15-28. Some observations on the nature of modesty.
15. Children are not born with any shame about nudity. They learn to be ashamed of their own nudity.
16. Shame, with respect to nudity, is relative to individual situations and customs, not absolute.
For example, an Arab woman, encountered in a state of undress, will cover her face, not her body; she
bares her breasts without embarrassment, but believes the sight of the back of her head to be still more indecent than
exposure of her face. (James Laver notes that "an Arab peasant woman caught in the fields without her veil will
throw her skirt over her head, thereby exposing what, to the Western mind, is a much more embarrassing part of her
anatomy.") In early Palestine, women were obliged to keep their heads covered; for a woman, to be surprised
outside the house without a head-covering was a sufficient reason for divorce. In pre-revolutionary China it was
shameful for a woman to show her foot, and in Japan, the back of her neck. In 18th-century France, while deep
décolletage was common, it was improper to expose the point of the shoulder. Herr Surén, writing in 1924, noted
that Turkish women veiled their faces, Chinese women hid their feet, Arab women covered the backs of their heads,
and Filipino women considered only the navel indecent.18
The relative nature of shame is acknowledged by Pope John Paul II. "There is a certain relativism in the
definition of what is shameless," he writes. "This relativism may be due to differences in the makeup of particular
persons . . . or to different 'world views.' It may equally be due to differences in external conditions--in climate for
instance . . . and also in prevailing customs, social habits, etc. . . . In this matter there is no exact similarity in the
behavior of particular people, even if they live in the same age and the same society. . . . Dress is always a social
17. The dominant idea that clothing is necessary for reasons of modesty is a cultural assumption. It is an
assumption that is not shared by all cultures, nor by all members of our own culture.20
18. There is evidence that modesty is not related to nakedness at all, but is rather a response to appearing
different from the rest of the social group--for instance, outside the accepted habits of clothing or adornment.21
For example, indigenous tribes naked except for ear and lip plugs feel immodest when the plugs are
removed, not when their bodies are exposed.22 Likewise, a woman feels immodest if seen in her slip, even though
it's far less revealing than her bikini.23 This also explains why clothed visitors to nudist parks feel uncomfortable in
their state of dress. Psychologist Emery S. Bogardus writes: "Nakedness is never shameful when it is unconscious,
that is, when there is no consciousness of a difference between fact and the rule set by the mores." In other words,
for first-time visitors to a nudist park, there is no hint of embarrassment after an initial reticence, because it is not
contrary to the moral norms.
19. Shame comes from being outside mores, not from specific actions or conditions. Because nudity is
unremarkable in a nudist setting, nudists may even forget that they are nude--and often do.
20. Psychological studies have shown that modesty need not be related to one's state of dress at all. For the
nudist, modesty is not shed with one's clothes; it merely takes a different form.24
Psychological studies by Martin Weinberg concluded that the basic difference between nudists and nonnudists
lies in their differently-constructed definitions of the situation. It isn't that nudists are immodest, for, like
non-nudists, they have norms to regulate and control immorality, sexuality, and embarrassment. Nudists merely
accept the human body as natural, rather than as a source of embarrassment.25
21. Many indigenous tribes go completely naked without shame, even today. It is only through extended
contact with the "modern" world that they learn to be "modest." 26
Paul Ableman writes: "The missionaries were usually disconcerted to find that the biblically recommended
act of 'clothing the naked', far from producing an improvement in native morals, almost always resulted in a
deterioration. What the missionaries were inadvertently doing was recreating the Garden of Eden situation. Naked,
the primitive cultures had shown no prurient concern with the body. . . . the morality was normally geared to the
naked state of the culture. The missionaries, with their cotton shorts and dresses, disrupted this. Naked people
actually feel shame when they are first dressed. They develop an exaggerated awareness of the body. It is as if Adam
and Eve's 'aprons' generated the 'knowledge of good and evil' rather than being its consequence." 27
Many Amazon rainforest people still live clothing-optional by choice, even given an alternative.28 The
same is true of the aborigines of central Australia.29
22. Even in North America, nudity was commonplace among many indigenous tribes prior to the arrival of
Lewis and Clark reported nearly-naked natives along the northern Pacific coast, for example,30 as did
visitors to California.31 Father Louis Hennepin in 1698 reported of Milwaukee-area Illinois Indians, "They go stark
naked in Summer-time, wearing only a kind of Shoes made of the Skins of [buffalo] Bulls." He described several
other North American tribes as also generally living without clothes.32 The natives of Florida wore only
breechclouts and sashes of Spanish moss, which they removed while hunting or gardening.33 Columbus wrote of
the Indians he encountered in the Caribbean in 1492, "They all go around as naked as their mothers bore them; and
also the women." 34 The Polynesian natives of Hawaii wore little clothing, and none at all at the shore or in the
water, until the arrival of Christian missionaries with Captain Cook in 1776.35
23. For some indigenous tribes, nudity or near-nudity is an essential part of their culture.
Paul Ableman explains, "very few primitives are totally naked. They almost always have ornamentation or
body-modification of some kind, which plays a central role in their culture. . . . Into this simple but successful
culture comes the missionary, and obliterates the key signs beneath his cheap Western clothing. Among many
primitives, tattooing, scarification and ornamentation convey highly elaborate information which may, in fact, be the
central regulatory force in the society. The missionary thus, at one blow, annihilates a culture. It was probably no
less traumatic for a primitive society to be suddenly clothed than it would be for ours to be suddenly stripped
24. Yet missionaries have consistently sought to impose their own concepts of "decency" on other cultures,
ignoring the elaborate cultural traditions regarding dress already in place.
Bernard Rudofsky writes: "People [in other cultures] who traditionally do not have much use for clothes are
not amused by the missionary zeal that prompts us to press our notions of decency upon them while being
insensitive or opposed to theirs." 37 Julian Robinson adds: "Eighteenth and nineteenth century missionaries and
colonial administrators were blissfully blind to their own religious, cultural and sexual prejudices, and to the
symbolism of their own tribal adornments--their tight-laced corsets, powdered wigs, constricting shoes and styles of
outer garments totally unsuited to colonial life. These missionaries and administrators nevertheless took it upon
themselves to expunge all those 'pagan, barbaric and savage forms of body packaging' which did not conform to
their body covering standards. . . . Thus the social and symbolic significance of these traditional forms of body
decoration which had evolved over countless generations were, in many cases, destroyed forever." 38
Russell Nansen records that "Henry Morton Stanley, the rescuer of David Livingstone in the Belgian
Congo. . . . from 1847 to 1877 . . . wandered across Africa suffering every hardship but when he went back to
England he made a notable speech to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. He explained to the audience how
many natives there were in the Congo, and the fact that they lived naked. He told the audience that their duty as
Christians was to convert these misguided naked savages to Christianity and to the wearing of clothes. And when
this missionary work had progressed sufficiently to convince the natives of the need for wearing clothes on Sunday,
that would mean three hundred and twenty million yards of Manchester cotton cloth yearly. Instantly the audience
rose to its feet and cheered him." 39
25. Most anthropologists consider modesty an unlikely reason for the development of clothes.
J.C. Flügel writes: "The great majority of scholars . . . have unhesitatingly regarded decoration as the
motive that led, in the first place, to the adoption of clothing, and consider that the warmth- and modesty-preserving
functions of dress, however important they might later on become, were only discovered once the wearing of clothes
had become habitual for other reasons. . . . The anthropological evidence consists chiefly in the fact that among the
most primitive races there exist unclothed but not undecorated peoples." 40 Anthropologists agree nearly
unanimously on this point.41
26. Many psychologists and anthropologists believe that modesty about exposure of the body may well be a
result of wearing clothes, rather than its cause.42
27. It is interesting to note that it is only possible to be immodest once an accepted form of modesty has
28. Modesty with respect to nudity is a social phenomenon, not biologically instinctive. This is evidenced
by the fact that nudity is venerated in art.44
18. Ellis, vol. 1, part 1, pp. 19, 56; Laver, Modesty in Dress 9, and "What Will Fashion Uncover Next?" 160; Warren
19. John Paul II 186, 189, 190.
20. See Hall, esp. 192-93; Laver, Modesty in Dress 9.
21. For a detailed discussion of this concept, see Laver, Modesty in Dress 9-11, et al. See also Weinberg,
22. D. Smith 107; Horn 61; Laver, Modesty in Dress 10.
23. See also Flügel, Man, Morals and Society 138-39; Rudofsky, Unfashionable Human Body 26; Robinson, Body
24. See Weinberg, "Nudist Management;" Weinberg, "Sexual Modesty" 314-18; H. Smith 229. The same principle
is true in other clothing-optional contexts as well, such as the Finnish sauna (Edelsward 195) or topfree beach
(Herold et al. 134).
25. Weinberg, "Nudist Management" 375-403; and Weinberg, "Sexual Modesty" 314-18. For a more colloquial
description of this phenomenon, see Fussell 212. See also H. Smith 229; and Laver, Modesty in Dress 9.
26. See "The Origin of Modesty" in Ellis, vol. 1, part 1, pp. 8-27, for a thorough survey of indigenous peoples and
their clothing or lack thereof. See also D. Smith 105; Ableman 14-21; Robinson, Body Packaging 17-19, 26, 95-99,
150; Polhemus and Procter 44-45; Laver, Modesty in Dress 4-5; et al.
27. Ableman 20.
28. See Ricciardi. See also Ellis vol. 1, part 1, pp. 12-13.
29. Ellis vol. 1, part 1, pp. 9-10.
30. Lewis 2: 528-29 (January 21, 1806). See also pp. 472-73 (November 7, 1806); Thwaites 4:185-87; LeValley,
"American Indian" 35.
31 . The Indians of California were recorded living nude in 1816, by Ludovik Choris, a Russian painter. See
LeValley, "American Indian" 35.
32. Hennepin 168. See also pp. 228, 483, 493, 653, 665; and LeValley, "American Indian" 33-37.
33. The customs of native dress in Florida were recorded by the French artist and map maker Jacques le Moyne, who
spent a year at a Huguenot colony from 1564 to 1565. See LeValley, "American Indian" 34.
34. Sale 96; Cummins 94; et al. See also Sale 98, 177, and "Conquest of Paradise" 19-21. From their nakedness,
Columbus inferred the native people to be an inferior race. However, as Kirkpatrick Sale notes, "the Tainos were
not nearly so backward as Colón assumed from their lack of dress. (It might be said that it was the Europeans, who
generally kept clothed head to foot during the day despite temperatures regularly in the eighties, who were the more
unsophisticated in garmenture--especially since the Tainos, as Colón later noted, also used their body paint to
prevent sunburn.) Indeed, they had achieved a means of living in a balanced and fruitful harmony with their natural
surroundings that any society might well have envied." Columbus, however, noted that "they could easily be
commanded and made to work, to sow and to do whatever might be needed, to build towns and be taught to wear
clothes and adopt our ways." (Cummins 142, 12 December 1942; Sale 112) Although Columbus also wrote that
"they are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest," his record of the first encounter between
Europeans and New World Indians was filled with accounts of enslavement, murder, and rape (Sale 99, 140).
35. Baxandall, World Guide to Nude Beaches and Resorts 60; Donald D. Kololani Mitchell, Resource Units in
Hawaiian Culture, 1982, quoted in "Secret Hawaii" 51, 64.
36. Ableman 20-21.
37. Rudofsky, Unfashionable Human Body 74. See also p. 24; and John Paul II 186, 189, 190.
38. Robinson, Body Packaging 99-100.
39. Nansen 58.
40. Flügel, Psychology of Clothes 17.
41. For details, see Ableman 25-31, and Hurlock 13-44.
42. See, for example, Rudofsky, Unfashionable Human Body 27; Ableman 20.
43. See Robinson, Body Packaging 31.
44. The nude human form has extraordinary symbolic power, both in art and in communication. For an outstanding
discussion of the significance of the artistic nude in American culture, see Ableman 48-61.