Modesty and nudity in the olympics

By Brendan Heard.

There is a certain modern attitude to nudity, sex, and decency which seems oddly restrictive, hypocritical, and in many ways backwards. This might be more acutely noticed while watching recent coverage of women’s sport in the Olympics, an event which was in the age of classical Greece performed by naked (male) athletes.

It is possible to notice, for instance, certain trends in female swimwear, most noticeably a very tight and high-cut fit about the posterior. It is not particularly flattering (just trendy) and resembles an uncomfortable, undersized torture garment. But more importantly, in terms of intent, it does seem a misguided attempt to pursue a maximum divulgence of figure. In my opinion it fails in this respect compared to more classical swimsuit designs, which can still be seen in the Olympic swimming event coverage. However it does beg the question – what exactly is our concept of modesty and the morality of nudity? What is the point of wearing garments designed to expose as much as possible (to an absurd degree) for an event which was in it’s origin performed naked?

The original athletes were disrobed for reasons of the honesty and courage in heroic nudity (a Greek concept evinced in their classical statues). We see in these statues that nudity was not celebrated in an erotic way (as it might be today). They were idealized: depicted as fit but formularized to avoid any tawdry sexual aspect that detracts from a sense of natural nobility. They presented the stark honesty of nudity, the majesty of fitness, but without the invocation of an animal sexuality. They had a concept, now lost, of a natural beauty aesthetic and appreciation in the human form that transcended ‘gut desire’.

In many ways this is the opposite of our concept. We sexualize everything and guilt-trip ourselves as we do it, we obsess and invent sexual reasons and sexual categories for everything. We self-congratulate our ‘sexual freedom’ all day long, yet it is impossible that we might show nude athletes at the Olympics. We seem to have no concept of heroic nudity or aesthetic appreciation of human form that isn’t strictly sexualized.

The Greeks also gave us the very concept of the gymnasium (from gymnós meaning naked) which back in classical times was a place for socializing and intellectual pursuits as well as for training. Also in the nude.

What we appear to have today is an avowedly hypersexual and ‘woke’ concept of nudity or near-nudity or public sexuality, with at the same time a certain puritanism as to it’s politely acceptable boundaries. An Olympic contestant can wear semi-obscene swimwear, but must not be naked, for instance. They can be avowed, pink-haired, LGBT+ activists who wear their politically-tinged sexuality on their sleeve throughout all events, public and professional. But they cannot be a privately modest athlete performing nude out of a sense of classic athletic aestheticism.

But herein lies the rather odd dichotomy of our present concept of sexual morality and modesty. We have a certain lewdness, a certain desperation to be sexually liberal in all ways, including bawdy public displays which would make attendees of a Roman orgy blush.

We cherry pick what we like from the past, without fully understanding it. We like the idea of Olympic games, but not necessarily the values of the culture which created them.

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