Irate readers are still criticizing me for being "uptight and rigid" and "a close-minded prude" in my July 12 post, "Should Nudity at Home be Off Limits." The blog was my personal, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reaction to an Us Weekly item called "Celebrity Nudity Exposed! In it, the magazine revealed that singer Christina Aguilera does "everything naked" on Sundays, and supermodel Heidi Klum also bares all — even in front of her mom and dad. (In public, Klum — shown here with her father, Gunther, and her son, Johan Riley — often appears more covered up than other stars.)
Many of my detractors are nudists, who feel I am attacking their way of life. In fact, I never meant to be too clothes-minded. And I think the nudists raise some valid points. For example, one commenter knocked me for my line about the "ewww" factor ("would you want to sit on a couch where anyone else had a naked bottom?") and said nudists typically carry around personal towels. (Who knew? Do Klum and Aguilera follow this sanitary practice?)
Another commenter referred me to the 80-year-old American Association for Nude Recreation, "the credible voice of reason on issues relevant to nude recreation, in appropriate settings." (An aanr.com photo of a naked couple frolicking in the snow took me aback. But perhaps it's more comfortable than it looks.) The group's literature notes that ancient Olympians competed in the buff, that President John Quincy Adams bathed suit-free in the Potomac, and that 40 million Americans have skinny-dipped in mixed company. It even points out that on Oprah's show, the venerable Dr. Oz recommended snoozing without pajamas as a way to get a better night's sleep, "free from restrictive clothing." (In addition to spreading the word about the virtues of being bare, the American Association for Nude Recreation also promotes "nakations" sold by its 260 affiliated clubs.)
So, nudists aside, what do the experts say about being naked at home around children or grandchildren? Some questions to consider:
What is the context? It's one thing to be naked on an officially bare beach — say, Haulover in Miami, Euronat in France, or Vera Playa in Spain. It's another to be in the all together in Times Square. And some dads may feel OK about being nude around a teenage son in a locker room whereas they may feel less comfortable at home, says Dr. Daniel Levy, a developmental pediatrician who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on communications and media. "There does seem to be a point in most families where it's not appropriate any more, and you have to think about your motivation."
What's the age of the child? "Many times nudity has a profound impact on small children. When kids are starting to reach the age of gender identity, around 2 ½, 3, 3 ½, nudity can create a lot of conflict for that child that they're not going to be able to articulate," says Levy. "It's a little confusing. They'll see mommy or daddy nude and look down at themselves and not understand."
Why are you nude? "If it's about sex, it's wrong," says Dr. Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, and the mother of five kids (ages 9, 16, 18, 20, and 22). "That's fairly clear from our laws, as well as what we do with child protective services. If you're nude, and it's just because clothing is optional at your house, and it's not a sexual connotation at your house, then I can't say it's wrong."
Where are you? "If a 5-year-old is suddenly nude at school, he's going to be called into the principal's office and popped into clothes," says Barratt.
What's the cultural norm? The standard of behavior in this country is no public nudity. "Teaching your kids the social norm is part of what a family is expected to do," says Barratt. "And the social norm is that you would be clothed in public. What that means in your family will vary. Do the kids still bathe together until they're 10 or 8 or 4? To me, if it's different gender kids, it's going to be the younger spectrum."
What's the standard in your house? "The culture in the home might be a nudists' culture. Look at all the kids who grew up in a commune," says Levy. "I don't see any problem about it as long as there's some consistency."
What's your definition of acceptable nudity? U.S. families vary greatly in what they consider "natural and proper," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. In many families, adults and kids of both sexes are nude in the hallway or in their bedrooms. In others, men and boys may share a large outdoor shower. In still others, nudity never happens unless it's "between married adults in strict privacy," says Berger. "There are, as a matter of fact, quite a number of normal Americans who do not seem to feel comfortable with the lights on when in the presence of the nude body of their spouses."
What steps can you take to be consistent? "Each of these separate patterns seems to produce 'normal' adults," says Berger. "What is sometimes traumatic for children is a situation in which the horses are switched mid-stream. It can be traumatic for a child to have one set of expectations challenged by a new experience, and this can work both ways. A youngster who is used to family nudity can be shocked and embarrassed if he travels to spend a summer with a remote cousin, walks down the hall to the bathroom nonchalantly in the nude, and is told by his outraged grownup aunt that he needs to cover himself immediately." And vice versa. "A youngster unaccustomed to family nudity can be shocked and embarrassed if he covers himself modestly while everyone else is strolling naked in the hallway, especially if they inform him that his embarrassment is a tell-tale sign of profound shame about the human body and reveals his discomfort with his own sexuality," says Berger. "What is traumatic for children is to be scolded for being suddenly out-of-line with the expectations of their environment."
How can you convey a healthy message to your kids? Talk with your spouse about how you feel about modesty and nudity within the family and arrive at a "reasonably consistent position on these matters," says Berger. "It is not possible for science to tell parents which path to choose here, but it is certainly clear that parents who feel comfortable with their own position on modesty and nudity are going to convey a healthy message to their children." Remember to explain to kids that other families "may do things differently," she says. "Small children are easily shocked by anything new and different, and parents can smooth over the child's amazement by saying that other people can differ in their habits, and that is OK, too."
How can you better understand other families' choices? "It amazes me how much fierce emotion and how much contradictory opinion surrounds these questions," says Berger. "What is very dramatic is a fairly commonplace lack of empathy that each of these households seems to experience for the other. This lack of empathy is the problematic piece, in my viewpoint."