BY Ariana Pyles
In Times Square, one of the most popular tourist attractions for families, New York’s summer-long controversy involving desnudas, the topless, body-painted women, continues to make headlines. Whether it’s a desnuda with her topless toddler or a proposal to move the women to a defined area of the plaza, one question still remains – do children internalize nudity the same way adults do?
Dr. Michelle A. Bell, a psychologist and owner of Inwood Family Guidance & Psychological Services in Manhattan, says that many factors impact a child’s reaction to nudity. “Depending on a child’s age, he or she would not ‘see’ topless women in the same way that adults do,” she said.
“Young children understand whether someone has clothes on or not,” wrote Bell, “but they do not associate the same ‘shame’ to it as adults tend to until they are a bit older and have been socialized, taught to practice ‘privacy’ when it comes to their bodies.”
Dr. Jennifer F. Cross supports Bell’s theory, but adds that a child’s outlook on nudity is more cultural than developmental. “A child isn’t necessarily hard-wired to regard nudity as not appropriate,” said Dr. Cross, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College. “There are some cultures where that is perfectly acceptable. I think in our culture we teach children that it is not appropriate and therefore it depends on what messages we are sending our children.” Cross said that children start to learn and internalize those rules at around age three or four.
One expert believes that it is the parents’ responsibility to decide whether to walk past the desnudas with children, because the desnudas have the right to be there. “The desnudas are not just topless but covered in body paint, which seems pretty clearly to be expressive artistic activity protected under the First Amendment,” wrote Mary-Rose Papandrea, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, in an email.
Papandrea, an expert in first-amendment law, believes that parents must determine what their children are exposed to. “For example, people have every right to swear in public, or even wear a jacket with profanity. Parents definitely have a duty to keep their kids away from topless women wherever they might be if the parents feel that such exposure is harmful to the children.” She draws a distinction between nudity and violence, though, and points out that California just passed a law banning the sale of violent video games to children, which she thinks is more harmful to the child’s psyche than nudity is.
New York Post reporter Amber Jamieson, who went undercover as a desnuda, doesn’t think these women are doing any harm to children. “Young children don’t sexualize these women in the same way adults do, so this whole ‘Think of the children!’ mentality doesn’t make sense when kids think it’s interesting, funny and entertaining.”