The lens of disability is as valuable an interpretive tool for the historian as is gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. Not only do people with disabilities have a place and a voice in history, but the very category of disability has also been used as a construction of oppression throughout history. It has been used as a marker to justify the oppression of women, non-whites, and gays and lesbians, among others. It has been used as a marker to deny entrance to institutions to those whom the dominant group wished to exclude, including entrance into the physical nation as well as citizenship within it. It has also been used as a marker to delimit how we may present our bodies as well as which bodies may participate in the public sphere. I will contend that the cultural injunction to compulsively cover and hide our bodies at all times in all public spaces has a disabling effect on our well-being and consequently we suffer discrimination and exclusion if we wish to live unencumbered, natural, naked lives. Additionally, we who choose nudity are marked as diseased in order to justify exclusion and illegality.
During the height of San Francisco rush hour traffic on June 10, 1970, three people walked west on Market Street from Stockton to the Powell Street cable-car turntable, where they then turned and walked up Eddy Street. As they walked, “eyes widened, jaws dropped, and faces filled the windows of the street cars rolling past.” Jerry Carroll, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, described the three as “two willowy blondes … [and] a dwarf who had a peg-leg and a beard.” They walked hand-in-hand. What caused eyes to widen, jaws to drop, and faces to fill windows of the passing public transit was not entirely the willowy-ness of the two blondes or their companion’s wooden leg, but rather the fact that they were completely naked.
Americans have a very ambiguous relationship with their bodies. Much of that ambiguity is a result of the interwoven influence of two Western traditions: the Judeo-Christian heritage which conflates nudity with original sin and the Greek tradition which saw in nudity the state of the ideal human. We seem to delight at the sight of what we are taught to see as the “ideal” naked body, but anything less than ideal we find disgraceful, offensive, and obscene. We equate nudity with both contamination and sex, and we are taught to see sex as shameful. We ascribe seemingly illicit motivations too those who do not see shame in their bodies or in their sexual urges because we imagine illicit motivations to be the only viable ones which could possibly motivate such perspectives. We hold our bodies hostage to impossible standards not only of beauty but of physicality as well, which we then use to exclude from view any bodies that do not satisfy this self-imposed yardstick. These impossibly high standards then become seen as normative, what Alison Kafer refers to as “compulsory able-bodiedness/able-mindedness,” so that bodies that do not reach these standards are seen now as sub-standard or abnormal.
While I do not wish to perpetuate the well-intentioned but ableist declaration that “we are all disabled,” I do wish to put forth the idea that viewing our bodies with feelings of shame, disgust, and revulsion must have a disabling affect on our emotional well-being, on our very psyches. Kafer investigates the notion of the “nondisabled claim to crip,” while calling for paying critical attention to specificities so that we may explore “the possibilities of nondisabled claims [while] attending to the promises and dangers of the category’s flexibility.” The clothed public, when it ascribes its own imagined motivations to showing the body’s nudity, pathologizes the showing of the naked body by naming its genesis in exhibitionism or perversion. Is it possible to imagine the idea that our collective fear and shame disables our ability to live in and embrace our bodies’ naturalness and, thus disabled, when some do decide to present their naturalness, their nudity, they are then treated differently and suffer exclusion and discrimination?
On that June day in 1970 in San Francisco during the height of rush hour traffic, a young man named Baba Om identified the two naked willowy blondes and the naked peg-legged dwarf with a beard as members of the Om family and explained that “people confuse nudity with sex… The way to rehabilitate sex – and rid the world of war, chaos, and destruction in the bargain – is for people to take off their clothes and leave them off.” Nearby the Powell Street cable-car turntable was a group belonging to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON ) or, as Jerry Carroll identified them, “Hare Krishna people.” One of the ISKCON monks told Carroll “there’s nothing in Om about running around naked. [They] are using the spiritual life for their own sense gratification, sense of exhibitionism or whatever it is.” For the monk, being naked was not “simply unauthorized” as he claimed, but rather it was seen as a sickness, a pathology. By diagnosing his own ideas of what healthy behavior should entail, the monk was assigning a state of disability to the naked Om family, thereby reinforcing his perceived right to discriminate against them by controlling their behavior in public.
One hundred and twenty-seven years earlier, in Massachusetts, Bronson Alcott founded Fruitlands commune, a commune whose purpose was to produce the perfect being. The community believed if they could live according to the original rules set forth in the Garden of Eden before the fall, their moral natures would reach the proper fullness of maturity to prohibit impure thoughts and they could then purify themselves and reproduce children free from original sin. To purify their bodies the community members consumed nothing that involved violence of any kind. By isolating themselves from the outside world, being entirely self-sufficient and paying careful attention to dress by not wearing clothing which was produced through the violence or coercion of slavery or the killing of animals, the residents of Fruitlands hoped to free themselves from what they saw as the evils of government and society. They hoped to make a connection with nature as it had been in the original biblical Garden of Eden by not loving or worshipping nature but by becoming a part of nature. Samuel Bower, one of the members of Fruitlands, was a British transplant whose views were not only were in accord with those of the community but carried those ideas even further. Bower advocated a life lived completely naked in order to achieve the acme of purity and health. Alas, the commune only permitted Bower to experiment with nudity at night and then he was forced to wear a white sheet. Perhaps the other Fruitlanders’ moral natures had not reached the “proper fullness of maturity” to prohibit impure thoughts from occurring at the sight of Bower’s naked body.
Both original sin and children have played an important role in the history of disability. Prior to the emergence of the medical model of disability in the mid to late nineteenth century, disability was often viewed as a moral failing, the result of sin. As Henri-Jacques Stiker shows us, sin is vehicle by which a social morality is attached to disability. Sin is a failing of humans, not God’s failing. It is therefore up to humans to heal themselves. Children have been the exception. They have generally been seen as innocent and worthy of help, and therefore subject to exploitation. Think of “Jerry’s Children.” The Jerry Lewis telethon used the poster child as “victim in a wheelchair,” Lewis even referred to people in wheelchairs as “half persons,” to raise millions of dollars for Muscular Dystrophy. Children are also seen as a metaphor for the future. As Lee Edelman has argued, an investment in the future is almost always figured in reproductive terms. Thus, the child serves as “the telos of the social order.” The future, as imagined through the child, is therefore always one of able-bodied/able-minded heteronormativity. For the residents of Fruitlands, the future imagined through the child was one which was free from original sin, a future where humans would have no necessity of “healing themselves” as moral failings and disability would no longer exist, and humans would once again be innocent –– and pure. As Kafer has made abundantly clear, notions of the future have been used against disabled people. The futures we imagine reveal the biases of the present, so consequently we have a need to imagine futures that include disabled people –– we must imagine futures that include all of us.
Bower would go on to expand on his belief in nudity as a source of purity and health, when he wrote in the November 1850 issue of the Water-Cure Journal, “Why does civilized man [sic] put on, at all seasons, over that natural garb which the all-provident Creator has given him, clothing? . . . Not to preserve health, certainly. These practices minister to disease.” The air and the sun, Bower believed, where the chief reason that all living things lived, and people ought to expose themselves to these elements at all times over their entire bodies. In other words, Bower was advocating that people should live naked. Bower was not the only health reformer who spoke of the healthful benefits of nudity. Other reformers who advocated nudity included Sylvester Graham and Thomas Low Nichols. Describing the nakedness of more “exotic” cultures as “perfect,” these other reformer’s arguments were always moderated by the dictates of climate and social norms based on morality; none would prove as insistently radical as Samuel Bower’s.
This idea of equating nudity with “perfection” has roots in the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “New World.” Environmental historian Richard White notes that Christopher Columbus was both the creator of Neo-Europes in the Americas and the first European to speak with nature in the Americas and preserve his conversation. White notes that Columbus “expected nature to display the marks of humanity, but he did not expect humanity to display so openly the marks of nature.” Nudity became the central defining fact of Indian-ness for Columbus, and nudity became the human expression of nature in his diary. According to White, the word natura, as used by Columbus, referred not to nature but to human genitals. Columbus struggled to place Native American society within parallel European forms, but was continually dismayed and frustrated by their open display of natura.
Europeans, thrilled by the prospect of an untouched Eden peopled by innocent, naked, welcoming natives, but at the same time were desiring profit and, preoccupied with Old World social restrictions, projected the inversion of their own world onto an unknown land and the people within it. Thus nudity for those Europeans symbolized the lack of civilization.
In 1754 in New Hampshire during the conflict between Britain and France, Susannah Johnson wrote how ‘‘my three little children were driven naked to the place where I stood,’’ and upon ‘‘viewing myself I found that I too was naked.’’ Wendy Lucas Castro asks, did Susannah Johnson mean they literally had no clothing? Were they scantily clad by eighteenth-century standards and therefore nearly naked? Were they metaphorically naked in the way they were exposed to their captors with nothing to protect them? What did “nakedness” mean for Susannah Johnson and her children? Castro posits that for the English during the eighteenth century, clothing functioned as a substitute for identity. In the Elizabethan English theater, clothing functioned as a marker of identity since all actors were male, and by putting on a dress a boy actor would be transformed into a female character. Puritans worried that the wearing of women’s clothing by boy actors would turn them into women. Difference, and the lack of clothing, marked those who bore them as uncivilized and savage, as can be seen in the English designation of the “naked’ Irish and later the Indians. So if clothing was a metonym for identity, nakedness essentially equaled social death, an apparent lack of civilization and with it the inability to dominate nature.
Colonists viewed indigenous bodies as inferior. Worried that close contact with Indians would result in contamination and the subsequent disablement of their European bodies and culture to that of the weaker, inferior, indigenous body and culture, Carolina frontier settlers were described by Virginia planter William Byrd as “wretches [who] live in a dirty state of nature and were mere Adamites, innocence only excepted” and as being “just like the Indians.” Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister, who ministered in the South Carolina backcountry for six years beginning in 1766, said of the colonists “nakedness is not censorable or indecent here, and they expose themselves often quite naked, without ceremony.” Woodmason added that the settlers conducted themselves “more irregularly and unchastely than the Indians.”
Ferdinando Gorges, grandson of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the founder of Maine, wrote in the frontispiece in his America Painted to the Life (1659) below an engraving of “America” shown as a native woman, topless, complete with bow, feathered headdress, and a severed, footless, human leg, “T’is I, in tempting diuers, for to try / By sundry meanes, t’obtaine me, caus’de them dye / And, last discoure’d, undiscouer’d am: / For, men, to treade my soyle, as yet, are lame.” Here was America, seductive in her exposed physical sexuality, but conversely dangerous to European men who could be killed or crippled trying to obtain her. As Joyce E. Chaplin explains, “To court death, to resist desire, and to survive unlamed were the related tasks of the colonist.” European colonists, according to Chaplin, felt themselves likely to be annihilated by America, either by being literally consumed, a gruesome death indeed, or else by being consumed by savagery, losing all cultural and physical distinctiveness.
Chaplin further argues that for the English in America, the body was a springboard from which they launched arguments about the Native’s technical inferiority. English claims of first bodily superiority, then technical superiority, and finally intellectual superiority over Natives were all assertions of mastery over nature, over America, and over Indians. As stated earlier, for English colonists clothing was a metonym for identity, nakedness essentially equaled social death, an apparent lack of civilization and with it the ability to dominate nature. Nakedness represented savagery, the lack of that European Western construction “civilization,” the loss of the ability to control nature, or, in Columbus’ lexicon, natura, genitals. Therefore, the naked body was seen as inferior and abject, not a representation of perfection, but rather as something showing lack of cultural, technical, and intellectual mastery, as something disabling.
In 1676, seventy-eight years before Susannah Johnson wrote of her and her children’s nudity in her captivity narrative, the Algonquin Metacom, better known to the colonists as King Phillip, was executed, thus ending the war known as King Phillip’s War, a war which devastated the New England colonies, ruining more than half of the New England colonists’ towns and pushing the line of English habitation back almost to the coast. Jill Lapore explains that the connection between English property and English identity was so strong that many colonists employed a common metaphor for the loss of both, the metaphor of nakedness. For the English, naked men were barbarians and naked land a wilderness. The Algonquins, aware of the English connection between property and identity, stripped their English victims naked. All over New England, English bodies were left to “lye naked, wallowing in their blood.” When captured and still alive, Algonquins would strip the English of all their clothing, leaving them entirely naked without their clothing and without their identities.
The English were worried about their identities for a larger, more encompassing reason. By the seventeenth century, some English believed that the natives were, like themselves, migrants from Asia or Europe, and thus had become contaminated by America’s savage environment, just as Ferdinando Gorges depicted in his frontispiece of the native America, savage, sexual, and dangerous. If this were true of the Indians, could it then happen to the English? Could this savage environment that was America contaminate the English, turn them into naked heathens, thus disabling their claim to civility? Meanwhile, as trade grew and English civilization encroached on Native lands, as natives died from European disease, natives worried that they were losing their identities and becoming “English.” It was this blurring of boundaries, this fear of cultural disablement, that led to war. The English were fighting to maintain their “Englishness” and the Algonquins fought to retain their “Indian-ness.”
In 1829, one hundred and fifty-three years after the end of King Phillip’s War, two disparate yet oddly related events occurred. Andrew Jackson, on December 8 during his first annual address as President of the United States, announced his policy of “Indian removal.” A new play Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags, starring the most celebrated actor of the nineteenth-century stage, Edwin Forrest, debuted in New York one week later on December 15. The separation of these two events by just seven days was indicative of two developments, or, perhaps just one according to Lapore, the popularity of Indian plays and the pursuit of Indian removal. It was the same struggle playing out in the nineteenth century that was first fought over in the seventeenth century, Lapore argues, the struggle for both American and Native identity. Through plays like Metamora, white Americans came to define themselves in relation to an imagined Indian past. That definition required that there be no substantive threat from nearby Indians. Thus the timing of the play’s debut and the beginnings of Cherokee removal from Georgia symbolized the ongoing war between the colonists-now-Americans and the Native inhabitants of the continent they invaded, the war for identity and survival.
Edwin Forrest modeled his depiction of Metacom on his close friend, a Choctaw named Push-ma-ta-ha. During the mid-1820s, the two men were living together. One night, lying by a campfire, Forrest asked Push-ma-ta-ha “to strip himself and walk to and fro before him between moonlight and the firelight, that he might feast his eyes and his soul on so complete a physical type of what man should be. The young chief, without a word, cast aside his Choctaw garb and stepped forth with a dainty tread, a living statue of Apollo in glowing bronze.” Although Forrest and Push-ma-ta-ha shared a romantic and physical relationship, Forrest’s attraction for Push-ma-ta-ha’s naked masculine body, Lapore reminds us, speaks to the broader attraction of the idealized Indian held by Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century. The nakedness of the Indian that signaled depravity, disorder, and the disabling of civilization in the seventeenth century now signaled virility and liberty, but only as long as the threat of the Native inhabiting their own land, that which was now called America, was removed. As long as the Indian remained somewhere, the Indian identity remained ambiguous, simultaneously noble, virile and sexual, a worthy opponent defeated in American fantasy, but in reality a savage, dirt-worshipping heathen, less than human, carrier of disease and ignorance, something so offensive and disabling that it must be removed and eventually exterminated at all costs.
This reformulated identity for the virile noble Indian (now that the Indian was removed from the civilized East) fit with the Fruitlander’s idea of paradise regained and the perfect nudity of uncivilized tribes, only contemplable now that naked Indians and the illusion of untouched, disorderly, nature was removed. The ideal of perfect nudity that only one man, Samuel Bower, dared take seriously could not exist, as American identity required the domination of nature and rejection of the natural. As historian David Rothman argued, the vast proliferation of institutions for “the deviant and the dependent” in post-revolutionary America represented that unease with disorder. That which is untouched and natural must be improved upon, regimented, and disciplined, made to fit in with the industrialization of the nation. With that industrialization came the introduction of standard, normative humankind as a disciplined physical type ready to function and re/produce to serve a capitalist need for labor and a national need for order. The assumption was that human behavior could be managed, manipulated, and altered through professional intervention. There could be no room for the undisciplined or non-normative non-functioning body, be it natural and naked or disabled.
We must remember that “civilization” is a construct of Western white men and therefore, whether it is perceived as Edenic or monstrous, indigenous “third world” or “under-developed” and “savage,” the “lack of civilization,” just like the idea of disability, is a construction of Western white men as well. If Western “civilization” could accept a humanity that openly displayed the marks of nature, binary constructions such as decency/indecency, abled/disabled, heterosexual/homosexual, white/non-white might become unnecessary, similar to the way indigenous peoples’ understanding of the oneness of the body, mind, and spirit allowed for more fluid definitions of bodily and mental norms, or the way deafness was an unremarkable concept for the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard prior to the advent of tourism as a business in the mid-twentieth century. The ability to be publicly naked would become unremarkable as well, for what would openly display “the marks of nature” like simple nudity? Naked people would then be treated no differently than clothed people, and naked people with different abilities and mobilities would be treated no differently than clothed people with different abilities or mobilities, or indeed, No differently than anyone else, for difference would be remarkable only in the way it was celebrated and seen as useful.
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White, Richard. “Discovering Nature in North America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 3, Discovering America: A Special Issue (Dec., 1992): 874-891.
T. L. Nichols, “A Few Words on Clothing,” Water-Cure Journal 11,2 (1851):25. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest ( 22 Feb 2011); Sylvester Graham, “Bathing, Air, and Clothing,” Water-Cure Journal 3, 11 (1847):161. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest (2 Mar 2011); “Importance of Sunlight,” Flag of the Union 12, 27 (1857): 213. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest (22 Feb 2011); “From the North British Review,” Littell’s Living Age, 23 Oct 1858, 752. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest (22 Feb 2011); “Nudity Favorable to Physical Developement,” Mechanics’ Magazine, and the Journal of the Mechanics’ Institute 4,6 (1834): 365. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest (22 Feb 2011); “Researches on Light--Sanatory--Scientific and Aesthetical,” Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature 45,3 (1858): 291. American Periodical Series Online, ProQuest (29 Apr 2011).
Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant, ed. by Richard J. Hooker (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1953) as quoted in Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 120, 151.
Ferdinando Gorges, Grant of His Interest in New Hampshire by Sir Ferdinando Gorges to Captain John Mason (September 17, 1635) .; Ferdinando Gorges, America Painted to the Life (London, 1659), frontis. as quoted in Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2001), 161.