top of page

Naked, and You Clothed Me

One of the most iconic images of the Vietnam war era was of the “Napalm Girl,” Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her clothes burned away by American napalm, running toward the camera of AP photographer Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1972 photograph. Mr. Ut played a role in getting her covered and helped. She spoke at the College where I taught, now married and with several children of her own. The biblical quote in my title was about helping, that as you help the least of these, so you have helped the Lord, speaking in Matthew 25:36. There was some initial concern about posting a picture of a naked 9-year old, but the New York Times reversed its policies. Even when Facebook initially removed the image, they quickly reinstated it, as the community was better served by not censoring it. Along with Burning Monk, and Saigon Execution, it was one of the defining images of Vietnam. It's copyrighted, so I can't show you the actual photo, but the girl is alive and well, happily.

Despite an appreciation of the unclothed human body in much of Classical Western art, going back to Greek athleticism, the Semitic tradition, as expressed in the Biblical corpus, goes back to Genesis. After eating of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve realize they are naked and cover their private parts with fig leaves. But wait, why “private”? Were they not private before they knew about good and evil, presumably only after committing the sin of disobedience, of doing the one thing they were commanded not to do? O felix culpa. No matter the importance of this act, our original sin, to the overarching Biblical narrative of sin and redemption, it raises interesting questions about innocence and morality. If we are innocent to the sin, does it mean we are not doing it? Why is nakedness bad? Because unclothed we are exposed and vulnerable? I will certainly have no problem letting my toddler run around our backyard buck naked this summer as we work on toilet training, and none but the most disturbingly prurient would be anything but amused. His parents will protect him from any risk.

Why naked at all? I remember the first anthropology professor I had as an undergraduate teaching us a little about cultural differences, after he arrived the first day, and hurled his white fur coat on the table on the dais. He’s the one that introduced us to The Body Rituals of the Nacirema, a wonderful ethnographic description of the complicated morning and evening ablution rituals of a strange people, about which it quickly dawns are “Nacirema” spelled backwards. Aren’t naked bodies, well, dirty? He told a story about a cab ride in Mexico City, where cabbies would quickly drive towards targets on the sidewalk, snapping capes like bullfighters at the oncoming cabs. One cabbie apparently skidded to a halt, pulled over to the side of the road, and stood with his elbows in the roof of his cab blatantly ogling some poor young woman walking along the street. My professor acknowledged the interest, but was curious about its intensity. I once went out for a professional dinner in Georgetown with a female colleague from New England, who was disturbed by the level of attention shown to her on the street by “southern men.” While Georgetown didn’t strike me as all that southern, she took my suggestion to heart that she treat such wandering eyes as complimentary, and was quite pleased with herself the first time she just said “thank you,” and walked on undisturbed.

When pressed about his interest, the Mexico City cab-driver apparently said “Ohh, she was so hairy,” and my professor explained that women of higher status and higher desirability tended to be European women, and had more bodily hair than those who were more native. In my North American midwestern culture, young women start shaving their legs when they are about ten years old, unless specifically making a point.

Let us not forget the possibilities for touching, important for the very survival of infants. I remember the skin-to-skin times with my premature second son, otherwise nestled in his technological incubation, the best hours of those early days. Or the bonding chemistry of oxytocin, part of what produces and is produced by the intimate contact of body to body. All the touching that exposed skin makes possible, private and otherwise: the caresses, the teases, the tickles, the holding of hands, the kisses, and all those things made possible by the intimacy of face to face bodily contact, from the welcoming embrace of a friend or relative, the hand on a shoulder of reassurance, and the frontal sexuality rare or nonexistent in the rest of the mammalian kingdom, where mating is an estrus free-for-all, rather than an open 24/7 possibility. Laissez le bon temps rouler, and let’s keep that hearth fire of love and family blazing.

Jonathan Marks, one of the speakers at the 2016 conference I co-organized for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (p 13), on “How Can We Know?” provided an anthropological perspective on the evolution of exposed skin. He suggests that it was one of the adaptations co-evolved with language, including small, non-sexually dimorphic canines, the lowering of the larynx, and the altering of the structure of throat and tongue for speech and control of breath. Most mammals also dissipate heat by panting, and the use of the tongue for speech would compromise thermoregulation. Hence the emergence of spoken language also involves the evolution for evaporative cooling for heat dissipation. Humans have a higher density of sweat glands than chimps, and evaporative cooling works much better with exposed skin. So, despite the same density of hair follicles as apes, our body hair has degenerated into the thin, wispy hair we have over most of our skin surface. The evolution of childhood, and our greater investment in immaturity also enables a longer learning curve. Adult hair growth includes several areas involved in the retention of certain odors, as well as male facial hair.

Barber and Barber argue in When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, that myths originate in the transmission

of real information about real events and observations which can be preserved for millennia in nonliterate societies. One wonders about the closeness in Genesis of Adam’s use of language in naming the animals, and the creation of his “suitable helper.” Stanley Grenz in The Social God and the Relational Self argues that the imago dei finds its full meaning not in the solitude of a man, as “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen., 2:18), but in making a sexual relationship the final act of creation. Grenz unpacks the social nature of sexuality by examining the Hebrew words which get translated as “suitable helper.” He points out that ‘ezer, translated as “helper,” does not denote subordination, since it is also used to denote the relationship of Yahweh to Israel, hence translated in the Septuagint as boethos, which refers to help from one not needing

help, implying a relationship of mutual support. Kenegdo, translated as “suitable,” can also be translated as “alongside,” or “corresponding to,” a being in whom we can recognize ourselves , in mutual understanding. To this, Adam’s ecstatic cry: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen., 2:23), a covenant formula expressing a common reciprocal loyalty, but flesh-to-flesh contact is part of what human nakedness makes possible. It is only in the presence of this woman, his counterpart, ‘ishshah, that Adam refers to himself as ‘ish, as “male.” It is only in relationship to his counterpart that Adam becomes aware of the sexually-based nature of his naked, unwholesome, and debilitating solitude, endemic to his existence as a sexual being, and the liberation bestowed upon him by this relationship. For Grenz, our embodied existence entails an incompleteness, a yearning for completeness, for a wholeness and connection reaching beyond our differences and divisions, which does not end with an isolated couple, but is a step toward a broader human community. I cannot help but think of the new African branch of my family, at the wedding of my niece to her Zulu counterpart in Durban, South Africa, a week ago, and the warm blankets, gifted of each family to the other, to symbolize that loving care.

bottom of page