Artist unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Naked and Not Ashamed

illustrated drop cap for the letter AAs a child, I watched and sang along to the iconic soundtracks of The Prince of Egypt and Joseph: King of Dreams DVDs until the CDs were scratched beyond recognition and would not play anymore. Like Joseph, I was a young dreamer. I had dreams of heaven and otherworldly places. My mum would encourage me to recount them to her, record them in my journal, and pray about them. When I woke up startled from a nightmare, I would immediately kneel beside my bed and ask God to take away the evil. Whenever I had a pleasant dream, I would leap from my top bunk and run to my mum’s bedroom to tell her the good news. Unfortunately, some dreams were difficult to understand and required extra prayers for interpretation. 

Before you sought the Holy Spirit to understand, one reviewed the tried and tested dream symbols collection. Pastors across all the major Nigerian Pentecostal groups endorsed these symbols. Every serious Christian was familiar with them. As a Pentecostal, all of life was spiritual: Dreams were not random sensory, cognitive, emotional occurrences during sleep. They were portals into the spiritual realm — a dimension where you witnessed certain things that were rich in symbols representing a host of meanings.

 Eating, in your dreams, was terrible news. You had to rebuke that dream with prayers immediately to stop evil from manifesting in the physical realm. Certain animals in your dreams, like a snake, warranted a three-day fast because they signified unwanted deception lurking in your life. But being visited by a white dove called for testimony in church the following Sunday because it meant peace and prosperity were in your near future. 

Nakedness in dreams was a terrible thing. It called for extra caution in your day-to-day life. It could require several days of prayer and fasting, depending on the perceived severity. Nakedness meant exposure. This sort of exposure was always unnecessary and indecent, symbolizing some form of shame or disgrace about to take place in your lived reality.

I never questioned this notion because any form of exposure was frowned upon in real life as well. I hit puberty early. By the fourth grade, my breasts were nearly fully formed. I skipped the entire training bra stage and went straight from white, frilly inner vests to proper three-clip adjustable bras with thick shoulder straps. I would always leave P.E. early to get to the bathroom to change into my school uniform before all the other girls came in. That way, I would avoid their whispers and muffled giggles as they marveled at the bodily contraption that was my wonderbra. I also dealt with my mum’s and aunties’ concerns about my expedited puberty. I would always hate the random yank on my T-shirt whenever I wore a V-neck or low-cut shirt. “Cover up, don’t expose yourself,” they would say. I had learned that my body was the temple of God, and modesty was one of the ways to honor that temple. I became self-conscious about my fuller breasts, envious of girls who could wear halter neck tops to school parties, wishing God had not entrusted me with the burden of big boobs. After surviving elementary school, I moved to a Christian missionary secondary school that abided by a strict dress code that heavily policed students’ outfits. A disproportionate amount of those policed were female.

Years later, I moved away for college and deconstructed my faith. I unlearned many of the conservative doctrines and stringent theologies I was raised to believe. During this tumultuous period of my life, I battled with the guilt of my now doubt-filled faith and pulling apart of my religious identity. I found solace in sharing my journey of religious deconstruction and spiritual awakening online. I spoke openly about my seasons of depression, anxiety, and the internalized shame I had adopted from religion. Family members and concerned individuals who followed me on Instagram at the time would call and say, “Nne, why are you posting all of these things on Instagram? Don’t you know you are exposing yourself ?” I received texts reminding me that if I wanted to get married, I would have to stop exposing myself like this and that I was not the first to have issues. Nigerian culture is inherently conservative. Everything is meant to be covered up — thighs, family secrets, promotions, cleavage, where you were going on holiday, rape, your emotions.

In the Christian creation story in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. It was not until they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that they came into a consciousness of their nakedness. They proceeded to use fig leaves to sew loincloths to cover their bodies and then hid from God. When God came looking for Adam and Eve in the garden, Adam confessed, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid.” God asked him, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:10 –11)

I often wonder how we came to associate nakedness with shame. This notion of indecent exposure is not relevant to only physical nakedness. Still, it applies to proverbial nakedness — any form of vulnerability or emotional openness. Genesis Chapter 1 consistently reiterates that God created everything and saw that it was good. Adam and Eve, made in God’s image after his likeness, were naked and were both declared good. They were naked but not ashamed until external knowledge convinced them that their nakedness was something to be ashamed of. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil aptly represents the binary thinking that religion perpetuates as ultimate truth, in this case, labeling nakedness, our natural God-given forms, as shameful. What if naked is what God always intended for us to be? I am not advocating that we do away with the clothing industry and bare our skin. But what if we shift our perspective to see our bodies as inherently good? Inherently worthy in their natural form instead of indecently exposed and sexualized? What if the spiritual representation of nakedness is not necessarily shame and exposure but rather vulnerability and authenticity? As acclaimed shame researcher and queen mother of vulnerability Brené Brown suggest, what if we choose to stand in the power of our vulnerability?

In my senior year of college, I dreamt that I was standing in one of Ithaca’s gorges, underneath the waterfall, naked. My breasts were hanging proud, the rock was firm beneath my feet, and the water was caressing my skin as I smiled and took it all in. When I woke up, I did not default to binding and casting to negate the anticipated doom of physical disgrace and shame. Instead, I broke into a song of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God that I could finally exist as my most authentic self. I no longer needed to hide behind my fig leaves of material possessions and personal achievements to mask my insecurities. The dream was pleasant. I shared the dream and my interpretation with a family member who concluded that I was misguided. I was not upset that I could not share the joys of this revelation with them. I have come to understand that our spiritual journeys and perceptions of God should always be deeply personal, guided by experience, and not dominated by doctrine.

Now, my spirituality is primarily driven by personal experience. I align with Gnosticism, a collection of religious ideas from  Jewish and early Christian sects that emphasize personal spiritual knowledge above orthodox teachings and traditional institutions. The Gnostic interpretation of Adam and Eve’s recognition of their nakedness highlighted in religion scholar Elaine Pagels’s book Beyond Belief is a refreshing take void of all the shame. “Another book discovered at Nag Hammadi, On the Origin of the World, says that when the first man and woman recognized their nakedness, ‘they saw that they were naked of spiritual understanding [gnosis].’” (Beyond Belief, Pg 164)  I knew my naked dream was not something to be afraid of, even though I had been taught to default to fear. My inner voice confirmed that my dream was a mandate to be free, that my body was the temple of God. He chose to enact this embodiment through my vulnerability. Writing this essay feels like the manifestation of vulnerability that my naked dream from a few years ago was alluding to. Here is to a future that is exposed, vulnerable, and naked — but not ashamed.