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decolonizing naturism beyond cultural appropriation

In this long overdue second part of the series decolonizing naturism I will explore the cultural appropriation of naturism and the resulting impact of defining of naturism as euro-dominant and something not for people of color. We begin with a definition of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] Cultural appropriation may be perceived[2] as controversial or harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture. Wikipedia

As stated in the first part of this series, I believe this issue arises from the history of modern naturism and which originated from European cities during western industrialization when people were disconnected from the natural environment. Non- western, non-industrialized nations and cultures which were more agrarian didn’t have that issue. In addition their geographic locations closer to the equator, made their cultures  less likely to be to wear much clothing. Therefore those cultures were naturall oriented towards a naturist life (see INF definition) than their European counterparts. Many people look to advent of gymnosophy and free body movement of the early twentieth century as the benchmark for the modern-day practice we now call,naturism or nudism. The idea that this may be cultural appropriation is an elusive concept for many because a Eurocentric world view tends to present Western European culture as normative culturally, superior historically and the originator of most things. So there is little if any effort to look beyond that history for the deeper roots of the contemporary practice. But o claim that Europeans originated naturism appropriates that which has been a part of African and other indigenous cultures long before twentieth century.

What cultural appropriation looks like

One characteristic of cultural appropriation is the separation of the cultural element from its cultural origins and supplanting its original intention and cultural meaning with the new Eurocentric one. Examples of this practice of cultural appropriation are present in the past and current society. During the colonial period the natural shape of the bodies of African women was considered profane and savage. But that same body shape was culturally appropriated and converted into a fashion  for European women to express their beauty.

Another expression is the use of cultural elements for the benefit of the dominant culture without acknowledging or benefit the culture of origin. Think Elvis the king of Rock and Roll. The Police and Reggae or Miley Cyrus and the twerk. The ceremonial dances of African women often considered primitive in its form yet is culturally appropriated to become Twerking. A sexualized dance adopted by some European women to express raw “primitive” sexuality.

Another way this characteristic is expression is the ignoring of the sacred meaning behind the appropriated cultural facet. Often the appropriation is claimed as a form of flattery. Ironically once the culturally appropriated facet has ceased to give any benefit to the dominant culture it is as readily discarded as it was used.

This cultural appropriation is not limited to African people any non-European culture that came under the control of European colonialists has been subject to this phenomenon. Indians, Indonesians and Native Americans and aboriginal people have all been the victims of cultural appropriation.

National Geographic nudity

Perhaps the most telling example of this phenomenon comes the pages of the venerable magazine of pictorial anthropology National Geographic. For many years the magazine was one of the few places where the naked body could be seen. The bodies were exclusively non-European.

What is generally called “ethnographic” nudity has appeared both in serious research works on ethnography and anthropology, as well as in commercial documentaries and in the National Geographic magazine in the United States. In some cases, media outlets may show nudity that occurs in a “natural” or spontaneous setting in news programs or documentaries, while blurring out or censoring the nudity in a dramatic work The ethnographic focus provided an exceptional framework for photographers to depict people whose nudity was, or still is, acceptable within the mores, or within certain specific settings, of their traditional culture.  – Depictions of nudity

Historians suggest however that images these ethnic bodies were being appropriated for European consumption.

Detractors of ethnographic nudity often dismiss it as merely the colonial gaze preserved in the guise of scientific documentation. However, the works of some ethnographic painters and photographers including Herb Ritts, David LaChappelle, Bruce Weber, Irving Penn, Casimir Zagourski, Hugo Bernatzik and Leni Riefenstahl, have received worldwide acclaim for preserving a record of the mores of what are perceived as “paradises” threatened by the onslaught of average modernity. National Geographic Explorer sometimes shows naked people–usually undeveloped cultures who find no need for clothes. No problem! Of course National Geographic started publishing shortly after the establishment of Imperialism and Colonial Rule in Africa. For those who don’t know, this is when white European leaders divided up Africa. It was a time when most Europeans viewed Africans as inferior child-like creatures. So for almost a hundred years now we have been seeing pictures from different cultures around the world and there has never been a problem wish publishing photos of naked African cultures. But what would occur if pictures of naked white people were published in National Geographic? Has there ever been any? – Depictions of nudity

All this led one poster to a discussion forum to suggest

Could it be that western culture has some unspoken quirky racist morality that says it’s OK to see black people naked because, perhaps “they don’t know any better?” However, a naked white person in the same context many would likely lead to book banning and be called “softcore-porn,” or whatever. – Crazy Bob

Cultural appropriation in naturism and nudist context

Another definition of cultural appropriation may help an understanding of how it is expressed in the naturist and nudist context.

Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of a marginalized culture are taken and used by another culture with a huge sense of entitlement attached. That unhealthy sense of entitlement is obvious when an individual cannot even accept criticism from members of the culture they’re appropriating. Jessica Deer – CBC News

It is the sense of entitlement connected with naturism and nudism as expressed by many of Europeans descent is an significant element in the cultural appropriation of naturism. The fact that it was colonial Europeans who forced clothing on African and most other indigenous cultures is more often than not ignored. Maybe there is just a lack of awareness of the historical record (which was discussed in part one) and it’s post colonial impact.

Images SL Naturist

Despite photographic and documentary evidence to the contrary many contemporary nudists and naturists of. European background continue to suggest that naturism did and does not exist non-European cultures.

The fact remains that many pre-colonial African tribes did not have to choose to not wear clothes they simply did not need. Furthermore it was not a part of their theirtribal culture. The same is true today among many African tribes and other indigenous people who have resisted western and European cultural mores about clothing. When this is denial in the face of irrefutable evidence I t leads me to wonder is this another way to attach a euro-dominant narrative in order culturally appropriate the practice.

Having forced clothing upon indigenous people during the colonial period Europeans now often assert their dominant culture entitlement by getting naked in places sacred to indigenous people. This sense of entitlement allows members of the dominant culture to remain oblivious to cultural appropriation and its impact on indegenous cultures while retaining the benefits from the activity. This is something not afforded the indigenous people in the colonial period.

“It’s like someone went into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and took a nude photo,” Dennis Ngawhare, a spokesperson for the local Maori community, told the BBC. “It’s a sacred place and something like this is just very inappropriate

Playboy Model Under Fire for Posing Naked on a Sacred New Zealand Mountain

Another expression of the cultural appropriation is Eurocentric naturists often equate the natural state of the African body and the natural clothes free way of life to. Perhaps the most egregious example of among naturists and nudists is the  appropriation of racial prejudice as equivalent to the stigma of public nudity. This practice diminishes and demeans what is the most significant social issue for people of African descent today. Let me explain why this is so problematic. No one is ever going to be shot and killed by law enforcement officer simply because they are naked if they are from European background. The same cannot be said about a person of African decent. Not in contemporary America.

This lack of awareness and sensitivity to the lived experience of people of color may be one potential reason why more people of color, do not take part in the practice of social naturism or nudism. While many African-American people I have spoken to regularly spend time clothes free at home, they are usually reluctant to take part in social gathering where the dominant culture is, well dominant. This is often attributed to a perceived lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness. Before it is suggested that I talking about racism here let me be clear I am not. To be sure there are racists among those who call themselves naturists and nudists, however racism is neither prerequisite or to cultural appropriation or insensitivity.

When ever I have raised this issue in naturist and nudist circle the usual response is clichés like “everyone is equal in Naturism.” Or “Naturism…where everyone is beautiful”. The problem with these responses is they continue to disregard the loved experience of a African-Americans and other indigenous people of color to preserve euro-dominant world view.   Many modern nudists and naturists of European descent are not conscious of the significance of how their appropriation of the racial equivalency affects people from non-European heritage.  Recently artist and creative people have begun to bring attention to  the lack of post colonial cultural awareness.. A recent art exhibition by artist Alex Nguyen-Vo speaks to this.

 Alex Nguyen-Vo’s paintings imagine a resort where nude Westerners frolic care-free, oblivious to the power dynamics of their tropical paradise. A Fictional Nudist Colony Where Postcolonial Tensions Are Laid Bare

Aglow the second novel of author Will Forest also explores the connections between cultural awareness and naturism. I believe we need more of this if we want to decolonize nudism and naturism and reduce the cultural appropriation that exists within those communities. Everyone in the community whatever they cultural or racial background should educate themselves on the cultural history, believers and practices of others. Only then we people of African descent throw off the colonial shackles of clothing and reclaim their clothes free heritage. Only then will those of European heritage come to understand the deep roots of the practice of clothes free life before the early nineteenth century and see it connection to the path forward for today.

About the author: Earl D
Founder, editor in chief, news curator

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