Leading Article: Stripping down puritanism

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The Independent Online
When it comes to nudity, the British are the most puritanical in Europe, according to the Independent Television Commission. It has been testing opinion on nakedness in advertisements and discovered that we don't like our suburban living rooms filled, without warning, with nipples and bottoms.

All of this sounds depressingly familiar. It suggests that we have changed little in a century. We are still oppressed by Victorian prudery, still a country of bathers who struggle under huge towels to put on 10-gallon shorts, a nation more comfortable dressing up in period costume than showing off our birthday suits.

We've never been at ease with the human body. There are no British equivalents of the great Italian and Dutch painters of the nude. Our finest artists of the human form, the likes of Gainsborough and Millet, excelled in representing clothing, not its absence. The few modern British painters, such as Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville, who portray nudity do so in a way that speaks at least partly of disgust.

But hang on a minute. If the British are so prudish, how come Page Three girls are allowed to strut their stuff, top shelves of newsagents are awash with pornography and the television nipple count often soars in the small hours of the morning?

The answer is that the British are tolerant about most things provided they are kept in their place. Large numbers of breasts publicly displayed are fine as long as people expect to find them there. So the Queen may look stony-faced, but she would never be shocked during an overseas visit to encounter a troop of bare-breasted dancers. That would not, however, do on Horseguards Parade.

Likewise, there are complicated notions of propriety for showing nakedness. The principles were best expressed in 1979, when the Williams' Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship argued that just about any material should be available for those seeking it out, but people should not stumble upon images they would find distasteful. So the most risque should be kept under the counter, out of sight.

The same principle applies today. Britain has a host of rules about the hours at which various levels of nudity are permitted on television. In contrast, France, Germany and Italy, for example, have less state control and fewer strictures.

But there is another factor that may help to explain British attitudes to nudity. It concerns the question of female breasts, which are the main area of controversy about nakedness. The British are clearly not at home with the chief function of the breast, namely to feed babies. One third of mothers never even try breast-feeding and only one in five is still doing it six months after birth, even though the Department of Health recommends continuing for a year. These figures are the lowest in Europe.

Given that we are so unhappy about using breasts, is it little wonder that we are wary about looking at them? All of which suggests how we might start to chip away at surviving prudish Victorian values. Instead of worrying about the censorship of nipples from shower advertisements, we should concentrate on providing a few images of them in babies' mouths.