Book Review: Nakedness, Shame, and Embarrassment by Barbara Górnicka

Review by Norman Gabriel

Dr Barbara Górnicka currently lectures in the School of Sociology at University College Dublin. She is the Associate Editor of Human Figurations Journal, and the Editor of Figurations, the newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation. Her research interests range from all things ‘bodily’ (especially matters relating to sexuality and emotions such as embarrassment and shame), to various aspects of sociological theory, gender, family and archival methodology research. Nakedness, Shame, and Embarrassment – A Long-Term Sociological Perspective was published by Springer in 2016.

Busy being born we enter the sartorial world and have to learn its rules and regulations. For ‘naturists’ this growing up process is slowly unlearned and reversed. In this enjoyable and readable book, Nakedness, Shame, and Embarrassment: A Long-Term Sociological Perspective, Barbara Górnicka explores how it becomes possible for groups of people to socialise whilst naked in public situations without showing any obvious signs of sexual arousal or shame and embarrassment. Chapter One sets out the research context for the study, focusing on why and how it has come about that adults view nakedness with shame and embarrassment and the important role that sexuality plays in relation to this process. In Chapter Two she outlines her methodology, engaging in participation observation at Club Nautica, a naturist swimming club in Dublin, by conducting ten semi-structured interviews with Irish naturists who were either practising nudism through being members of official Irish Naturist Association clubs or who had decided to do it on their own, without club membership. What is particularly refreshing in this chapter is her open, bold and sometimes humorous approach to gaining access as a participant observer in a nude swimming club – moving beyond some of the sterile debates about ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, she vividly describes her own ambivalent feelings as she entered the ‘nudist world’.

In Chapter 3 she presents her findings on how members of the club gradually learn how to become a naturist, relaxing and enjoying it by overcoming feelings of shame and embarrassment. Here she distinguishes between two related stages, identifying the first stage of becoming a naturist as the initiation-stage, the critical moment of appearing naked in front of other naked people, which is particularly important to our understanding of how naturists (especially male naturists) manage their bodies and the process of experiencing embarrassment and shame. The second stage is referred to as the established-stage, when a naturist is more at ease with appearing naked and being seen naked by other people; he or she has learned how to enjoy his or her nakedness. This part of the book covers important aspects of practising naturism, such as specific rules and standards among the naturists, the ways they manage to separate their naked bodies from their sexual bodies, and how any merging of these two elements in a naturist environment is considered exhibitionist. A good example is the towel rule which is mentioned to all newcomers: it is considered rude and inconsiderate to sit on a towel that belongs to someone else, and even more so if someone sits on a chair or a sofa without putting a towel over it first. Although naturists accept the naked human body in all its forms, it seems to be commonly accepted that sitting on a piece of furniture with one’s naked backside is ‘unhygienic’.

The next two chapters on the development of nudism provide an impressive array of historical detail which are some of the most fascinating and thought provoking, investigating European historical accounts of nude works of art, standards of bathing, exercising and other aspects of personal bodily hygiene and propriety, reaching as far back as antiquity. In Chapter 4, Górnicka traces the major influence of the Ancient Greeks’ celebration of the naked human body on the modern origins of naturism in Germany. She argues that around the middle of the nineteenth century morale in German society was in decline, due to the continuous military defeats on the battlefield and the uncertainty brought upon the German people during industrialisation. In seeking to resuscitate the German spirit, some ‘naturists’ turned to the ideology of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the specific body regime, known as gymnosophy consisted not only of the practice of naked sport exercises such as wrestling, running, throwing the javelin or boxing, but also of a healthy lifestyle to make life more harmonious. Chapter 5 discusses how nakedness became eroticized and the important way that ‘nature’ became conceptualised in relation to shameful feelings about nudity. Her argument is that through the processes of the taming of our bodies, such as the treatment of bodily hair or the way that genitalia were displayed, ‘nature’ has become pacified and ‘external’ to us, as if we are no longer part of it.

Chapters 6 and 7 form the theoretical heart of the book and demonstrate the explanatory power of applying the theoretical approach of Norbert Elias. On p.149, Górnicka writes ‘how did we get to this conviction that made nakedness ‘unnatural’ and made the feelings of embarrassment and shame associated with it ‘natural’ and ‘normal’? She argues that learning how to become a naturist is an emotional ‘balancing act’, a product of developing new thresholds of shame and expanding self-control in western societies. It is a process during which a person first needs to move back from the shame threshold of seeing public nudity as taboo, to feeling it as an ‘external’ constraint. What was forbidden before is slowly and only to a certain extent permitted to happen again. As a recreational activity, the enjoyment of nudism comes from the release of tensions and shameful feelings that are associated with being seen naked in public, whist its sexual aspects are kept under self-restraint and control.

This book offers a timely reminder to sociologists that ‘taboo’ topics such as nakedness need to be investigated from a long-term historical perspective, one that emphasises that our emotions are part of a social learning process. It will be of great appeal to Eliasian scholars developing his approach to different topics as well as to specialist areas such as the sociology of the body and emotions. Its content also raises the intriguing research question of what other areas in human societies do adults have to unlearn in order to fully participate. And how do we begin to investigate the relation between processes of learning, unlearning and relearning?

Review by Norman Gabriel, Plymouth Institute of Education, University of Plymouth.   

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