The shame of clothing

Would you be more comfortable if I took off my pants?

It’s been way too long since I last spoke those words. Most of my college friends will know it was a common question in my room, one that often led to much more physically comfortable (though probably far more socially awkward) gatherings.

I kept thinking of this as I recently reread the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Author Don Miller talks about how much we often gloss over the part of the story about them being naked and unashamed. I know I’ve joked with people before about how if Adam and Eve hadn’t blown it, we’d all be naked right now. But I think Miller’s right in that we don’t ever really give any serious thought to our original design.

What would it mean to be naked and unashamed? The first realization Adam and Eve make upon eating the fruit from the forbidden tree is the simple fact that they are naked. Shame enters the world as they seek covering.

That seems like a natural reaction to those of us accustomed to wearing clothes, right? But what were they ashamed of? Yes they were naked, but they’d been that way their entire lives and they were man and wife. It’s not like they hadn’t seen each other before that point. And aside from vegetation and some animals, it’s not like the neighbors were watching.

But they were ashamed and instantly sought covering. They were so ashamed of their physical appearance, designed specifically by God, that they began the clothing industry. We’ve been clothed and ashamed ever since.

Except that’s not really true, is it? Jesus often told us to be like children in our faith. Children are innocent and trusting; they often accept the divine and miraculous without scientific proof. But there’s one other thing about children that reminds me of the way we were originally meant to be – they really seem to not like wearing clothes.

For the first few years of their lives, kids are constantly tugging and clawing at whatever adorable outfit their parents forced upon them. It’s not comfortable; it’s constricting. They want to be free, and they know these cloth coverings are not natural.

Eventually we “grow out of it,” by which I mean our parents finally convince us that it’s socially unacceptable to run around naked. It’s by no means the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned, but it probably will forever be the one that bums me out the most.

We’ve even redefined the meaning of the word “comfort” to assume clothing. Many people have a hard time admitting that it is more comfortable to not wear clothes than it is to be fully dressed. They point to “comfortable” clothes like sweatshirts and pajama pants and slippers and complain about how it’s too cold.

Forget all that. Imagine ideal temperature, no worries about being too cold. Now imagine there is no one around for miles. And start to realize how freeing it would be to simply be naked.

Most people will start blushing and refuse to even think about the possibility. It’s shameful. But what is shame aside from something we’ve created within culture? Different cultures find different things to be shameful. Shame is something we’ve pieced together; it is not from God.

I remember my high school marching band experience, where we would often change in the middle of very public areas. It was just accepted that this was something we did. Except for the girls: they had their own private bus to change in, guarded like a maximum security prison by the over-eager band moms.

I always thought it was funny that several of the girls I knew who were so ashamed to change in public would gladly go to the beach wearing some pretty scandalous bikinis that showed off far more than your typical undergarments. To be honest, I still don’t understand that phenomenon. I probably never will. But I digress.

That experience helped me realize that there’s nothing to worry about when changing in public. Strip down to some awesomely festive boxers and enjoy! After all, those boxers cover far more than the shorts that men wore all the way up until the ‘90s (and that some older gentlemen continue to wear even today).

In college I always got the impression that I was weird because I was comfortable sitting around without pants on. To be honest (and to probably share a little too much information), I probably wouldn’t have been comfortable without the festive boxers. I guess we all have our limits.

As I read the first few chapters of Genesis, however, I realize that the little kids have it right on. We adults are the people that have it all messed up. We’ve created a concept of shame that keeps us from truly being comfortable. Even when buying clothing we often (or pretty much always) worry more about how it looks than how it feels. We’re trying to attract attention by covering ourselves with designer fabric, so that people will like us more. And we wonder why we have messed up relationships.

Now I realize the constraints of society mean it is culturally inappropriate to walk around unclothed, and I am not suggesting that any of us should do so. I promise this is not some sort of nudist call for civil disobedience of a potentially disturbing sort.

Rather, I want to encourage us all to really think about what purpose clothing serves in our lives. I know it sounds like a weird topic, but I promise it’s legitimate.

We (as in, humanity) first used clothes as a way to cover our shame. Now we use it to broadcast certain messages about ourselves, and these messages are culturally constructed so we know what they mean. We understand that formal attire is appropriate at some times while inappropriate at others, with the inverse holding true of sweats and a sweatshirt.

But how much do we form our own identity (or at least try to broadcast it to the world) in our clothing? I find it fascinating that we use the same clothing to hide our true selves and to share an idealized (in our minds) image of who we are for others to see.

God never meant for us to wear clothes, and He never meant for us to feel shame. While both are key components to this fallen world in which we live, we continue to take it further and further. We hold things inside rather than sharing them with people we trust and care about. We cover our flaws, insecurities and struggles with shiny name-brand attire, hoping no one will be able to see through our outerwear.

We use the phrase “wearing your emotions on your sleeves” to talk about people who are too public with their emotions. One of the most commonly referenced nightmares involves showing up to school or work completely naked. It is the truest image of vulnerability our culture has, and vulnerability is frowned upon.

But without opening ourselves and being vulnerable, we will never really get to know each other. We will never be able to truly love. I think that’s the harshest result of that experience in the Garden. Our shame over our nakedness has pushed us to the opposite extreme, preventing us from really living out the relational love for which we were created.

God created us in His own image. God is love. Therefore, the reason we exist is to love. That is our purpose. And there are so many witty comments I could make right here that would perfectly sum up my point but would be so full of innuendo that it would defeat the purpose.

So (avoiding as much innuendo as possible) don’t be ashamed of your nakedness the way Adam and Eve were. Those crazy kids running wildly with their clothing strewn about the room have it right, maybe not entirely literally in our culture but in the idea it represents.

Stop hiding your shame behind your clothing and share your real self with others. It might (and probably will) lead to some pain, but it will also break you of the shame you hold inside. It will open your heart to the possibility of love, and as that annoying “Open Hearts” Kay Jeweler collection commercials say, if your heart is open, love will find a way in.

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