Posted on 08 August 2016 by Rachel
Years ago I visited family in Austria.
It was a hot day so we popped along to a river park for an innocent day’s rest by the beautiful Danube in Vienna. All of a sudden our peace was shattered when, after looking up thinking about going for an ice-cream I was confronted by two willies coming towards me. This naive, slightly repressed Brit had never encountered middle aged gents wearing nothing but socks and sandals whilst strolling along the river path enjoying an ice-lolly. Clearly Austria had different Park rules to safe, conservative England where recreational areas have good solid guidelines like ‘Do not walk on the grass’, ‘Don’t sleep off a hangover in the shrubbery’ and ‘Absolutely no nudity whilst consuming your 99.’
I’ve come a long way since that memorable summer.
Marriage, motherhood and an incident of nude swimming with an ex-nun friend on a wind swept beach in Brittany have changed how I experience my own body in all it’s hilarity and fragility. I love bodies. I’m learning to love my body. It’s brilliant and weird. It doesn’t always look or feel or act as I’d like it to. But it’s mine and more than anything I love my body as the place where I am able to experience God, and as the location from which I speak to the world about who I am and who God is.
But although I’m now more likely to shout ‘nice weather we’re having’ to a gathering of nudists, I can’t help despairing at the latest nude-fest courtesy of Channel 4.
‘Naked Attraction’, the dating show that starts with nudity, lowers an already low bar. Contestants get naked, stand in boxes with a glass panel that is slowly lifted and wait to be chosen on their physical attributes alone. And when I say attributes I’m talking about how high and wide and deep and long are their bits. The message is simple. Like the penis? You’ll like the man. Like the amount of pubic hair around the vulva? You’ll love getting to know the woman.
The problem, as far as I see it, isn’t the nudity per se. We’ve all got bodies and anything that makes nakedness normal is a good thing. There are social stereotypes of the perfect body (old equals ugly, sexy equals big boobs, tiny waste and shaven; real man equals defined abs) that need to be called out and smashed to pieces.
But the problem with ‘Naked Attraction’ is that it hasn’t been done out of this spirit. The progressive liberal spin that says ‘this is art’ seems blind to the blatant fact that people will be getting a kick out of seeing full frontal nudity of bright young bodies. The creators of the show may be using nudity as a tool to provoke us to explore the true identity of the people we date, but how does focusing on the girth of a penis help anyone discover the hidden depths of someone’s character? Are they less likely to emotionally scar you if they have good pecs? Are they more likely to cherish your hopes and understand your insecurities if they have huge breasts?
The truth is that the internet has killed the idea of censorship, so if you’re a producer wanting good ratings why try and beat porn sites that blow your viewing stats out of the water when you can join them? Programmes like ‘Naked Attraction’ and ‘Sex Box’ aren’t about addressing the relational well- being of young people. They’re not about helping young adults find love in uncertain times. This isn’t a positive contribution to empowerment or education or art. This is voyeurism dressed up as freedom. This is our ongoing submission to the pornification of culture. It’s about broadcast numbers and money - and it’s a dull exchange.
But as shallow and distasteful as these shows invariably are, they none the less demonstrate something unknowingly redemptive.
In the first episode of ‘Naked Attraction’ we meet the fantastic Aina. She’s fierce, passionate and eager to meet someone she can ‘settle down with.’ She’s a strong woman who wants a strong man. She’s thinking about her future. She’s imagining the family she may create with someone. She’s bright eyed and clear headed.
When the screens hiding the men are lifted (to waist height) she’s immediately drawn to the man with the prosthetic leg. ‘That tells a story’ she says. She begins to try to connect with this headless torso as a person. She wonders who he is and what he’s been through.
There’s something interesting going on here. At the end of the episode (spoiler alert) Aina chooses Matty. The guy whose body tells a story about courage and overcoming. And Matty desires Aina. When she stands before him naked (it’s only fair she gets her kit off too!) he is full of admiration for her smile, her curves, full bush and hairy armpits. Faced with each other’s bodies, they are in awe. They see something good. In that moment I felt I was watching two truly naked people and I switched the programme off.
My friend Neil the philosopher is convinced that we are ultimately unable to completely objectify other human beings. He says that you can’t see a human being without at the same time seeing something of moral worth. Trying to will produce all kinds of psychological contortions as we fight against our natural inclination to find the person in the body. I once met a young adult addicted to sex-texts (paying for someone to send you sexually explicit texts). She was convinced that the man texting her really cared about her. The truth that the texts were sent from women from poor communities caught in the sex trade was devastating, but crucial in helping her move towards freedom.
In the midst of a dehumanising programme Aina and Matt’s humanity shines through because they’re hungry to make connection with the person, not just the body. Even when they’re both naked, they look into each other’s eyes to make contact with the character and heart of the person. It’s what they do because it’s what they’re made to do. It’s their silent rebellion, their unconscious act of resistance. It’s the image of God who made us for connection that gets the last laugh (even if we’re treated to their naked bums as they leave the studio hand in hand!)
I often wonder about the impact shows like these have on a generation of young people facing their own set of questions about having physical bodies. It’s possible to engage in behaviours that hurt us by creating the notion that human beings are just bodies to look at and use for our own needs. Behaviours like watching porn, sending sexts or immersing yourself in sexually explicit material. I imagine that engaging in these behaviours over a long period of time, especially when you’re young, could increase the likelihood of psychological damage; low self-esteem, poor body image, sexual anxiety, intimacy disorders, relational detatchment. I wonder what they need from us to equip them to recognise the lies and find freedom to love themselves and others well.
Lena Dunham, who’s body politic is a refreshing reminder that the female body doesn’t need to look like Megan Fox to be worthy of love, says ‘It’s a real pleasure to embody yourself.’
There are deep inadequacies in our cultural vision of freedom and sexuality that we need to call out. Porn demonstrates this. ‘Naked Attraction’ and ‘SexBox’ demonstrates this. Nine years olds sending nude selfies demonstrates this. There are myths we need to bust. Like the myth of infinite choice, or the myth that what i fill my eyes and mind with doesn’t affect anyone but you.
We need to fight back and give ourselves and young people a more compelling body theology. One that gives them dignity (‘you are significant and powerful’), peace (‘you are enough’), hope (‘you can make a difference by simply being you’) and a sense of solidarity (‘you are not alone’). Helping young people see that their bodies are good is a great start. Empowering them with the sense that they can make positive, healthy, godly choices about how they use their bodies is vital.
Naked or clothed (and yes, even if we rock that socks-and-sandals combo) we embody the wonder of being human beings with bodies that allow us to connect, express and create in so many ways. Rail against the stupidity of shows that serve up nudity on demand, and embrace the body you’re experiencing your one wild life in.
‘And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it....And cultivate thankfulness’ Colossians 3: 14