I wrote this as a guest post for The Art of Manliness, only to find that they are no longer accepting guest submissions. I hope it won’t seem too out of place here then:
I think it’s fair to say that the average man exposed to the above advertisement is either:
a) uproariously amused, under the impression that it is fake or
b) painfully creeped out, under the realization that it is real or
c) a little of both.
As it turns out, the advertisement is real.
As men, we need to confront the obvious fact that, as awkward as Bradley’s group showers may appear to us now, it certainly didn’t appear so to the men who bought and sold Bradley’s group showers then. If a man were to submit this ad to the Washington Post today, he’d undoubtedly be rejected as a prankster. Less than 100 years ago, however, this ad was accepted and displayed. Male nudity just ain’t what it used to be.
And this isn’t some big secret. As The Oatmeal has it:
Our grandfathers are far more comfortable than us in their own skin. Thus modern men are left with two possible conclusions:
1. They’re weird.
2. We’re weird.
And though I’d like it to be otherwise, it seems that we’re the odd ducks: Our modern timidity over the naked male form is silly, unprecedented, and ultimately a detriment to the manly life.
At no point in history have men been overtly nervous over their own bodies.Whether in the Roman baths, Greek Olympics, or in medieval Europe — where public nudity was common in bathhouses, and even priests appeared completely nude in certain religious processions — there has been ease about men, a confidence and a certain peace in the display of the human form.
Then came Puritanism. I’m sure we remember our history, so I won’t bother with the full progression of the revolt against the allowances, worldliness and fleshliness of the old, liturgical religions. I’ll simply give the end result:
Puritanism saw the world — the flesh, material goods, etc. — as evil, perishable stuff, good only for ‘getting over’. The world is fallen, in the clutches of Satan, and the goal of the Christian man is to reject it in favor of the spiritual world. The body — as part of the material world — is an essentially confusing thing, filled with dirty desires, concupiscence, unwieldy passions, bewildering emotions, depressions, rages and all the rest. It is not something beautiful — it is flesh to be transcended.
Thus a culture developed in which it was considered poor taste to say “thigh” or “breast” in conversation, and even perspiration and digestion became taboo topics.
But hold up! you may rightly protest. We’re no longer Puritans! In fact, many of us are not even Christians. Why then, do modern, western men fear male nudity more than their grandfathers? Why are so many modern locker rooms and dorm bathrooms redesigned with private showers?
At this point things get more speculative, but hear me out. There was a revolution against Puritanism. It was inspired in part by the inflow of alcohol-loving immigrants of the very same religious beliefs Puritanism reacted against (Big Bad RC’s), and in equal part by the philosophy of Transcendentalism, which saw the material world as holy and good, exemplified by Walt Whitman’s embrace of the body:
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
But this is not the revolution against Puritanism most of us are familiar with. No, most of us are familiar with the Sexual Revolution. This revolution of the sixties and seventies defied Puritanism, not by calling the body beautiful, not by glorifying it like Whitman, but essentially by saying, “Everything is allowed. Sex is just a biological, ordinary thing. No need to surround it with silly rituals. Masturbation is normal. Pornography is normal. Immodesty is fine. We must gratify our urges. It’s all fine. We’re sexual creatures — let’s live like it.”
In short, the naked body is no longer seen as anything but an erotic body. This is, of course, stupid. The body is aesthetically beautiful, functionally beautiful, and just as much for climbing mountains as for having sex.
But the older ideas that the passions are to be properly controlled, that sex should be inseparable from love — and thus never a merely biological act — and that the body is never only erotic, all this was done away with in pop culture, quite happily by MTV, Planned Parenthood, Big Pharma, and our own weakness.
So when the modern man enters a locker room and sees a nude male, he is immediately bombarded with the understanding that before him is an erotic creature. When the modern man removes his towel, he does so with more fear than his grandparents, for he’s not simply revealing his body to others, but an erotic body. We can no longer be merely naked men, for the naked man has been eroticized. Thus Bradley’s group showers, entirely ordinary less than a hundred years ago, cannot be separated from the erotic.
And this fear of our own bodies is apparent in all aspects of all culture, for men and women. When the body is made purely sexy, then an old, ugly, or otherwise unsexy body is worthless. Thus self-hatred in the form of cutting is more of a problem than it has ever been, bulimia and anorexia remain at their modern highs, and the rate of cosmetic plastic surgery continues to shoot upwards. Characteristics of men that have always been considered ‘just manly’ — not necessarily erotic — must now bow to sexiness. For if the naked body is purely erotic, than it shouldn’t contain such unsexy things like hairy thighs, chests, and pale butts. Thus men — who, stop me if I’m wrong, have never felt the universal pressure to look sexy in the way we do today — are getting brazilian waxes.
It’s painfully ironic that our age’s young men are frightened of their bodies, for this is the age of liberation. But so it goes.
As men, I do believe we need to disdain this particular characteristic of the modern world. This is not to advocate random acts of nudity. This is simply to advocate a change of heart. The male body is no mere sex machine, it is a beautiful, good, and extremely useful system. It’s not simply that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies, it’s that we shouldn’t be eroticizing our bodies outside of the context of sex. As men, we should reject the basic tenets of the Sexual Revolution, that we should follow every one of our sexual urges, masturbate, watch porn, be sexy, and thus define ourselves as purely sexual beings. Such a view is terrible narrowing of the human person into a single characteristic. We are not homosexual or heterosexual men. We are not sexy or unsexy men. Indeed we are not merely erotic men at all, and should no more consider ourselves so than we should introduce ourselves with our penis. We are far more than that.
We are men.