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21. About The Modern Normalcy of Being Clothed (No, I'm Not a Nudist)

What is this odd human-specific ritual?
21. About The Modern Normalcy of Being Clothed (No, I'm Not a Nudist)
Photo by Burgess Milner / Unsplash

This blog explores a question I had. Because I am not an expert on the subject, some of the information may be erroneous. However, I believe in learning by doing, and writing this blog forced me to do research about the question, thereby teaching me new things on this fascinating subject.

Would you walk out of your house naked? I, only in a nightmare.

It is cause for wonder why we human beings have seemingly normal behaviours that are anything but normal. Take wearing clothes for instance. Almost no one wonders why they should put on pants and a top in the morning, it is taken to be natural behaviour. And yet, it is a complex ritual that no other animal follows. While not all human groups throughout history have had a complex around nudity, it has become the modern norm. Warning, I am not a nudist, nor do I want to be.

This post wrote itself around my confusion about humans wearing clothes, even when they are not required for comfort.

Humans can handle personal connections with up to about 120 individuals. Any greater than that and we struggle to remember details about the social fabric. Common myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Greek mythology, which happened to be the first recorded ones, may have tremendously helped to provide an imaginary social mesh. Thousands of individuals rallied around a common story, believing the fiction that they were all from the same clan, thereby allowing them to function together. Aversion to nudity may have developed from such complex social fabrics where the imaginary common story draped nudity in shame.

Let's go a bit on a tangent. Mental models are powerful and humans are excellent at creating them. They are necessary for survival in a band of 120 or so foragers living in early Africa some 70,000 years ago. A brain is a wonderful tool, but for a physically weaker ape like the Sapiens, working together was key to our survival. The social skills required for that task are difficult. The number of inter-member relationships grows extremely rapidly. One must keep in mind the relationship between up to about 120 people, and it may be important to also remember the specifics of relationships between two people. Who are friends with Carla? Did Matt have a fight with Carla, and who sided with him, and with her? Are there divisions in the social mesh that can be used to one's advantage? These are all difficult questions in that they contain a lot of inductive thought processes where the thinker has very limited access to how things really are. Instead, they must rely on the intuitive reading of the situation, people's behaviour, body movement, gossip and psychologies. Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand, predict and use the emotional dynamics of the self or other, transforms into a powerful ally. Sheer force is no longer sufficient as intelligent negotiation can leave two belligerent parties pacified, or planned treachery can rid one party of the other. In both cases, complex mental models must be wrestled with. Some 40,000 years ago, these finely tuned social models, held by each individual of a clan allowed them to prosper, deceive, create alliances and survive. These social modules, so to speak, are still present within our brains and drive much of our behaviour. As bands grew, from 1000 to more than 10,000 individuals, members could no longer keep track of the complex social fabric. Common myths may have allowed continuing working together, and some myths, like the Christian and Islamic ones, introduced a strong aversion to nudity.

It seems that Adam and Eve tasting the apple from the tree of knowledge may have started it all in our Western, historically Christian nations. This peculiarity is even more pronounced in some branches of Islam, where private parts include wrists and ankles and must be covered entirely. Therefore, at least two of the most popular religions played a role in shaming us for our nudity. In other parts of the world, such as in the Amazon or in Sudan with the Nuba people, nudity is (or was) perfectly acceptable and natural. I said was as the Nuba people seem to have adopted Western clothing and their nudist customs mostly remain in ethnographic studies. Some religions like Jainism also advocate nudity for their male monks (female monks are draped in plain white saris).

To conclude, the drive for some humans to cover themselves, even though there may be no added comfort, is intriguing to me. While I am perfectly happy wearing clothes and do not plan on ever becoming a nudist, the drive to hide oneself behind a thin veil of fabric, thereby returning to an imaginary safety, is a fascinating topic.