evidence linking exposure to parental nudity to any negative effect.[72] Three years later, his team finished an 18-year longitudinal study that showed that, if anything, such exposure was associated with slight beneficial effects, particularly for boys.[73]


Social representations are activities that do not involve personal social interactions between individuals, but use public display to either reinforce shared norms or influence society towards different norms.[citation needed]

Curse of nakedness

In Africa, women have used stripping naked on purpose as a curse, both historically, and in modern times. The idea is that women give life and they can take it away. The curse initiates an extreme form of ostracism, which anthropologist Terisa Turner has likened to "social execution". The curse extends to foreign men as well, and is believed to cause impotence, madness or other similar harm.[74] The threat has been used successfully in mass protests against the petroleum industry in Nigeria,[75] by Leymah Gbowee during the Second Liberian Civil War,[76] and against President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast.[77]

Depictions of nudity

Depictions of nudity include visual representations of unclothed humans throughout the history, in all the disciplines, including the arts and sciences. Nudity is restricted in most societies, but some depiction of nudity may serve a recognized social function. Clothing also serves as a significant part of interpersonal communication, and the lack of clothing needs to have a social context. In Western societies, the three contexts that are easily recognized by a majority of individuals are art, pornography, and science/information. Any ambiguous image not easily fitting into one of these categories may be misinterpreted, leading to disputes.[78]

Depictions of child nudity or children with nude adults appear in works of art in various cultures and historical periods. These attitudes have changed over time and have become increasingly frowned upon particularly in recent years,[79] especially in the case of photography. In recent years, there have been a few incidents in which snapshots taken by parents of their infant or toddler children bathing or otherwise naked were challenged as child pornography.[80]

Television and radio regulations in many countries require broadcasters to avoid transmitting images or language considered inappropriate for children from 5:30 am to 9 pm (the so-called "watershed"). In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code states, "Nudity before the watershed must be justified by the context."[81] In the U.S., the safe harbor rule forbids depictions of nudity between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm. Violators may be subject to civil legal action and sanctions if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determines the broadcaster did not meet its standards of "decency". "Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."[82]


Nudity may be used as a part of artistic or erotic performance, such as in nude performance art, nude body painting (ex. Fantasy Fest), sex shows, striptease, adult entertainment conventions, and in adult-only events like Folsom Street Fair and Nudes-A-Poppin'.[citation needed]


People taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride in London

Nudity is at times used to draw attention to a cause. Public nude events are at times staged as a forum for usually unrelated messages, such as clothing-optional bike rides. At times, the cause is merely a personal justification for taking part in a nude event, which are popular in their own right. Many nude calendars are produced each year featuring naked men or women. Some of these are produced to raise money for charities or other causes. Nudity, like sexuality, is also used to draw attention for a commercial purpose, such as for promotion or advertising.[citation needed]

Imposed nudity

Historical treatment of the poor and insane

In England during the 17th to 19th centuries, the clothing of the poor by Christian charity did not extend to those confined to "madhouses" such as Bethlem Royal Hospital, where the inmates were often naked in addition to other harsh treatments.[83]

Nudity as punishment

Students of a girls' school in the north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh were forced to undress as a form of punishment, police say. Although not as common as corporal punishment, it is not unusual for stripping to be used as a form of punishment in Indian schools.[84]


Prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad (Iraq), including forced nudity, was widely condemned.

In some situations, nudity is imposed on a person. For example, imposed nudity (full or partial) can be part of a corporal punishment or as humiliation, especially when administered in public. In fact, torture manuals have distinguished between the male and female psychological aversion to self-exposure versus being disrobed.[citation needed]

Nazis used forced nudity to attempt to humiliate inmates in concentration camps. This practice was depicted in the film Schindler's List (1994).[85]

In 2003, Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad (Iraq) gained international notoriety for accounts of torture and abuses by members of the United States Army Reserve during the post-invasion period. Photographic images were circulated that exposed the posing of prisoners naked, sometimes bound, and being intimidated and otherwise humiliated, resulting in widespread condemnation of the abuse.[86][87][88]

Strip search

A strip search is the removal of some or all of a person's clothing to insure that they do not have weapons or contraband. Such searches are generally done when an individual is imprisoned after an arrest, and is justified by the need to maintain order in the facility, not as punishment for a crime.[89]

At airports, such searches are being replaced by the use of full body scanners.[citation needed]

See also



  1. ^ German text: "Dass Männer und Frauen zusammen splitternackt schwitzen, ist eine deutsche Spezialität, für die sich nur noch Urlauber aus den Benelux-Staaten, aus Österreich und der Schweiz erwärmen können, vielleicht auch noch Osteuropäer".[58] English translation: "The fact that men and women sweat together stark naked is a German specialty that only tourists from the Benelux countries, Austria and Switzerland can warm to, maybe even Eastern Europeans".
  2. ^ German text: "In den Fitnesszentren und Kuranstalten wurde das finnische Bad, oft großzügig ausgestaltet zu ganzen Saunalandschaften, zum selbstverständlichen Angebot. Bemerkenswert ist, dass dort heute zumeist auf getrennte Badezeiten für Männer und Frauen verzichtet wird. Nacktheit von Mann und Frau in der Sauna wird hier längst akzeptiert und das hat ein positives soziales Gesamtklima erzeugt, das selbstregulierend – die seltenen Ausnahmen bestätigen die Regel – das Verhalten der Badegäste bestimmt. Verpöhnt ist [...] der Versuch, sich in Badekleidung [...] unter die Nackten zu mischen".[56] English translation: "In the fitness centers and health resorts, the Finnish bath, often designed generously to complete sauna landscapes, was a natural offer. It is noteworthy that today there is usually no separate bathing times for men and women. Nakedness of men and women in the sauna has been accepted for a long time and that has created a positive overall social climate. Self-regulation - the rare exceptions confirm the rule - determines the behavior of the bathers. Pampered is the attempt [...] to mix in bathing clothes among the naked ones".


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Further reading

External links