I spent most summers as a kid squeezed into my parents’ creaking blue minivan, trudging with family in tow at a slow clip down America’s highways, oversized duffle bags and wrinkled Rand McNally maps between us. We covered most of the country like that – almost every state in fact – but oddly managed to avoid California. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the expense, or the distance from New York. Or maybe my parents were cautious of exposing their children to the west coast’s more expressive forms of freedom. I refer, of course, to San Francisco.
I’ve still never made it to that city (friends, however, return with only glowing reviews) so news that the board of supervisors has just banned public nudity there doesn’t hit any visceral note of outrage or celebration. To be honest, I’m mostly amazed that it was legal to begin with. The so-called “Naked Guys” of the Castro District are known internationally but I assumed they were just flouting the law, simply sticking it to the man. But it was all quite legal.
I’m conflicted about all of this. San Francisco has always been America’s safe response to all those nose-thumbing and hedonistic Europeans whose vision of America is chastity belts and Bibles. It was very useful to have a city that carried the “progressive” torch. San Francisco: “It’s just like Europe!” Has a little piece of that just died?
I remember another family trip, this time to Italy, when we stumbled upon a good-sized yacht off the coast of a village on the Amalfi coast. A bunch of topless girls lounged on the deck. As a child from the States that’s not the sort of thing you want to experience with your parents. You avoid those situations. They’re embarrassing. But nudity isn’t outwardly harmful. It’s not scarring in that way. It is, of course, like most social issues, all about context and perception. I say the anti-nude crusaders have a much better argument in the area of hygiene than offence to civility.
Ironically, as San Fran tightens its belt, some trends in Europe seem to be shifting. The city council in riotous Barcelona banned complete nudity in the city just last year (save a small zone on a single beach), whereas visitors to once-uptight Vienna can now view giant billboards of the nude male form. They’re advertisements for two new exhibitions in town.
The law in San Francisco won’t go into effect until after 1 February and it still faces a few hurdles, including a lawsuit by a group of nudists, a second vote by the board and a signature by the mayor. But at the moment it seems likely to pass. And all so near that most American of holidays: Thanksgiving.
So while many will give thanks to shirts and to trousers, to socks and to pants, others will give thanks to skin. I think I’ll join the latter.