"Well, my boyfriend's son is 6 years old, and you wonder at what age you should stop walking around nude. Every morning he comes into the bedroom, and you're just nude. But he doesn't look twice; he doesn't think about it yet. I just toss and turn too much when I sleep, and if I'm in clothes, I get all twisted up."
—Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, 35, in Marie Claire's November issue
Is Hilary Swank being refreshingly uninhibited, or disturbingly immodest?
On the one hand, the first humans presumably lived nude, leaving us to believe that children saw naked adults all the time and evolved just fine. On the other hand, in U.S. culture today, nudity often carries sexual overtones and, even when innocent, can lead to misunderstandings. To find out more about the possible effects of adult nudity on children, we talked to child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character.
iVillage: What are the implications of a child seeing a nude adult?
Elizabeth Berger: There is a huge amount of opinion on this subject—and very little in the way of actual empirical research to back up the emotion and controversy on one side or the other. If you look at the world as a whole, there is extraordinary variety in terms of bodies and sexuality and what different times and different places have considered appropriate for children. With the ancient Greeks, adult men had sex with young boys. It was part of their culture. You see everything under the sun about cultural ideas of children's bodies, adults' bodies, and who has access to what bodies.
iVillage: If you're divorced with children, could being naked around a child affect custody?
Berger: The courts and the statutes and what's considered neglect of a child or abuse of a child—all of this is in a state of flux. We don't have a coherent science. This is an area in which people have fiery opinions without a whole lot to back it up. Certainly the context of, "I'm an 11-year-old, my mother's drunk boyfriend comes in and exposes himself to me"—that's abuse. But next door there's a family of hard-working, committed, responsible, highly ethical people who just happen to walk around naked among each other. I assure you there are families like that. If you follow such families over time, they don't seem to have any disturbances in their personalities or their sexualities. They're not feeling like this is an abusive home. What counts is what it means to the child, consciously and unconsciously.
iVillage: Could the nudity make the biological parent, who is not present, get upset?
Berger: It could lead to all kinds of misinterpretations and confusions. It seems like a lit cigarette thrown in a dry barn.