Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Being hairless and covering it

On my train ride home, for an unknown combination of stimulants, I suddenly found myself thinking about clothing and dignity. My thinking actually started with a simple question, and I spend the remainder of the train ride trying to answer the question. The question was this:

Why do clothing means so much to human?

Think about it. In our current culture, what we wear define ourselves. What we wear symbolize our dignity. It is not little known that we measure the level of education received by an indigenous society by how they clothe themselves. People from deep Papua forest are often considered primitive simply for their lack of clothing. Even more extreme, children are thought that clothings are what differs man and animal. These points raised other questions, like

Why is koteka unacceptable in modern society? Is civilization inversely proportional with how much of human skin left unclothed?*

Ah, civilization. That word remind me of a paragraph I read in this book. It was about the explosion of Mt. Toba, that immediately cooled down earth temperature. Think of it like the Krakatoa explosion, but with impacts several order of magnitudes higher. The author then at some point explains that the explosion posed new problems to human, which by then has evolved to resemble the present day human, fairly hairless and without internal ability to survive the ice age. It is then only logical that they invent clothing.

What perplexed me is how this process is pretty much irreversible. Why didn't our ancestor ditch the extra layers when it got warmer? Particularly for humans who lived in the tropical area?

At that point my train of thought got stuck, and I have to get off the train to change to another line anyway. So I tried to put the whole thing in a timeline.

Our ancestor was covered in hair. But we evolved to be a fairly hairless species. Pardon me for employing the concept of natural selection banally, as this was pretty much what I remembered from Junior High Biology. Anyway, our evolution from hairy to hairless means that hairless appearance is favored (Why? Is it because Africa--the land the first humans roamed was/is hot that we don't need the hair?).

After we become hairless, catastrophe strikes in the form of cold temperature. To adjust and survive, we then create extra layer of skin. We covered our body.

But then it got warmer. And warmer. And warmer. If clothing was simply for function's sake (cold, put more layer. hot, shed some), we'd be seeing more people in their birthday suit in tropical area. But we don't. It's not reversible.

So why? Is it because we look better in clothing? But if that's the case, a lot of people seem to realize that society frowned upon their choice of outfit, yet they insist on wearing the frowned attire anyway. So it must not be solely society perspective. Now my train of thought got stuck again. I'll accept that I am presently unable to find the reason behind the irreversibility of clothing in human civilization.

But then my attention was shifted. If being clothed is good, why must the opposite equals to embarassment? How did we develop that instinct to cover ourselves (or at least, our nether regions) when we're accidentally caught in our birthday suit? Seeing that infants and newly borns doesn't seem to practice this modesty, it must have been something that is taught and reinforced by their interactions with the adults during their development. But the question why remains. Why does being dignified require our skin to be covered? Why don't human wants other humans to see parts of their body? Even when we introduce the lust-containment argument, i.e. women must cover their skin lest they arouse men, the most fundamental principle why clothing define our dignity is left unanswered**.

In the end, I don't argue that clothing are bad, or that we should all live in nudist colony. I'm just wondering how exactly human civilization got to this state with clothing. And my mind haven't even wandered to the variety of value of different clothing for different people. We live in a world where a Sudanese woman faced the threat of lashing for wearing jeans, a piece of clothing that most of us took for granted. We live in a world where a formal attire for men includes a piece of clothing with no apparent functionality: tie. We live in a society that celebrates differences and condescends those that are too different, say by wearing burqa***. We live, in an absurd world.

* and if the answer to this question is yes, where that leaves models with skimpy clothes that leaves no room for imagination? Or even porn?
** i.e. why the same thing doesn't apply to men, or why men are being given free pass.
*** I have to admit that I personally feel a bit uneasy with those that do wear burqa.

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