I’m trying to imagine Malaysian booksellers and publishers I know in a version of this picture! I doubt we’ll ever be so comfortable with our bodies (and sufficiently free of guilt, shame and terror) to pose naked for any kind of cause. In this picture, French booksellers and publishers are responding to remarks made by a minister about a new picture book that’s filled with illustrations of people without their clothes on. Their message: “Tous à poil contre la censure!” or “Everyone naked against censorship.”The book, Tous à Poil by Claire Franek and Marc Daniau, will of course not be available in Malaysia. Ever. It might give Malaysians ideas. It might reveal that underneath our sarongs and Levi’s, our baju kurung and sarees, our mini skirts and Juicy Couture track pants, we are … wait for it … NAKED!
Malaysians are born fully-clothed. We leave our clothes on when showering (the more daring of us might wear swimsuits), and if there’s any sexual intercourse involved in the baby-making process, it’s done with all our clothes on, in a pitch-dark room. This is why Peter Mayle’s picture book Where Did I Come From caused such a stir in this country – in Malaysia, it’s heresy to suggest that adults take their clothes off and do enjoyable things (to each other) in bed and that those enjoyable activities might result in a baby … and that baby would be born sans a nappy, babygrow, bonnet and booties.
In many people’s minds, nudity is very much associated with sex and sin, and I realise it’s pretty pointless trying to point out that someone who looks at picures of naked people isn’t likely to rush out and rape every other person they meet.
Tous à Poil is a picture book for children. It shows people of both sexes, all ages, all shapes and sizes stripping off and plunging into the sea, and as far as I can tell, its creators are trying to say that being naked is a normal, natural thing. There’s no shame in being naked. There really isn’t.
As a mother, I’ve always disliked others trying to impress upon my children the idea that nakedness is a shameful state to be in. ‘Shame-shame’ is a familiar refrain uttered by Malaysian adults when confronted by small bare bottoms or bodies. It’s said to little girls even more than little boys (of course). Somehow, the penis is a something to celebrate, the vagina to be hidden away. If you ask why, the answer you’re likely to get is that girls are more vulnerable, more likely to be abused and hurt, and so need more protecting. However, we are talking about toddlers and children. I think both boys and girls are equally likely to be sexually abused, and at that tender age, boys are just as unable to protect themselves as little girls are.
In any case, educating children about sexual abuse should not involve teaching them to be ashamed about their bodies. The shame that children are taught to feel about nudity is part and parcel of a reluctance to discuss matters about the human body, about sex, about sexuality.
There is little or no public discourse on sex and sexuality in Malaysia, and not much private discussion either. Parents prefer to avoid the topic, and deny the fact that their children are humans with natural curiosity and urges. It’s easier to hide it all away than to deal with the questions that will come if they let it all hang out, so to speak.
I should probably speak to as many parents as possible about this matter rather than assuming they will react in a negative way. Surely I am not the only one who believes the importance of banishing the taboos associated with the human body.