Naked vs. Nude

Monday, March 12, 2018 - 7:21pm

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When I was 15, my mother and I went to Europe for my quinceañera. Before the trip, the only countries I had ever visited were in North America. I had traveled to many states in the United States, visiting museums like the Roswell, New Mexico’s International UFO Museum and Research Center and Washington, D.C’s Smithsonian. I had never been to a high culture museum and was very excited to go back to the Renaissance in Rome, look at the Mona Lisa in Paris and explore Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona. I ended up mostly looking at one thing: nude figures.

15-year-old Andrea was walking around in the Louvre with her mother, completely surrounded by ancient nude sculptures, some of which were completely exposed. My mother and I essentially toured museums to spend hours looking at bare breasts and muscles — among other bare things — and neither of us ever thought twice about it. We waited in a line to get the chance to see the Venus de Milo and walked a few blocks off our route to admire Michelangelo’s David. We marveled at the intricacies of every painting and sculpture, revering the talent of artists who could depict the human body with such detail and precision.

It wasn’t until this year, when I looked at my experience in retrospect, that I realize how strange it was. I traveled across an ocean and paid fees to surround myself and my mother, the same woman who visibly cringed when we tried to watch “Game of Thrones” together last year, with nudity.

With the looming presence of the Internet, our worlds can be molded and discovered through our fingertips. Uncensored spaces are full of images of every and any kind. Now more than ever, the persistent competition between nakedness and nudity is prevalent. Readily available pictures of naked women or men make it easy for this thin line to be blurred. Sex, erotica and nakedness are seen as offensive, but the nude, in an artistic context, is seen as a masterpiece worthy of being replicated and applauded.

Now more than ever, the frames of reference in which nudity is presented can be the most important factor in determining its categorization as either art or pornography. Nude figures, male and female, are prominently displayed in most museums around the world, and yet no visitors of the Louvre are offended by the full exhibition of breasts in the Venus de Milo.

On the flip side, there are numerous websites and channels dedicated to sexualizing and demoralizing the naked body for the sake of selling a product, or, in other words, the Internet is full of pornography. However, if any nudity is displayed online in platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, it is deemed nakedness and swiftly removed. It is widely assumed that nudity — the naked body as art — has no place on explicit websites because it is not created for the same purposes.

Late in Dec. 2017, a woman posted a picture on Facebook of the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient nude figure carved around 25,000 years ago. Facebook deemed it inappropriate and suddenly removed it. Outrage and “Let the Venus be naked” cries ensued, causing Facebook to apologize soon after.

In the pre-Internet eras, it was easy to frame the borders between tasteful nudity or stark and vulgar nakedness. What was in museums or created by artists was nudity, and what was in the world and created by people was nakedness. The pictures of naked wives and girlfriends soldiers carried to war were usually considered pornography, but Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography was considered art.

Nowadays, however, it is easy to get those boundaries confused. The Venus of Willendorf is widely known and praised in the art world as a nude figurine, yet when presented out of context, it is considered inappropriate content. The fact that Facebook chose to remove it signifies a shift in its categorization, crossing the line from art to pornography as soon as it was posted. The border is more fluid now, no object innately belongs to one or another category, but the context in which it is being presented is what people use to influence their reactions to how they choose to see it.

During our stay in Paris, my mother and I took a couple of wrong turns and somehow ended up face to face with a French escort. It was evident that she was going home after a night of working. She was barely clothed, wearing a fishnet t-shirt that let her nipples show through. I immediately looked away, uncomfortable. We had seen myriad nipples during our trip, and somehow these were the ones deemed offensive and vulgar, rather than beautiful and natural.