Parts that Nature Taught us to Conceal


Now, it’s not chronic, and I don’t know if he says this to anyone else, but lately, Owen has been yelling out “boobies and penises!” (quite joyfully), to see if he can get a reaction out of us. We try not to react. We tell him that it’s not appropriate. That it’s not polite. That we all have these things but we don’t talk about them.

“We all have boobies and penises?”

“Yes. Well, no. Only boys have penises.”

“But everybody have boobies?”

“Well, sort of, except some are bigger than others.”

“I have little boobies?”


“And you have…” (You see where this is going).

Owen has yet to ask “why” with any degree of seriousness. When we ask him why he’s sad, or why he’s grumpy, he usually responds by saying “I sad because I sad” or “I grumpy because I no want to do that.” Last week, when he got to daycare late because of a trip to the doctor, he cried so much Duncan had to pick him up almost immediately. Back home (and perfectly well, by the way), we asked him “Why didn’t you want to be at daycare, Owen?”

He turned the question back on us: “I was at daycare and I cried and I was sad, and Daddy came to get me and he say why you sad, Owen, why, why, why?” Pause. “I happy now.”

Anyway, I keep anticipating his question, “why” – why don’t we talk about penises and boobies? Social convention? Because we cover them with clothes and like to pretend that they don’t exist?

I was teaching Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels today (the section on the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos). The Houyhnhnms, hyper-rational talking horses, do not understand Gulliver’s desire to wear clothing. Gulliver explains that clothes are essentially worn to protect against “the inclemencies of air, both hot and cold,” but he also asks that his Houyhnhnm master not force him to reveal “those parts that nature taught us to conceal.”  His master replies that Gulliver’s “discourse was all very strange, but especially the last part; for he could not understand, why nature should teach us to conceal what nature had given; that neither himself nor family were ashamed of any parts of their bodies.”

Gulliver’s comment is meant to be ironic, since it is not nature but custom that prevents us from showing our private parts; to the Houyhnhnms, clothing seems to be another form of concealment practiced by humankind, a kind of sartorial lying (or, in Houyhnhnm speech, “the thing which is not“).

I try to be honest with Owen. I try to tell him the truth, so that even if he doesn’t understand exactly what I’m explaining, I’ve at least tried. But in this case, I feel a bit two-faced. I don’t at all want him going to daycare and asking people about penises and boobies. But I am also having a hard time of thinking up a real reason why he can’t.

I would love to hear how you have negotiated these waters.