I wrote this essay as part of a first year writing course I took this fall with Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda. To put this into context, I am a senior (5th year) undergraduate mathematics major taking this particular English core requirement for the third time. The original assignment was to define a mores or ritual in American culture. In freaking out I decided to write in a style that I was more familiar with. With that in mind, here is the result.
Who Cares About Your Genitals?
In 2003, Stephen Peter Gough began hiking naked through the United Kingdom “earning the nickname ‘the naked rambler’.” His more than thirty subsequent arrests resulted in “almost seven years in prison” (Gough 6 and 160). Given the potential consequences of public nudity, we can see how strongly western culture values the ritual of clothing oneself. Thus, we define socially mandated clothing (SMC) as clothing worn for the specific purpose of avoiding social punishment.
Claim. Socially mandated clothing exists.
Proof. Given the verifiable existence of at least one nudist resort and verifiable positive testimonies of humans having at one point participated in aforementioned nudist resort community, it follows that there exists at least one human who has at one point been more comfortable being nude than clothed in front of other humans. Also, the daily rates imply that residency at this resort is temporary (Cypress). By the principle that humans tend to have recurring desires, this human has wanted to be nude rather than clothed in public while not a resident at the resort. Finally, we may reasonably assume that this human has experienced days in which the weather was appropriate for nudity. Therefore, any clothing worn by this human on such a day when that human desired to be nude would be, by definition, socially mandated clothing.*
*This proof becomes stronger as the “List of social nudity places in North America” increases, and given its current size, we can put aside all but the most unreasonable doubts about the claim (Wikipedia).
Now that it makes sense to talk about SMC, our next course of action should be to differentiate it from other forms of clothing. If SMC is worn due to fear of social consequences, then environmentally necessary clothing (ENC) is worn due to the limitations of the human body to compensate for unfavorable conditions in nature.
The proof for existence is far more trivial here, as one can simply walk into a sporting goods store to see winter coats and UV protective rash guards hanging on racks. This class of clothing is worn to maintain physiological equilibrium and create safety, which means ENC fills more basic needs of the individual than SMC. Clearly, all ENC can be used as SMC but the converse does not hold in general. This brings us to a third classification of clothing: fashionable clothing (FC) is clothing worn to bolster self-esteem or to make an artistic or political statement.
FC, unlike ENC, needs not have any element of practicality. FC fills some emotional need in the wearer. An example would be a man wearing his best “power suit” for a job interview to bolster his self confidence, or a trans woman wearing a dress to feel more like herself. With these three categories we cover all five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But note that while proof of the existence of ENC and FC was trivial to find, there was much work needed to find proof that SMC exists. This is because ENC and FC have natural needs for existence. The two most fundamental reasons for human beings to create things are necessity and boredom. We create ENC because we need it to live, and we create FC because once we are free to live, we can create art. SMC, however, exists as an attempt to fill a need of others rather than a need of the individual.
Here we find the core of our difficulty. In the midst of survival and self-fulfillment, society–people with the same wants and needs–asserts itself upon the individual and hence, upon itself. Indeed, we find that this imposition is not only self-induced but heterogeneous since SMC in an office building differs drastically from SMC on a beach. This locational variation compounds with differing expectations regarding sex.
Anti-nudity laws often impose greater restrictions on females than males. In particular, women are expected to cover the upper portion of their bodies. The justification of such SMC is that the exposure of the areola and nipple violates the mores of modesty. Unfortunately, some of these laws inhibit or outright ban behaviors like breastfeeding which affect infant development (CDC). This shows that SMC is so important to society that it is willing to sacrifice physical well being for its continued enforcement.
Clothing is an undeniable part of the human condition and is as nuanced as the people who wear it. However, viewing clothing from the objective of filling the Heirarchy of Needs gives us a useful framework upon which to discuss its implications and ramifications on the individual. While acceptance and love is important for a person’s well being, we should consider the ramifications of the methods we require to fill this need. We often view society as existing to benefit those who comprise it, but SMC demonstrates that some social constructs can be detrimental.
Featured image credit: Young Naturists America