As all of you know, my meditations focus much more on female nudity than on male nudity. However, two recent events have made me ponder the latter – the other side of the coin, as it were (if we’re thinking in binary terms!).
The first was Bay to Breakers, a 12K race/walk that is held annually in San Francisco. The course takes everyone from one side of the city to the other, and is much more of an all-encompassing, mardi gras-style party than a race. People are free to dress up however they want – or dress in nothing all. However, although you see a few nipple tassels and “side-boobs”, or even one or two completely topless women, the overwhelming majority of the people who choose to go naked are older, straight, white men.
Then, the day after the race, I saw someone present a fashion collection that she had designed. It was for a male clothing line and her overall concept was fascinating. She pointed out that while women’s clothing often reveals our bodies, men’s clothing does not. She argued that men need to have the freedom to be vulnerable, exposed and naked.
I thought her remarks and her collection were very thought-provoking. I agree with her; we also need new definitions of masculinity, along with new constructions for femininity. Our ideas of what men should be like and act like are constricting and oppressive, as are the correlating ideas for women.
Both men and women should be free to be naked and celebrate their bodies. However, something about the male nudity at the Bay to Breakers race grated with me – and my gut reaction was one of revulsion, as it often is when I’m in the presence of naked men (with one notable exception!).
I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction. Along the race course, volunteers handed out cups of water. Right after one of the naked men passed by, a (male) volunteer held out some water and shouted into the crowd, “Here, have some water – because you’ve just seen a penis!”
I think what was bothering me was the fact that the naked white male form is so often a symbol of power and oppression, and the white male penis an enforcer and instrument of that oppression. I also wonder whether other groups would actually feel comfortable going naked in this context. As I said, I saw one topless woman, but she was with one of the naked men. If I were to go naked next year, would I feel safe and celebrated, or unsafe and uncomfortably sexualised? What about gay and lesbian men and women?
Interestingly, Los Angeles-based writer and professor Hugo Schwyzer has recently argued that our culture actually teaches us to be repulsed by the male body and discusses the negative repercussions of this in The Male Body: Repulsive or Beautiful? In the article, he states: “We’re raised in a culture that both celebrates and pathologizes male ‘dirtiness.’ On the one hand, boys were and are given license to be louder, rowdier, and aggressive. We’re expected to get our hands dirty, to rip our pants and get covered in stains. We enjoy a freedom to be dirty that even now, our sisters often do not. No mistake, that’s male privilege. But growing up with the right to be dirty goes hand-in-hand with the realization that many people find the male body repulsive.”
Schwyzer goes on to argue that one outcome of all this is that men internalise these messages, and find their own bodies dirty, repulsive and undesirable. He says: “So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.”
What must we as a society do to help men learn that their bodies are beautiful? Is it through allowing men to walk naked through the streets on certain occasions? Is there a right time and place to fight for the celebration of the naked male form, or is it always appropriate? As men learn to truly respect their bodies, will they also learn to respect women’s bodies? Should we women even care what men think of their bodies, or should we focus on loving our own?