An artist once told me he was sitting there, deep in a sketch of a woman who was posing nude, when he found himself idly wondering whether she had any tattoos. Then he realized: she’s posing nude. If she had any tattoos, he would already know.
But he wasn’t thinking of her body parts. He was thinking of the lines and shadows and textures and angles of her loveliness, using the part of his brain that accepts beauty for what it is, rather than running her through the mincing machine of lust.
I thought of that artist (full interview here) when I saw Catholic social media has discovered ESPN’s annual “Body Issue,” which came out in July and which features photos and videos of nude athletes. Before you click over, I should warn you: this collection of photos of naked people is a collection of photos of naked people.
Or is it?
When I spent a college semester in Rome, one of the first things our professors asked us to ponder was the difference between “naked” and “nude.”
When we are naked, the primary thing about us is that we are lacking something; we have had something stripped away from us. When we are nude, we just . . . are what we are, and then some. We are not so much exposed as revealed. We are not isolated; we are in our element. These distinctions account for how much skin you can see if you look up at the Sistene Chapel.
Naked vs. nude. Think on this: A healthy young man at the beach sees a woman frolic through the waves in a skimpy bikini, and what does he do? He skips over her bared flesh and stares only at the very small parts of her that are covered with cloth. What a gentleman! Heh heh. But you see, that’s the point: nakedness, or near-nakedness, is intended to titillate (and can we just take a moment and praise the god of linguistics that there is such a word?) by making us focus on bits and parts. Nakedness is a gimmick, and it works very well, because we are fallen.
Nudity, on the other hand, like any good work of art, takes our eyes for a ride, and doesn’t allow us the easy comfort of landing on one thing and saying, “Oh, that’s what this is a picture of.” In the visual arts, a good composition doesn’t force the eye to zoom in on The Main Part, The End. In good composition, one part of the work does its work by leading you to another part, because of how they’re put together, how they’re balanced, how the individual parts relate to each other, how they echo and answer each other. Light, texture, the flow of the lines, the interruption of the flow of the lines — all of these things ought to be dynamic, not static, and it ought to be unimaginable that they be in any other spot than where they are. That’s what good art looks like, including good art that depicts the unclothed human form.
In a bad piece of art, as in a photograph meant to show nakedness, all that matters is that The Thing — you know, That Thing you like to look at — is somewhere you can see it.
The Body Issue achieves the goal of showing nudity, not nakedness. It is decent (albeit not high) art, and not gimmickry. When I look at the naked athletes’ bodies in the photos, I don’t have much trouble helping my childish eye get past the naughty bits, because they’re presented in such a way that they’re indisputably part of a whole — part of the whole body, which is a thing of harmony and dynamism; and they’re also part of the whole composition of the photo, including the lighting, the background, and so on.
Did ESPN have purely artistic motives in putting out The Body Issue, or was it attempting to affirm an incarnational view of the world? N-nnno. They’re not going to say, “Before you buy this magazine, please ask yourself if you might be inclined to objectify the human form. If so, we’d rather not have your money.” Nope. They called the 2016 collection “The Bodies We Want,” probably aiming for a mild pun: we want to have these bodies as our own, and maybe we also want to have these bodies for our own use. Either way: fifteen bucks, please.
Can we look at The Body Issue and lust after the unclothed people in it? Sure. People who are prone to lust and objectification shouldn’t look, because it’s not worth it. There are other forms of beauty to enjoy, thank God. (It’s also worth noting that people who are prisoners of lust will lust after anything. They’ll lust after an exposed ankle or a pair of lips, if that’s all that shows.)
Whatever ESPN’s motivations, and whatever its readers’ responses, The Body Issue is completely different in character from Sports Illustrated‘s annual “Swimsuit Issue,” which I will not link to, because it is pornography. The “Swimsuit Issue” does something terrible, to its models and to us: it tells us, “Here’s a person, sure, but she’s made out of parts. Look at those parts. Here’s one where she doesn’t even have a head, just parts!” It takes the human person out of context of her surroundings, and takes her bits and pieces out of the context of the rest of her body. This is what nakedness does: it narrows our vision.
Nudity, on the other hand, broadens our vision, and helps us see something we hadn’t seen before. It helps us past seeing just parts, and (whether it knows it or not) it helps restore us to something like what Adam and Eve experienced before the Fall, before they knew they were naked. When we successfully present the human form as something to be admired, and not consumed, then we have won back a little piece of Eden. It’s not simply allowable despite our fallen natures, it’s a correction to our fallenness.
Did ESPN mean to make a pun when it chose the name “The Body Issue?” I have no idea; but boy, do we have issues with the human body. But, as John Paul II pleaded with us to understand, we won’t get past those issues by fleeing from them. We’ll never repair the harm that was done through original sin if we shun, shame, fear, and loathe our bodies. That’s not chastity; that’s just another form of dysfunction.
Image: By Michelangelo, Public Domain, one of twenty “ignudi” shamelessly scattered about the Sistene Chapel ceiling