Imagine if I asked you to strip down to your underwear, step through a door into an area containing several hundred people you’ve never met before, and just mingle. I suspect your two word response would finish with “off!”. Yet here I am in pretty much exactly that situation, surrounded by acres of exposed human flesh, from large tattooed gentlemen brandishing their pot bellies like trophies, to lithe teenagers in outfits so tiny they barely cover the essentials.
Of course, the difference here is the context. I’m by a pool in Crete, with the hot sun burning in a cloudless sky, and the outfits in question are swimsuits. However, from a functional point of view, there is no difference between underwear and swimwear; they both cover the same amount of modesty and expose the same amount. Yet our reaction to parading around in front of strangers in each is totally different. Why?
I’ve already alluded to context. You could argue that the pool/beach is less threatening because it’s a level playing field; we are all dressed the same. But it’s not; there are people in every state of dress from tee-shirts and shorts all the way to the skimpiest Speedos. It’s not about body confidence either – every shape, size and insecurity is represented. I mentioned the teenagers before – I’m sure we can all remember how excruciating those years were, and how we struggled to adapt to our changing bodies, especially girls. Yet even this is no barrier to stripping down to the bare essentials when a bit of sun and water is thrown in.
So, although context has a role, it’s not the full story. Psychology plays a part too. Stick with me here, it’s not scary. Underwear/lingerie is perceived as intimate and private in a way that swimwear isn’t. You would generally only show your underwear to another person (and I’m excluding situations like single sex changing rooms here) if you were very close to them, probably intimate. Swimwear, on the other hand, is for public display.
So here’s the thing. It would seem it’s not how much of your body you uncover, but what you’re left wearing once you’ve disrobed, that determines how embarrassed and vulnerable you feel. The other thing is that, if all the people round the pool here were in lingerie I’m sure the atmosphere would be strongly sexualised, yet that’s not at all the case. I suspect that’s because the level of nudity here is normalised – it’s expected.
Some years ago my wife and I watched a programme about naturism. During the programme an elderly gentleman was interviewed at length about what he enjoyed about the lifestyle. He was, of course, naked. To begin with we were deeply embarrassed – here was some guy with literally everything on show, seemingly oblivious of that fact. As time wore on though, we literally stopped noticing that he was naked.
I’m not advocating naturism, but maybe it has a point to make here. People who do it talk of feelings of liberation and empowerment. Far from being some pervert’s paradise it seems the amount of sexualisation is actually reduced in naturist communities. So is sexuality more bound up, not in what we show, but the way we cover it up? Would sexual harassment in, for example, the workplace, go up or down if we were all naked? We’ll never find out, of course, but it’s an interesting question…