Americans Still Shocked by Naked People

First Kevin Yoder, now Prince Harry. What's a prude to do?

You may have read the story this morning—at least you probably read it if you gobble up tabloidy nonsense, as I do—about Prince Harry’s rather wild weekend in Las Vegas, where he evidently invited a group of nubile young women up to his suite for a game of strip billiards and lost. We know this because there are pictures (there are always pictures) of Harry in the nude, his hands artfully cupped on one photo, his behind not so cupped in another. Poor Camilla. Hasn’t she suffered enough?

This follows the tale of Kevin Yoder, the Kansas congressman in hot water after taking a plunge in cold water in the Middle East last year—in his case, a nude plunge into the Sea of Galilee. In a political scandal so American it could have been produced by Kraft, there’s now a maelstrom, mercifully sure to be gone by the next news cycle, about the propriety of Yoder’s naked swim.

Well, at least he has the body for it.

There are legitimate, eyebrow-raising things that happen in the worlds of celebrity and politics—witness the cyclone of fury unleashed this week over Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks about rape—and then there are our Prince Harrys and Kevin Yoders. Here’s what I think: I’d let Kevin Yoder call Congressional hearings to order in the nude if it meant he had a decent plan to balance the federal budget. As for Harry, well, I’d be happy to go to any party he’d invited me to.

Nudity, folks? Really? This is what we need the talking heads on CNN blathering on about, our editorial writers opining about, as our infrastructure crumbles, our deficits spiral, our unemployment rate remains scarily high, the employed among us wake up each day and wonder if this is the day we’re going to be laid off, and our schools continue to produce graduates as dumb as rocks?

Focus, people!

Though I am from proud European lineage (all four grandparents off the boat from the Emerald Isle in the 1920s), I would hardly call my personal sensibility “European,” if for no other reason than due to my continued allegiance to that most American of treasures, boxed cake mix from Duncan Hines. But when it comes to nudity—and our odd fascination in this country with it—I have to admit I think the Euros are onto something. Women go topless on beaches throughout the continent; full nude beaches are plentiful and hardly raise an eyebrow (or other body parts, for that matter). Nudity is a staple of European television, and even appears periodically on the covers of magazines that are not pornographic. For centuries, European artists worshiped and captured the naked form in painting and sculpture, as Thomas Eakins lost his job for allowing a male model to pose nude for female students, and authorities enforced moral codes for everything from Saturday matinees to comic books through a good part of the 20th century.

Kevin Yoder wouldn’t be a story in Europe, he’d be a party guest. The fact he’s become a tabloid headline here, with a presidential election two months away that could change the future of the nation, only certifies how loony we still are when it comes to the human form and how and where it’s allowed be displayed in all of its unclothed glory. Porn is one thing—there is a very good argument to be made for not exposing people, especially young people, to that, no matter how Libertarian your views. But some guy deciding to skinny-dip in another country for a minute a year ago? This is news? This is an issue?

No, this in insane.

I went to a nude beach once. There’s one up in Sandy Hook, all the way up in the northern tip of the New Jersey coast, a small sliver of sand that organically developed as a nude beach and which became such a tourist hub that the politicians decided looking away was better for tourism than looking too close and making an unnecessary fuss. There are signs posted everywhere warning you you’re about to encounter nude bathers if you come any closer, though they’re really unnecessary: the sliver in question, named Gunnison Beach, is such a schlep to get to there’s really no other reason to make the trip unless you’re simply dying to drop trou.

I was younger, thinner, and in a “try anything once” phase back then (which also explains why I briefly had platinum hair). I expected to be more nervous about the whole thing, but the crunchy friend I went with said he’d been a bunch of times and found the whole experience very freeing and “one with nature” blah blah blah. I didn’t give a whit about any of that. I just wanted to make sure we put our towel down in between groups of fat people so I would look better by comparison.

Anybody who’s been to Gunnison will tell you it’s the most unsensual experience you can imagine. Most people who go to such places have bodies you would never elect to see unclothed. And even those who do are displayed in such a benign, unsexy context that it just doesn’t zing like it does in a provocative photo spread or the midnight laptop log-on to an, ahem, questionable site or two. If you doubt it, ask anyone who’s been in the locker room at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue and seen Ed Rendell in a towel.

I sat there, in the altogether, on Gunnison and thought not of all of the wanton flesh gathered about, but rather whether I had applied enough 45 to protect myself against what would surely have been a rather alarming sunburn. I had. And thank God I had. Because I realized after leaving that it’s not the nudity that’s sexy. It’s the tan lines.

Every royal family needs a bad boy (or bad girl, as Princess Stephanie of Monaco so reliably proved), and Harry is rising to the challenge: young, handsome, and evidently wildly entertaining. Back home, Kevin Yoder is in such a safe Republican district there in the heartland that there is almost no chance he’ll lose reelection, naked or not. I know almost nothing of his politics, but if the good people of the Sunflower State are going to kick his ass out, I would hope it would be for his positions on the economy or ethics or even the franking privilege—anything except a cheeky (ha!) midnight swim an ocean away that has nothing to do with governance. But everything to do with our odd, relentless fascination with nudity and our insatiable desire for scandal, at a time when we can ill afford the luxury of indulging either.