Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom had an assumed or telepathic pact. When she rode naked through Coventry in the 11th century, had the hot bloodied young Tom not taken a peep, her theatrics may have been a complete flop.
The money grubber Lord Godiva had hiked up the rents paid by the impoverished tenants on his land. Unwilling to listen to her protests, Lady Godiva decided that peeling off her clothes was the only way to reverse this injustice.
When word spread that Lady Godiva would reveal her slender young body raised on a white horse in the city streets, the townspeople agreed to close the curtains and lower their blinds as a show of respect.
Did she know there was a Peeping Tom out there who would be unable to resist temptation and take a peep?
Of course she did. Being naked and being seen naked makes the act all the more tantalizing and the gossip more prurient. While Lady Godiva had a genuine desire to support the hungry workers, she must also have nursed a licentious urge to be seen with nothing but her flowing yellow hair to conceal her modesty.
This impulse or compulsion to be seen naked in public while others are clothed takes various forms, for amusement, shock value, sexual satisfaction or as a political act. The feminist protest group Femen that started in Ukraine in 2008 uses bare breasts as a way to raise the profile of women’s rights and – according to the Femen website, ‘to promote a new revolutionary female sexuality as opposed to the patriarchal erotic and pornographic.’
Nudity, Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom
The first humans were created unclothed by God: ‘Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame,’ Genesis 2:25. The Greek Historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC wrote in The Histories that women at festivals would often strip off their clothes and dance naked.
During Saturnalia – the origins of Christmas – Romans moved in sodden gangs of friends from door to door singing bawdy songs. When they got home, they stripped naked and enjoyed an unshackled orgy. The poet Gaius Valerius Catallus was a big fan of the Saturnalia. ‘They were the best of days,’ he wrote in his memoirs, the old man as old men do remembering the boy he once was.
Artists through history have been obsessed with the nude, drawing on classical and biblical imagery, as if gilded youth and physical ease with public nudity belonged always to the far away past, not the real and censorious present.
Victorian artists veiled their work with references from mythology and literature, selecting subjects conveying moral or religious undertones: Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom, of course; the fauns and fairies frolicking in the woods from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or Diana, the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, identified with the Virgin in Christian iconography.
A major boost to nude freedom came by Royal Appointment: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert not only admired the form, but the Queen made a point of giving her Consort a print of a nude for his birthday each year as a symbol of her love. British artists placed the nude out in the open, implying the benefits of fresh air, sun-bathing and exercise.
The development of photography created a new demand for the nude, easily made prints blurring the boundaries between the real and imagined body and offering a new immediacy not possible in painting. Where the nude had historically formed only one part of the artist’s composition, in photography, the representation of the model became an end in itself.
At the 2004 Super Bowl finals, the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ that exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast inspired 200,000 complaints. That, of course, took no note of the 10 million viewers who may have approved.
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