The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher is currently traveling through France and blogging about his experiences there. One of his most recent entries chronicles his family’s visit to The Louvre, and discusses the challenges that all of the artistic nudity on display present when you’ve been trying to instill in your children the value of modesty. He writes:
[W]e explain to them that the human body is beautiful, and that the art they’re seeing was created to explore the beauty of the human form. Sometimes people draw or photograph the human body in a way meant to show its ugliness (I mean pornography, but my little ones don’t have that concept yet), and that’s what we turn away from and reject. But the body itself was created by God, who said it was good. When we have true art, we are taught to think of the body as beautiful.
I’m not sure how well this works yet, but it does enable my 13 year old son and I to stop at statues like The Three Graces… and talk about form and line and beauty. Yes, there are three naked women made of marble in front of him, but we have, I hope, taught him to see with unsmutty eyes. I hope too that when the day comes that he is actually confronted with smut, he will recognize the difference, and turn away.
Dreher’s anecdote reminds me of a story from my youth, when I was much more puritanical. I was perusing through the encyclopedias in my classroom and came across a photo of nude painting. I was horrified at the thought that such filth was in my Christian school and promptly told the teacher about the “dirty” picture. I was so young that I had no understanding that not all nudity is equal, no understanding that it is possible to portray the naked human body in a manner that is not only not dirty, but actually honorable and edifying.
I hope my children gain that sort of subtle understanding as they grow older. We have three kids in a not-so-big house, meaning that privacy is virtually non-existent. It’s certainly embarrassing and frustrating at times, but I don’t want the embarrassment present at, say, an interrupted bathroom break to become the seeds of shame later on in life. To that end, my wife and I have tried to be as honest and forthright as is appropriate when they ask questions about the human body, both ours and theirs. (Believe me, there was plenty of curiosity when our oldest son — who was almost four — watched us change our daughter’s diaper for the first time.)
Ultimately, I want my children to hold to two truths with regards to the body. First, that the human body, along with the rest of God’s creation, was declared to be “very good” by its Creator. Therefore, it is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of; there is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with the human body in its nakedness. As with so many things, context matters, and that is something I’ll need to help them realize. The second truth flows from the first: because the body was declared good, it ought to be handled with care and respect, whether we’re talking about the food we put into it, the activities that we do with it, or the ways in which we display it for others to see.
I never want my children to feel repressed when it comes to their bodies, nor do I want them to view their bodies from a more libertine perspective. Let’s be realistic: saying that I want them to approach it via the tension-filled path that exists between those two poles is easy to write about on a blog, but will undoubtedly be much harder to actually carry out as they grow older and more independent. Which is why we must work now, in their formative years, to build such a solid foundation.