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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.3 (2006) 432-461

Authenticity and Asceticism:
Discourse and Performance in Nude Culture and Health Reform in Belgium, 1920–1940
Evert Peeters
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

There are numerous studies of nude culture in the twentieth century. Interestingly, many appear to share a similar and quite revealing perspective, describing sexual and bodily liberation through the prism of cultural discourse. This approach may seem only logical, since it would be impossible to understand nudity without also considering its accompanying cultural context. For example, scholars have shown how nudity and the accompanying search for physical beauty often reflected contemporary worries of cultural dissolution and racial degeneration. This focus may stem from the predominantly German origins of nudism, and, indeed, it is obviously important to stress the affinity of nudism with the Wilhelmine and Weimar discourses from which it originally sprang. German practitioners of nudity often considered the race as being threatened by degeneration.1 In order to overcome this alleged decline many early naturists advocated a seemingly [End Page 432] apolitical program of individual change subsumed within national renewal, part of the broader movement of Lebensreform (life reform). At the same time, the first generations of naturists promoted nudity not only as opposed to this decline but also as imperative to overcoming it. Reflecting classical preoccupations with the mythic nature of male beauty, many nudists dreamed of a new, naked man who was, at the same time, stronger and more pure, a being who had reconciled himself with his natural origins.2

Nudism, however, was never a purely conceptual matter. Life reform and nudity were, above all, lived and experienced. As Nina Morris has shown in her study of British nudism, the renewal of personal existence that naturists advocated, whether for the ethnic "race" or for mankind as a whole, was always linked with the primacy of personal sensual experience. Nudist discourse, moreover, was widely permeated by a so-called feeling of nature, a feature that was gradually developed through the practical techniques of nudism and shared through countless personal commentaries. These commentaries describe the experience of personal liberation and the accompanying euphoria that many nudists claimed when practicing it. The unveiling of one's sex and the accompanying desexualizing of the naked body created allegedly pure and natural joy.3 Indeed, the underlying assumptions about race stressed in modern scholarship typically remained a latent feature in early-twentieth-century nudism, subservient to the more transformative experience of following a "natural" lifestyle.4 [End Page 433]

The core assumptions of naturism were reproduced in different contexts within Europe. Scholars have most frequently analyzed the German experience and the process by which the concepts of physical beauty and natural purity became intertwined with racist and socialist utopias. In the völkisch discourse of anti-Semitic nudists like Richard Ungewitter, on the one hand, an exclusive conception of racial pureness was contrasted with the degenerative fancies of urban modernity. Writers such as Adolf Koch, on the other hand, exemplified a more social democratic inspiration in their writings. Both types of discourse nonetheless invested the very same nudist practices with a wholly different image of a naked and classless equality—an image they contrasted with the alleged false conventions and distinctions of bourgeois society.5 Still, recent scholarship has shown the breadth of views among naturists at this time throughout the whole of Europe. Dating from the turn of the century, Scandinavian naturists, followed by the French and British naturists during the early 1920s and thereafter Dutch and Belgian nudists after the late 1920s, practiced their ideals with reference to markedly different political and social discourses. Progressive, conservative, racist, and even religious perspectives coexisted within the nude cultures of these countries. Accordingly, nudism in Europe developed within local traditions that, even while they clearly reflected the German model, also contained genuinely national aspects and incorporated various cultural traditions.6 As a result, while the behavior and practices of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 432-461
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-13
Open Access
No
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