"Regaining what Mankind has Lost through Civilisation:" Early Nudism and Ambivalent Moderns

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The disappearance of nudity from everyday public life and its increasing subjection to a range of social and psychological taboos is, according to Norbert Elias, one of the “civilizing” processes that characterized modernity. But the discourses of modernity are full of ambivalence about the gains and losses of civilization. This paper is a study of such ambivalence, using the example of early nudism. This paper argues that early nudism stood in paradoxical relation to modern society. On the one hand, it was a bodily critique of modernity – of class distinctions, materialism and the stresses of industrialized and urbanized life. Civilization, it seemed, had not brought all it promised, a truth that nudist Maurice Parmelee called “a fact of poignant significance.” On the other hand, nudism was also a bold and self-consciously “modern” philosophy, whose advocates drew on the emerging discourses of psychology, sexology, feminism and sometimes eugenics to argue that nudism was the only viable future for modern societies. Nudists urged their readers to cast off superstition, hypocrisy and “old” thinking – especially on matters of sex and gender – and to join them in creating a New Eden. This paper traces two contradictory impulses of nostalgia and progressivism, through a consideration of six key themes of nudist writing: shame and modesty; relations between the sexes; connectedness to nature; heliotherapy (the medical use of sunlight); the health and beauty of the race; and the elimination of class distinctions.


Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270404778051870

Publication date: March 1, 2004

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