There are many different attributes or qualities of the state that one might wish to convey: a degree of approval or disapproval, whether the nudity is intentional or inadvertent, the social status of the naked person, and further qualities like vulnerability, brazenness, sexual provocativeness. One might wish to indicate the naked person's intentions, state of mind, general demeanor, and overall attitude towards his or her state of undress.
But it is futile to hope that a single word or phrase could even approximately convey so many different ideas. It would take dozens - maybe hundreds - of different expressions to apply to the most common possible circumstances, even assuming that generally agreed-upon meanings exist. (Which they don't.)
So it's even more unreasonable to expect that only two words, between them, could cover all the possibilities. Nevertheless, from time to time people - even great "authorities" - attempt the impossible. Generally, a writer will favor one word over the other, on the theory that one of the terms has more positive connotations. The most well known example is the art historian Kenneth Clark, author of The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. He wrote:
The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude", on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, properous, and confident body: the body reformed.Thus, "nude" has connotations of refinement, innocence, and artistic high-mindedness. "Naked", by contrast, has connotations (for some) of a state that is coarser, more plebeian, and possibly even base or wanton. In short, "nude" is euphemistic for the state of being without clothes, when that state is regarded in a negative light. Clark himself explains what happened:
The word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuage the artless islanders that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practised and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art.Unfortunately, a strategy of euphemism can also be employed by those whose motives are not so high-minded, in order to borrow respectability for their real stock in trade. Consequently, the performers in a strip club are advertised as "all nude", rather than "all naked". But this only attaches an air of disreputablilty to the term. (And this is exactly what seems to have happened to the term "nudism", which is widely considered now to include an element of exhibitionism and voyeurism, through its frequent use by people who try to legitimize these more sexual interests.)
In fact, the euphemistic useage of "nude" has led others to criticise it as pretentious and disingenuous. For example, the poet Robert Graves:
For me, the naked and the nudeAnd the art critic John Berger:
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.
To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguises.Another way to say this, perhaps, is to observe that "naked" simply describes a condition, while "nude" suggests a complex social role. In fact, it can be a variety of diverse roles - such as an artist's or photographer's model, a visitor at a "nudist" resort, or a dancer in a strip club. In support of this observation, note that our language feels the need to use "nude" as a noun that refers to a person who is without clothes, while we evidently don't need to employ some form of "naked" in this way - because it's not associated with a feature of the normal social world.
Now, a social role is an artificial sort of thing, a product of a particular place and time. We are apt to feel somewhat inauthentic when we are aware that we are playing a role rather than simply being ourselves. Of course, as Jaques in Shakespeare's As You Like It observes, all the world's a stage and we're all merely players. But Jaques is a cynic, and we'd like to believe that there is more to ourselves than the social roles we play. We would like to think that it is possible, at times, to be more "natural".
It may be on account of this that I prefer to describe a person without clothes as "naked" rather than "nude" and that I tend to use the somewhat inelegant - but franker and more straightforward - expression "people who like to be naked" instead of either "nudists" or "naturists".
But this shouldn't be a dogmatic thing. Variety of expression makes writing more interesting. So I'll often use other words that describe the state of having no clothes on - and people who like that state.
"One trip to a nudist event and a woman will be unburdened and free forever of her self-limiting ideas. Along with shedding her clothes, she will shed the body-shame society has dumped on her. She will finally be able to challenge the deeply-held belief that she is unacceptable as she is."
"Becoming a nudist is simply the best step I have ever taken in my own behalf. I urge you to join me."
"My favorite part is waking up in the morning and rolling out the door to get a cup of coffee without my bathrobe. It feels so healthy and natural that by check-out time, you actually feel indignant that you have to put on your clothes to get back in your car and join the rest of the over-wrapped world."
"Naturists as a group are exasperated by any puritanical insistence that nudity is tantamount to titillation. Get over this nonsense, and let both your mind and your ass see the light."
"I can't get over how good old people continue to look below the neck. One's face can be a prune, but further on down, it's amazing how some people's skin can be so smooth and soft, their breasts full, their hips and thighs ready to rumba."
The article deals with some themes I've touched on in the essay above on "nude" vs. "naked", and my Web page on Nakedness in Nature. It refers to several sites on the Web where you can see some pretty good photography with "naturist" affinities.
A woman when dressed for home, or to go out shopping or calling, doesn't wear anything at all but just her complexion. That is all; it is her entire outfit. It is the lightest costume in the world. ... It is the trimmest, and neatest, and gracefulest costume that is now in fashion; it wears well, is fast colors, doesn't show dirt, you don't have to send it down-town to wash, and have some of it come back scorched with the flat-iron. ... And it always fits; it is the perfection of a fit. And it is the handiest dress in the whole realm of fashion. It is always ready; always "done up".
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