Discover more from Perishable Goods
The Value of the Naked Body
Practicing Hope in the Resurrection — Part 3
Skin is your tie to me
a sweet little go between
connecting the things I keep
to the hidden in you.
— Zach Winters, “Skin”
Earlier this year, “barely-there dresses” made news as a returning trend at the Academy Awards. These dresses, also referred to as “naked gowns,” hold the traditional shape of floor-length evening gowns but are either entirely sheer or, shall we say, lacking material above the hips—sometimes both. This is nothing new for Hollywood, and yet fashion magazines dubbed it “the most naked Oscars red carpet ever.”Evidently, Hollywood actresses have been on a mission to bare more skin with each awards show season. To free the nipple, and all the rest.
The world tells us that if we hold our bodies in high regard, then we should want to put them on display. Women especially hear it everywhere (sometimes even from Christian sisters). “You’ve got a great body! You should show it off!” “Wear whatever makes you feel good.” Most recently, it’s become the motto of the body positive movement: if we really love our bodies, we ought to flaunt them. Authenticity demands exposure, darling.
Perishable Goods is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If our aim here at Perishable Goods is to reclaim the goodness of the body, we eventually have to address the question: if the body is good, then why do we cover it? Or, to put it another way, if Christian tradition thinks so highly of the body, why is modesty—the practice of withholding parts of the body from view—such a cherished virtue within that tradition? If we really valued it, wouldn’t we want to make it as visible as possible?
In truth, the dresses worn at the 2023 Oscars did not signal a love for the body. Rather, they displayed contempt for it. Not that any of those women would admit to hating their bodies—they would surely claim the opposite. But the fact is that when we expose our naked bodies to the world, we make them public commodities. We deny the exclusive, self-giving nature of sex and treat the body as though it’s really not all that significant to who we are as persons. Rather than honoring the value of the naked body, immodesty sells it for a low, low price.
Contrary to what the world tells us, the value of the naked body requires us to cover it. In the next couple of posts in this series, I’ll seek to explain why this is so, and how the practice of modesty anticipates the bodily resurrection.
The truth is, even though we live in a culture that increasingly celebrates nudity, most of us do not want to put our naked bodies on display (whether or not we’re in shape). You might wear a bikini at the beach or feel comfortable being naked in a same-sex locker room, but we all draw the line somewhere. Nakedness makes us feel vulnerable. Around the time we hit puberty, we start to sense that our bodies mean more than we thought. Whether or not we consciously realize it, puberty invites us to maturity by way of biology. As our bodies become more equipped for the roles determined by our sex, our experience of our bodies becomes more personal, as does our nakedness. We begin to recognize nakedness as a point of vulnerability.
This is when we start to experience shame about our naked bodies. By “shame,” I don’t mean a self-consciousness that comes externally, as a response to criticism, judgment, or social standards—though we often experience that as well—but rather a self-consciousness that develops naturally. It’s the recognition of some boundary, and the knowledge that crossing that boundary would be improper and would make us vulnerable to abuse. As puberty directs us toward sexual (and thus personal) maturity, we begin to sense that our bodies, like our thoughts and feelings, are not for everyone. Things that were natural when we were children, such as taking a bath with our siblings, are now no longer appropriate. Shame serves as our intuitive acknowledgement of these new boundaries.
This wasn’t true of mankind before the fall. In the garden, man and woman are said to be “naked and… not ashamed.”The only boundary they knew was God’s prohibition from eating from one specific tree. They were not afraid to be seen by each other, nor had they any reason to be. In his book Wonderfully Made, John Kleinig describes Adam and Eve’s bodies as being “transparent” in that they “disclosed their minds and souls perfectly, without distortion or misrepresentation.” They did not have to fear lust, objectification, or abuse—either their own or another’s. Because sin had not yet entered the world, man and woman were able to see each other’s bodies as God had created them and know their true meaning. Only before the fall were man and woman able to experience an intimacy this pure, when their naked bodies were able to communicate, in the words of John Paul II, “the fullness of humanity.”
Sin distorted our vision such that we lost the ability to see each other’s nakedness as God intended it. It made nakedness a point of weakness rather than of glory. Now, there was a need for protection—for shame.
The Guardian of Shame
We’re told in Genesis 3 that as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked.Immediately, they made loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves. Their sin posed a threat to their bodies, causing them to cover that which was now vulnerable. And yet their shame ran even deeper than this, for it caused them to hide from God. God’s exchange with Adam reinforces the connection between their sin and the emergence of shame: as soon as Adam declared that he was naked, God asked him if he had eaten of the forbidden tree. He knew that only sin would make Adam’s nakedness a source of vulnerability. Only sin would force him to cover himself and withdraw from God’s presence. The intimacy man and woman had once enjoyed with each other and with God had splintered.
Understanding this link between shame and sin is critical for Christians today. Our culture views shame of any form—but especially of the naked body—as a mere social stigma, and seeks to eliminate it. The instinct here is correct: shame is indeed a symptom of some malady. But the cultural diagnosis is wrong. The underlying malady is much more comprehensive than we realize: it’s not society, but sin.
In a post-fall world, sin makes shame over the naked body necessary. When the boundary lines of our consciences are drawn properly, it serves as a guardian against abuse. It compels us to cover the body in order to protect it. This is so much a part of our human nature that Kleinig goes so far as to say that to be shameless is to act “less than fully human.”If we throw off sexual boundaries in the name of “authenticity” and rewire our consciences so that we no longer feel shame, we are treating the body as though it does not need protection. To do so, we must either deny the existence of the threat of sin or deny the body’s value. The destruction of shame means the destruction of defense, both ours and others’.
It’s for this reason that “sexual shamelessness breeds sexual abuse.”This goes both ways, of course. Without boundaries, it becomes easier to both be violated and violate. There’s less to deter others or restrain me. Shame, then, not only creates a critical baseline of protection from abuse, but it helps protect others from my own propensity to abuse. The shameless will seek to take advantage of others, even if those others have boundaries in place.
In order to safely undress in front of another, we must be able to trust that our bodies will not be turned into objects of use. This becomes more difficult to do as culture becomes more and more hostile to boundaries and tries to eliminate sexual shame altogether. Even a same-sex locker room—a place where nakedness has typically been safe—becomes less secure when sexual deviancy and gender fluidity are promoted. Where shamelessness is publicly celebrated, trust disappears.
Only in marriage can we fully let down the guard of bodily shame. To protect the value of the naked body we must reserve it for “willing, physical self-giving to another chosen person.”The promise of a personal, exclusive, and life-long commitment of love and honor serves as a safeguard against abuse, allowing us to undress with confidence. In marriage, we are able to expose our whole bodies because we expose everything else as well. We pledge our whole selves to each other. The marital vow taken by a husband and wife breaks down the boundaries between them and redraws the boundary around their union. They are no longer two, but one flesh.
And yet, because we are still sinners, this design for marriage is never perfectly realized. We often carry shame into the marriage bed, whether because of sin, or trauma, or warped consciences. Only once we are fully united with Christ in resurrected glory will we know the complete absence of shame. In this way, marriage is but a taste of our future union with Christ, who takes our sin and shame to the cross.
Garments of Mercy
Before sending Adam and Eve out of the garden, God clothed them, affirming their need for a covering. These “garments of skin” were more substantial than the fig leaves they had made for themselves.Knowing that their bodies were now vulnerable and in need of protection, God Himself provided a better protection than they could acquire for themselves. To clothe them in this way required the death of an animal. A sacrifice was necessary.
Modesty honors the naked body by affirming and protecting it as something deeply personal. Because, as Kleinig says, “our whole selves are at stake—personally, emotionally, and physically” in our sexuality, we do not make our sexuality available to all through the disclosure of our naked bodies.Rather, we show its worth by making it exclusive: a gift that costs a life.
The animal skin garments God provided for his children were both a sign of His mercy and a sign of the death that sin had brought into the world. They pointed to Adam’s need for salvation and resurrection: for God Himself to take on the clothes of death and provide Adam with new clothes. In my next piece, I’ll explore this symbolism and the connection between modesty and the bodily resurrection in more depth.
Rambarose, Amber. “The Sheer Dress Trend Just Gave Us the Most Naked Oscars Red Carpet Ever.” InStyle. March 17, 2023.
Gen 2:25 (ESV).
Kleinig, John. Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body. Lexham Press, 2021. 35.
John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Ed. Michael Waldstein. Pauline, 2006. 178.