A few months ago, upon our visit to the LACMA, I walked Rumi through the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit titled, Pushing the Limits: Art and Censorship. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, an artist of many mediums, his gift was photography, in particular large-scale black & white nude photos. As a gay man, who was passionate about pushing cultural and social boundaries around homosexuality, you can imagine the controversy created by his photos, especially the art focused around the BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism) scene that he is most known for.
Anyhow, being acquainted with his work, there was a small amount of hesitation on my behalf to allow Rumi to see the exhibition. Considering that I hadn’t previously viewed what was displayed, I was a bit concerned about the content. Oddly enough, the decision was made for me when the girl at the ticket counter told me that it wasn’t appropriate for a little girl because there were pictures of penises. I thought to myself, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” and then immediately added the additional ticket to my bill. Besides just simply being my inherent nature to push against authority (or anyone telling me what to do for that matter), part of me felt that I had to prove a point to this young woman that it IS okay for my daughter to see an image of a penis. I then proceeded to walk hand in hand with my 8-year-old child, through the controversial photographic works of Robert Mapplethorpe, penises and all. And you know what? It wasn’t a big deal. While she giggled a few times (especially when learning the difference between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis), she was entirely unfazed. Of course, rest assured, I did not take her through the room that featured some of his most explicit homoerotic work. And not because I want to protect her from visuals of homosexual lovers (because she saw plenty of those in the rest of the show), but because I didn’t find it necessary for her to see a leather whip coming out of Mapplethorpe’s ass or a big black cock in his mouth.
Judge me or not, I could care less. Because the point of this blog post isn’t to address whether or not you think it is appropriate for my daughter to see images of gay naked men. What I really want to talk about it why our cultural has such a negative stigma and fear around the naked body.
I was born and raised in a sexually modest family, probably typical to most middle class Americans. I never saw my mom naked as a child. Never took a shower with her. Can only remember even seeing her in her bra and panties a handle of times. The same went for my dad although I can say he was much less modest around my brother than my mom was with my sister and I. (Now, I am not criticizing them or saying that their choice to keep their bodies private was wrong. I respect their decisions they made that honored what was acceptable to them. And cheers to my mom who had no reservations about openly breastfeeding all 3 of her children.) But what I am saying is that I definitely interpreted a sense of shame through their modesty. And whether shame was at the root or modesty just simply is a of character of their generation, I cannot say. I am sure though that it is what pushed me to be so intrigued with the naked body, especially the feminine.
In junior high and part of high school, I had a large black and white poster of Madonna on my wall. She was naked and smoking a cigarette. Although my mom abhorred the poster, the only time she ever made mention of it was when family was coming over and she would ask me to take it down. I recall [mostly] complying with its temporary removal but remember being irritated that it was even an issue. And confused. What was so offensive about the milky white breasts that graced my wall? It was fine for my mom to be practice modesty but why did I have to refrain from experiencing what I found beautiful, sacred, and real? Because it made my extended family uncomfortable? Was she worried that they were going to judge her or worried they were going to judge me? Maybe she was concerned that they would see her as the parent who didn’t have enough ‘moral sense’ to keep her teenage daughter in line. Maybe she was concerned that they would label me as the defiant reckless girl who was over-empowered to explore things that were ‘inappropriate’. Maybe she didn’t even think this far into it at all and just thought the poster was hideous. I guess it doesn’t really matter. The point is, is that from a very young age, I have found that more times than not, people in our society find shame in the naked human body. This is as baffling to me now as it was to me then.
Look, I am not saying that we should all embrace nudity and cruise around without clothes. I recognize and can appreciate that the mystery of discovering what lies underneath our amour of clothing has it’s own magic to it. What I am so frustrated about is that the naked body has become so sexualized. So dirty. That it is considered ‘wrong’ or at the very least, socially abnormal and inappropriate, for my daughter to see a picture or image of a penis.
I see it as my parental responsibility to demystify certain taboo aspects of our cultural (in this case the naked human body) because in turn, it helps my children have a more healthy and educated insight into sexuality. I believe that when things are kept ‘secret’ or not spoken of, children are drawn further to discover what lies under the covers. With the access that kids have to technology these days, many children are seeking out online pornography as a means to learn about sex and the human body. This is terrifying. There has been a huge influx of young adult males experiencing erectile dysfunction because their minds have become so over stimulated with images of graphic multi partner pornography, that missionary style with just a single person can’t get them off. Is this what we have come to? How fucking tragic.
I don’t know the ultimate social solution to this. For my family and me though, it starts in our own home. It starts with being entirely open. It starts with me normalizing the naked body. For my two sons and my daughter. To be comfortable to be causally nude in front of them. To offer books on our shelf with naked photos of all age, shape, size and gender. To use real words for body parts...we say penis not pee-pee. To speak honestly when approached with questions about sex and sexuality. Sometimes they close the door when they change, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they stand in the bathroom and talk to me when I’m in my glass shower, and sometimes they don’t. What I want them to feel all the time, is safe to be seen in their magnificent nakedness. Obviously I am teaching them too about respecting the privacy and honoring the boundaries that others have that may differ from their own. In fact, one of my children is significantly more modest and reserved than the other two (which could open up a whole other conversation about nature versus nurture) and I have had to learn to be mindful to that child's sexual sensitivity. Through the demystification of nudity and by teaching them that their bodies are sacred and not to be shamed, I think that it also empowers them to understand when to draw sexual boundaries if found in an inappropriate or uncomfortable sexual situation. And isn’t that what we ultimately want for our sons and daughters? For them to have healthy sexual relationships with themselves and their partners? I know I do.
I have no idea if I’m doing this right. In fact, I could be doing it all wrong. But that is part of being a parent I suppose… I’ve always read that we’ve come here to break the patterns of our predecessors. To do things differently and hopefully better. I am trying my hardest and doing the best I know how. Naked and afraid? I prefer naked and fearless.