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The Naked Truth: America’s Problem with Nudity

Long considered a nation of innovation and change, the United States aims to be a model of freedom, democracy, inventiveness. In the 18th century, we fought a revolution against colonial powers and forged our own model democracy, in the 19th century, we struggled against divisiveness and successfully abolished slavery, and in the 20th century we were host to many of the technological developments that led to the internet revolution. Yet, despite our successes and growth throughout our short history, we still have yet to come to grips with one fact of human existence: sexuality.

This became painfully clear last week when Starbucks revealed a new logo for some of its coffee, triggering protests and calls for boycotts from conservative groups in the U.S. Why all the uproar? The new logo features a slightly more revealing depiction of a mermaid’s breasts and shows her in what some observers are calling a scandalous pose.

Some of the offended parties have even taken to labeling the coffee chain “Starsluts” because of the logo. The trouble is that there’s nothing new about the logo; it’s just a rehash of the original logo used by the chain during the 70′s and 80′s, shown above.

America’s struggles with nudity are nothing new either. There have been uproars over similar incidents for about as long as the country has been around. Another of my favorite examples is the 1896 “educational edition” five dollar bill. Hailed by many as a work of art, the bill featured a neoclassical portrait of a winged woman bringing light to the world. However, the bill partially depicted the woman’s breasts and, due to protests by some small conservative groups, the bills were soon replaced with new ones featuring more clothing.

In both of these cases it seems like the problem is a minority of citizens who take offense and raise a ruckus, leading to a temporarily stifling of expression. Yet, I would argue that the problem isn’t just with certain groups that are easily offended, but with all American culture. We seem troubled by our bodies, unable to regulate our health or come to grips with a healthy self-image.

On the one hand, whenever nudity is publicly depicted, there’s an outcry. On the other hand, our culture seems to voyeuristically crave tabloid photos of celebrities and to encourage their sordid intrigues. For example, the Janet Jackson Super Bowl half time controversy and the recent photos of Britney Spears flashing the paparazzi. Consider both artists (and many others) bolster their careers with alluring images, success in the ‘celebrity sexuality’ business seems to depend on an edgy flirtation with nudity, pushing the envelope just far enough. But if you take it a little too far, flashing a breast during a major event for example, you’re in hot water.

Yet America’s problem with nudity seems to extend further than the sphere of celebrity life. There always seems to be a new diet fad going on and, though the economy is struggling, there still seem to be plenty of makeup displays, tanning parlors, and manicurists. I can’t claim to have any statistics to figure out whether beauty parlors have been hit hard by the recession, but it seems unlikely. It also seems unlikely that eating habits have drastically changed. As it stands, we’re one of the fattest nations on Earth, with roughly 63% of Americans qualifying as overweight and 31% as obese.

So what’s the deal? We don’t seem to be getting any thinner, but even trends like cosmetic surgery seem to be on the rise. Last year witnessed an unprecedented 11 million cosmetic surgery treatments performed in the United States. We seem to be covering our problems up, not actually fixing them. What can be done?

Improve our collective body image, for starters. We need to come to grips with our own bodies, to accept them as positive things, not problems to be solved with a pill or the edge of a knife. There aren’t any easy answers, but celebrities may have to set an example, promoting safe ways of improving physique and appearance instead of old traditions like “Hollywood Diets” or plastic surgery.

Things will also have to be done at the family level. According to some statistics, the average dieting age among young girls has fallen from 14 (1970) to 8 years old (1990). That’s rather frightening! Somehow, parents need to encourage all around healthy eating habits and teach their kids that quick fix diets won’t work. To do this, they’ll have to set an example themselves. A kid who sees his parents struggling with diets and complaining about their waistlines is likely to follow the lead and adopt similar opinions themselves.

There are also other other cultural solutions. A custom that common in Japan but not in the U.S. is the use of public baths and hot springs (onsen). Families and sports teams often go to these baths together, as a place to unwind and relax during vacation or after a hard day of school and work. Onsen are effectively hot springs where it’s ok to be nude, though there are often separate areas for men and women. Japan may not be the most unwound country when it comes to stress and sexuality, but traditions like the onsen help people relax and feel ok about their bodies by growing accustomed to nudity.

courtesy of wikipedia commonsDo onsen sound frightening to you? If so, maybe you should ask yourself why. Public baths were once a normal part of Western culture, used during the days of the Greek and Roman empires, though they have now fallen out of use. There’s no need to shun similar traditions today, but places like nude spas and beaches are considered an amenity for the fringes of society. Sometimes they seem a bit weird to me too, but then again, that may be my negative body image talking.

2 Responses

  1. [...] we fought a revolution against colonial powers and forged our own model democracy, in the 19th centuhttp://politicalinquirer.com/2008/05/19/the-naked-truth-americas-problem-with-nudity/National Diet Library:Electronic Library National Diet LibraryImage data 916 titles 45000 images of [...]

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