Dr Tobias Fünke (played by comedian David Cross) has a pathological fear of being naked – he is, he says, a “never nude” – which leaves him unwilling to remove his denim cut-offs even while showering. Seven-year itch, indeed.
The correct clinical label for the never nude condition is said to be “gymnophobia”, from the Greek gumnos for naked and phobos for fear. This term actually has no currency in psychiatry or psychology, but is one of the many confected phobias that appear in lists of odd aversions, alongside linonphobia, pogonophobia and lachanophobia (fears of string, beards and vegetables, respectively).
Search for “gymnophobia” in a scientific database and you will be directed not to studies of pathological prudes but to an obscure, and presumably modest, species of Indian crustacean (Pagurapseudopsis gymnophobia).
But although gymnophobia may not be a recognised condition, fears of bodily exposure certainly exist. (As a general rule, if you can imagine an unusual symptom then someone will have it. In my brief clinical career I encountered people with intense fears of red soda and of getting trapped under carpets.)
The frequency of fears of nudity in this age of exhibitionism is unknown. However, related concerns are common.
People suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, for example, are convinced that a part of their body is horrible to behold. They may go to great lengths, including cosmetic surgery, to conceal it.
People who are self-conscious about revealing their bodies also have elevated rates of sexual dysfunction.
Concerns about intimate exposure are one component of many men’s inhibitions around the use of public bathrooms, a condition known as paruresis or “shy bladder”.
Fear vs shame
How much these concerns over bodily exposure involve fear rather than other emotions is an open question. Often the more relevant emotions are shame and embarrassment, especially when the person dreads personal exposure, but is untroubled by seeing another person’s body revealed.
Inhibitions about bodily exposure can cause trouble, but so can a lack of inhibitions. Those who violate other people’s expectations of modesty can be targets of moralistic attacks, as women who breastfeed in public or are held responsible for sexual assaults on the grounds of skimpy clothing have found to their dismay.
These modesty norms come down particularly hard on women, and coupled with our society’s emphasis on female appearance they can have surprising consequences.
A classic study randomly assigned young women to try on either a crew-neck jumper or a swimsuit, and then observed the effects on body shame, eating and performance on a mathematics task. Women who donned the swimsuits showed greater shame and more restrained eating. Their heightened self-consciousness also led them to perform worse on the maths task.
People also perceive others who expose their bodies in rather unflattering ways. My colleagues and I conducted a study in which participants viewed photographs of several men and women and judged their mental capacities.
Half the participants saw photographs in which the models were dressed casually and the other half saw photographs of the same models dressed revealingly (bikinis for the women, toplessness for the men).
When the models were showing lots of skin they were judged to have less complex minds and to be 10 IQ points less intelligent than when they were fully-clad.
This finding may reflect a view that people who show a lot of skin tend to be shallow, but that view may not be entirely without merit. A study of Facebook profiles found that more narcissistic people tended to have more revealing, less clothed profile photos.
But while Tobias Fünke is sure to suffer new indignities in the latest season of Arrested Development, perhaps he deserves a little sympathy. Bodies are troublesome things, and both revealing and concealing have their downsides.