Nudity taboos and their effects
on child development:
A review of objective research up to 1997
L. Freethe, Ph.D.
Institute for the Study of Representation, San Francisco, California USA
The effects of familial nudity upon children has received very little unbiased attention from researchers in psychology and sociology, thanks to a century or more of crippling taboos and censorship. In English-speaking countries, objective research of this nature has been shunned, and the field has been left to agenda-driven theorists like Sigmund Freud, 'pop' psychologists like Joyce Brothers and Benjamin Spock, and poorly informed newspaper columnists like 'Ann Landers'.
The reluctance of legitimate researchers to study nudity taboos and their effects on children’s sexual development is understandable, given the harshness of attitudes toward the subject by ignorant and obsessive critics. Alayne Yates (1979) has described the vicious circle of taboo and fear that have prevented the development of concise, honest reference materials for parents and teachers. She notes that, in English-speaking countries, research in this subject area has been obstructed by advocates of at least three inconsistent arguments: some critics claimed such research to be unnecessary, others thought it intrusive, and still others saw it as evil.
Nudist families often keep that aspect of their lives concealed from business associates, relatives, and non-nudist friends out of a fear of disapproval — a fear that stems from the lack of objective research that they would otherwise draw upon to support their beliefs that nudity is actually beneficial to children, not harmful (Smith and Sparks,1986).
However, the sparseness of the research literature on this subject is not total. A small number of competent researchers have conducted studies of the effects of nudity taboos on children’s mental development. Three studies stand out and are summarized below.
Nudity and sexual taboos affect adult sexual maturation
The first study (Lewis and Janda, 1988) examined how familial taboos against nudity and sexuality influenced the development of relationships and sexual comfort when children reached adulthood. The subjects of the study were 210 undergraduate university students, who were given a retrospective questionnaire covering three basic experiences during childhood (i.e., from birth to eleven years old):
• viewing parents, siblings, and friends nude;
• sharing the parents’ bed; and
• the attitudes of parents toward sexuality.
An extensive questionnaire measured the subjects’ current sexual comfort and adjustment.
The study found a positive correlation between childhood exposure to nudity and adult sexual comfort. The other factors studied — sleeping in the parental bed and parental acceptance of sexuality — while not relevant to this review, also correlated positively with adult sexual comfort.
Children's attitudes toward nudity
Psychologists Ronald and Juliette Goldman interviewed 838 children, 5 to 15 years old, from Australia, Canada, the United States, England, and Sweden. (Goldman and Goldman, 1981) The subjects were interviewed individually and were asked questions designed to reveal the child's understanding of wearing clothing, nudity, and modesty. The Kohlberg scale of moral thinking was used to score the responses, and provided a measure of the subjects' level of cognitive reasoning for the answers given. In this study, the families' nudity status was not used as a factor in determining the results.
The researchers found that English-speaking children — especially those from the U.S and Canada — were more insistent than Swedish children that clothes are necessary, even in hot weather. They were also less likely than Swedish children to achieve high scores on the Kohlberg scale of moral thinking about the reasons for embarrassment when nude, and about the reasons for wearing or not wearing clothes. The Swedish children were much less clothes-insistent despite their residing in a colder climate. The researchers point out that northern European countries have long-standing traditions of nude saunas, public nudity ("Freikörperkultur" or "free body culture") and of sex education in the schools after age eight.
Comparison of nudist and non-nudist upbringing on self-image
Marilyn D. Story of the University of Northern Iowa interviewed 264 children, 3 to 5 years old, and their parents, to determine the children’s body self-concepts and to identify factors that might promote more positive body self-concepts. (Story, 1979) The factors examined included sex of child, nudity classification of family, race of child, area of the country, body build of child, years of education of head of household, birth order of child, age of child, age of parents or guardians, sex of interviewer, type of family structure, number of people in household, and number of siblings. The subjects were chosen and matched based on family nudity status: "social nudist," "at-home-only nudist," or non-nudist. The subjects were sampled from all over the United States. The parents were interviewed to determine the children's age, sex, weight, and birth order. The children, interviewed separately, were asked whether they liked certain body parts, using line drawings of nude children, and were also asked to identify and the most- and least-liked body parts, and to explain why.
Story found that children from non-nudist families most often disliked their genitals, whereas nudist children most often named the genitals as their most-liked body part. Nudist children did not dislike any of their body parts (except possibly the skin, because of sunburn or too little tan). Two factors were found to correlate well with positive body concepts: the nudity classification of the child's family, and the sex of child. Nudist children consistently scored higher than non-nudist children in all areas of body acceptance and self-image.
The research described above shows that children's exposure to nudity is beneficial, not harmful. Children raised in nude-friendly families grow up to be adults who are comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. Why, then, do most parents in English-speaking countries hold incorrect views on this subject? Child psychotherapist Alayne Yates suggests (Yates, 1978) that most parents are unaware of these studies for two reasons:
In English-speaking countries nudists are still widely imagined to be sexually depraved — i.e., people whose sexual obsessions make them dangerous to be around. Non-nudists generally have no personal experiences to disprove this fallacy, and many nudists are afraid to reveal their activities for fear of being ridiculed or persecuted.
The study of adult human sexuality has made significant progress during the last century. But such research in children has been stalled because researchers fear to study a subject that is still seen by many as unnecessary, intrusive, or evil. The small amount of research that has been done has not been replicated. Those who rely on the literature for their professional opinions are reluctant to give credence to studies that stand alone or that offer results in conflict with currently popular fallacies.
Thus, most parents are fair game for 'pop' psychologists like Benjamin Spock who warned of dire consequences from nudism, and Joyce Brothers who warned of "terrible guilts and frustrations". Neither Spock nor Brothers performed any research of their own and apparently based their claims about children's exposure to nudity on anecdotal reports and on their interactions with emotionally disturbed children (Smith and Sparks, 1986).
Many widely published "experts" are not really experts at all — they are media figures whose half-baked, personal opinions happen to be widely read by naive, insecure parents.
The research described above, by Yates, Story, Lewis & Janda, and Goldman & Goldman provides convincing evidence that children's exposure to nudity in a social setting is beneficial, not harmful. It is one of the tragedies of our time that nudity taboos continue to damage generation after generation of people in various parts of the world, including the English-speaking countries.
Goldman, R.J., & Goldman, J.D. (1981). Children's perceptions of clothes and nakedness: a cross-national study. Genetic Psychology Monographs. 104, 163-185.
Lewis, R.J., & Janda, L.H. (1988). The relationship between adult sexual adjustment and childhood experiences regarding exposure to nudity, sleeping in the parental bed, and parental attitudes toward sexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 17(4), 349-362.
Smith, D.C., & Sparks, W. (1986). The Naked Child: Growing Up Without Shame. Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press.
Story, M.D. (1979). Factors associated with more positive body self-concepts in preschool children. The Journal of Social Psychology. 108, 49-56.
Yates, A. (1978). Sex Without Shame: Encouraging the Child's Healthy Sexual Development. New York: William Morrow and Company.
©1997 L. Freethe. Permission is granted for any non-commercial use.