A recent posting in the always-provocative Mr. Gloryholejunkie’s blog got me thinking over the weekend about nudity around the house. And it got me thinking, as Mr. Gloryholejunkie’s posts often do, about my own stance on the subject.
I’ve mentioned several times that my parents were proud liberals, politically, and pretty progressive sexually. My dad proved to be a pretty cool cat when faced with irrefutable evidence of my teenaged whoring, and a decade ago was the prime force in getting his mainstream protestant church officially to become one of those rebel congregations that dared to welcome gays and lesbians into its pews. My mother, when she was alive, was enormously popular with my college friends because of her frank advice about contraception. The day I walked into a female friend’s dorm room and found my mother there, surrounded by a gaggle of sophomore women, with a cervical cap in one hand and a contraceptive sponge in the other, is one that’s going to be difficult to erase from my memory.
Together my parents were kind of an unstoppable homespun Masters and Johnson who developed a Sunday school curriculum examining sexuality and the Bible. I remember sitting in the corner, wishing myself invisible, while they relentlessly examined everything from ancient circumcision rites to masturbation to homosexuality to prostitution. This was for a high school Sunday school class, mind you. Apparently no one in the church knew what was going on until toward the end of the year, when a minor scandal arose because my parents had refused to adopt a stance of The Bible says DON’T DO IT on all the good stuff. But by then, the class was almost over.
When it came to nudity, my parents’ approach reflected the sexual liberation of the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies. Nudity around the house was pretty standard. It certainly wasn’t enforced, as in the nudist camp fantasies many men seem to have. It wasn’t really discussed as a lifestyle choice, or even recognized as one. It was simply casual and commonplace. If my parents had to change from around-the-house clothing into their work duds and I was talking to them in their bedroom, for example, they wouldn’t shoo me away. My mom frequently would take her early evening bath and then stroll around the house in the buff, cigarette in hand, as she tidied up or looked for where she’d left her murder mystery.
My dad would putter around naked after he’d gotten up in the mornings, moving from bedroom to his morning pee in the bathroom, down to the kitchen, where I’d find him munching on toast with his legs crossed and his balls dangling. My mother once scandalized some fourth-grade friends of mine by nonchalantly strolling through the living room wearing nothing but a skimpy yellow bikini bottom, a pair of Jackie O. sunglasses, and an open book pressed against her naked bosom, on her way to a topless sunbathing session on the patio. And the first time my spouse accompanied me for a visit home, twenty years ago, my father sat on the edge of the guest bed wearing nothing but a fishing cap talking endlessly about his recent appointment to a museum board.
They were innocents, really. Both my parents tended to assume that everyone else saw nudity as they did—simply as nudity and nothing more. They found no erotic context to it, no threat of sexualizing the home. Just something that, if it happened, simply was what it was, with no hidden meaning or intention.
I naturally went through a period of extreme modesty in my early adolescence, particularly in that awful stage in which boys experience spontaneous erections that won’t quit, at the slightest puff of wind. (You know, that awful stage that lasts from roughly eleven until the mid-forties.) But something of their philosophy stuck, because I tend to be of the same mindset as they were. If I’m nude around the house—and I often am—it’s simply because I took my clothes off for a shower, or have just risen from bed (I’ve slept nude all my life), and haven’t bothered to put anything on yet. In front of my loved ones I’ll walk upstairs and down in the buff, not really thinking about it. My household always used the hot tub in the nude. On hot days, inside the house with the fans on high, finding me or anyone else topless or bottomless or the combination of the two isn’t really that uncommon. For me, I’m more often bottomless than topless. I simply tend to get cold, otherwise.
Either way, it’s just nudity.
Nudity was fairly common when I was a kid at the YMCA, where I learned to swim. The sexes were strictly segregated using the swimming facilities in the nineteen-seventies, when I first was dragged there for lessons, everyone from the wrinkly old men to the youngest boys took their clothes off in the locker room and didn’t put anything back on until they left. (Was there anything else in the YMCA other than the pool? I certainly don’t remember anything.) We’d slap our feet across the wet tiles of the locker and shower rooms, down the half-circular stairs to the pool area, and splash around in the water like happy nude little otters. It was giggle-worthy and weird the first couple of times, but after that, none of us gave it a thought. A decade later when I was the instructor of some of the boys’ swimming classes, it was the same—though I heard the local Y changed their policies a year or two after I moved from Virginia.
A couple of months ago, in a group of men roughly the same age as I, I mentioned the nude swimming and was met with cries of incredulity. None of the other men had ever heard of such a thing. And if they had, it was weird. Worse than weird. It was depraved, and perverted.
And that’s when it occurred to me how far our culture has swung in the last two or three decades. We can’t separate nudity from sex, not even in the most innocent of contexts. A simple tale of swimming without trunks becomes, in these times, fraught with implications about who might have been looking at what, or thinking dirty thoughts, or planning terrible, nasty deeds. The mental associations I have with the concept of nudity are fairly sunny and innocent, but in these days people regard them as rimmed with dark shadows where lurk the perverted, with their even darker motivations.
So I ask my readers: issues of self-image aside, what were your experiences with nudity growing up? Did you see your parents nude often, or was it something so unimaginable that my tale of bohemian innocence seems utterly foreign to your sensibilities? Did it influence you as an adult? I’m curious to hear your responses.