I have never bought into the nonsense that our bodies are shameful.
I surely don’t interpret the Garden of Eden story in Genesis to conclude that Eve and Adam suddenly recognized their nakedness and stripped leaves from the bushes to fashion coverings to hide themselves. And surely our creator would not produce a super-intelligent being incredibly assembled and then relegate it to concealment. Societies, especially our own, have allowed themselves to be manipulated by misguided zealots with their incredibly crazy notions about the body. Why have the human genitalia and breasts been singled out for scorn and concealment? Surely, the hand can be ever more wicked. Surely the human tongue can wreak enormous havoc. And we know of evil societies that rip out tongues and cut off hands.
How can we stand to let our naked pets, the beasts in the zoo and all the other creatures roam so freely, exposing us to their naughty parts? It is all a sad cultural conditioning to get up to our perverse regard for the human form.
Little by little, we are recovering from it. Our bodies that primarily come in two forms are not really a big deal anymore in enlightened countries. Seems a majority of major films show some skin, and few people make a fuss. Cable TV has made the human body a pretty common view — and its mystique and mystery are lessened. It’s mostly the morality police, absolutists and religionists who keep beating the drums for modesty and for covering up the human form. It was the height of arrogance that European missionaries convinced indigenous people across the planet to abandon their body freedom and cover up after millenia of living as God created them. Complaints about breast-feeding in public gall me. Shame on the media that made a big deal about the “clothing malfunction” at the Super Bowl half-time show and ho, for a milli-second, part of a breast was revealed.
Just finished reading a book lent to me by a friend. It is called “Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, A Prosecutor’s Zeal and a Small Town’s Response.” (The New Press, 2010, 303 pages, $25.95. It was written by Lynn Powell. It is the odyssey of an Oberlin, Ohio, mother, Cynthia Stewart, whose hobby of photography was a passionate adventure. It’s the true story of a woman who felt compelled to capture every element of her daughter Nora’s life, starting at her birth in 1991. “I take pictures of my daughter so that when she is my age, she’ll have an aid to her memory of the way things were. Though I try to take good and artistic pictures, my aim is to keep a photographic journal of our family…” she would say. What started out as photos being taken once a month to record Nora’s height would become weekly photographic sessions.
Wrote author Powell, whose son was a playmate of Nora, “As Nora grew, so did the reasons to bring out the camera: puddle splashings, tree climbings, tea parties, bubble baths, picnics, birthdays, family friends, playmates, grandparents, fields of wildflowers, sunsets, pets…..Wherever he daughter went, Cynthia went, too, always with her Nikon around her neck.” Boxes and albums, all the negatives methodically filed. By the time Nora was 8, it was quite the blanket coverage of a girl growing up.
Of course, this adoring mother did what most parents do –shot bathtub pictures, bear-skin rug poses and casual snapshots of playtime before pajamas go on. Innocent photos by an adoring mom. “Throughout her life, I have chosen to take pictures of her when she is in various states of nudity to record the growth of her body and moments of silliness and play,” she would later write. Those were the days before digital cameras and the days before one could buy printers for at-home photo printing whereby no one else monitored what cameras were shooting. So Cynthia Stewart routinely took her rolls of film to Drug Mart for processing at the Fujicolor Processing Inc. in nearby Mansfield, Ohio. In July 1999, she discovered the store held back one of her rolls. She made inquiries but got no answers about the missing photos.
A month later, a police officer came to her door to have her go to the police station to discuss photos of her daughter. Two bathtub photos were termed especially objectionable. One of them was of Nora pointing a showerhead sprayer at her private parts. The other was of her lying on her back in the empty bathtub. A police report would say they “appeared pornographic in nature” and classified them as “child pornography.” The detective’s report noted, “Two of the photographs depict the juvenile having sexual contact with the pubic region and right side of her buttock with a running shower head.” Nineteen photographs were bathtub pictures, while 18 on the roll were of “unknown subjects including the unidentified juvenile female in normal setting.”
The county prosecutor took the photographs to a country grand jury and Stewart was indicted on two second-degree felony charges, each of which carried a maximum of eight years in prison. It violated a law forbidding the photographing of a minor child in a state of nudity except for “bona fide” artistic, medical, scientific, educational, religious, governmental, judicial or other proper purpose.” Technically, it was the “illegal use of (a) minor in nudity-oriented material or performance.”
Stewart, a strong, caring, disciplined school bus driver, was suspended from that job. Employing attorneys with grit, she quickly found the progressive Obelin community getting behind him. They held rallies, wrote letters to the editor and kept the story alive. A $40,000 legal defense fund, strong local and later national media coverage and a coterie of enterprising friends provided important support. Stewart was repeatedly told that she should have known better, that she was naive and that she had opened herself to the risk of arrest by her picture-taking, albeit not pornography in a sane world. Described as a remnant of the 1960s hippies, Stewart saw nothing wrong in her photography. Nora, whose father worked for The Nation magazine, was an over-achiever in school and went on to be a class valedictorian and go to Yale University to study Italian and theater. Throughout the 10-month process, Nora was put through counseling and only suffered the angst of what would be the fate of her mother.
In the end, despite heated attorney debates and Stewart’s stubbornness, the prosecutor let her go into a diversion program whereby if she completed counseling and essentially behaved herself, the matter would be expunged from the record. All along, Stewart argued that in no way would she admit to wrongdoing. She protested the county’s destruction of the two pictures at the center of the controversy. The book mentioned similar cases across the U.S. as photo lab employees were trained to spot problematic photos and turn them over to authorities. In most cases, common sense prevails and nothing comes of the situations. Always it needs to be asked: Would real pornographers send their film to a lab for processing? Certainly there’s the specter of lawmen coming after the pictures of your family all nude together in a bathtub blowing bubbles. There’s a chilling effect. Innocence is lost.
The book is an excellent lesson in self-restraints in parenting in a world too quick to judge and too puritanical about the human body in all its beauty.