The recent incidences in Nairobi where some women were embarrassingly undressed in public by some matatu gangs for what they termed scant dressing has made me write my views on the relation between nakedness and disgust. The incidences brought strong reaction on twitter to condemn the action with the hash tag #MyDressMyChoice trending for two weeks in Kenya. A section of other Kenyans advocating for decent dressings had their hash tag #NudityIsNotMyChoice trending for the same period in Kenya.
While I personally condemn these actions of public embarrassment by forcibly undressing women, the disgust expressed in seeing a naked being is not a new thing. Perhaps the matatu goons, as matatu operators are known in Nairobi, were unable to hide their disgust on seeing a scantily dressed lady on the streets. Mary Douglas cites Charles Darwin in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) as feeling very disgusted when a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat he was eating, even though the hands of the native did not appear dirty. Could Darwin’s feeling be the same as that of the matatu goons?
While Darwin seems not have translated his feeling of disgust into action, the matatu goons went ahead to attack the ladies. Studies of disgust show that disgust is influenced by cultural background; additionally, disgust is a relative term and people from a shared cultural background may not express it about the same thing, or in the same way. In short: your disgust is not my disgust. Before the lady was stripped, obviously many others had seen her without necessarily feeling disgusted. While disgust-elicitors such as body secretions and decaying flesh are reported as universal, nakedness is not a universal elicitor of disgust.
Sights of nakedness–such as seeing an animal without fur–are likely to elicit disgust. Seeing a naked man on the streets is likely to make one feel disgust and/or fear. In a court case in the UK in which a couple was charged for walking naked, part of the judgement read as follows:
“At least one female member of the public veered out of his way. Evidence from two women was to the effect that they were “alarmed and distressed” and “disgusted” at seeing him naked. One of the women was with a number of children at least one of whom, 12 years old, she reported as “shocked and disgusted”.
In Ezekiel 23:18 in the Old Testament, Noah narrates how Lot uncovered her nakedness and he became disgusted with her just as he had become disgusted with her sister. Several other stories in the in the Bible relate to nakedness and disgust, including Leviticus 18 and 20, which combines the scene of Noah’s nakedness with the story of Lot and his daughters to condemn/rebuke incestuous relationships.
Although the actions of the matatu goons were unwarranted, nakedness is therefore an elicitor of disgust. The advocates of decent dressing (#NudityIsNotMyChoice) could be individuals who easily get disgusted by nakedness.
About the author: Job Mwaura is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communications. Job is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and completed his Msc in Communication and Journalism in 2013 at Moi University.
About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit the DirtPol website.