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Lao Tzu

The Church Times & A Brief History of Nakedness

June 25th, 2010

One of the frustrating things about the whole book writing business is that you spend sometimes years working on a book project. It’s finally published and then when the the book is mentioned, or the reviews come out, they so often seem to miss the very points you thought they’d pick up on. Here’s a graphic illustration of this. I suggested that the publisher send a copy to The Church Times, because a third of the book is about religion and there is a good deal of material on Christianity (that is respectful, surprising and – I think – very interesting). And then Lo! The Church Times does mention the book, but only to feature a photo of the Women’s Party of Poland, and a brief paragraph missing completely all the material on Christianity. But at least it’s in their bookshop and perhaps I do them a disservice and a review will appear later! Meanwhile the Independent’s review today has started to circulate the net with its reviewer’s snappy line: ‘Nudity is like religion: tolerable in moderation but embarrassing in excess.’  Jonathan Sale continues nicely: ‘Combining the two, like members of the aptly named “Fools for Christ” who loved to let it all hang out during Russian winters, is a proof of being out to lunch in a big way.’

Speaking of lunch, I was invited to speak on A Brief History of Nakedness while various clothed and unclothed members of the Spielplatz Naturist community tucked into their lunches on their Open Day last Saturday. It was disconcerting but I soldiered on, and was abetted by the webmaster of the Spencer Tunick Experience Unofficial Website, Gilead Limor, pictured here talking to me in the Club House. I was particularly interested in what he was able to say about the way participants in Spencer Tunick’s photo-shoots often go through a cycle of emotional and psychological states that can trigger a sense of the experience being life-changing.

Meanwhile I have been contacted by the Wellcome Foundation to speak about the way in which a sensitive and appropriate consideration of nakedness can be a useful way to help change the way we feel about ourselves (and hence the planet). Gok Wan in the UK and Carson Kressley in the USA are doing this in their own way for women in particular, but I am more interested in issues of identity, and of how our body-image affects the way we relate to others and the environment. The Wellcome Foundation’s event looks interesting. My talk will be:  ‘Ordinary heroes: how nakedness can be used to enlighten, empower and entertain.’ How many of us are comfortable enough in our own skins to feel free of any sense of embarrassment about our bodies? Despite the religious, legal and cultural restrictions that surround its display, nakedness has been used creatively by mystics, political protestors and artists for centuries. Today it is also being used by ‘ordinary people’ to break free from feelings of ‘body shame’ and from the tyranny of stereotypical ideas about beauty.’ For details see their site.

8 Responses to “The Church Times & A Brief History of Nakedness”

  1. Yes as you said it can be disconcerting being with naked people when we aren’t used to it. For most in primarily hot countries being virtually naked is normal – no big deal. The feeling of freedom and enlightenment from actually doing it ourselves just shows another gift our wonderful body has when working in tandem with the mind. ‘Fire walking’ has this ability too, has anyone firewalked naked I wonder ! and what were the consequences?
    We all know the reasons why we feel vulnerable when naked, but what gifts does this vulnerability have for us? To find out do we need to be with a group eating comfortably together or be on our own, or with one other, or a group with a primary aim of self discovery?

  2. I think the more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more comfortable we are with others; the more at home we feel in our bodies, the more at home we feel in the material world. When the underlying reason for covering ourselves is shame, embarassment or self-loathing (as oppossed to practical reasons) we create a kind of fracture between our inner lives and our skin, which can result in a difficulty with feeling fully embodied. Seeing that we exist in a material world, to not feel fully embodied must surely sever us from our environment and impact on our relationships with others.

    I had a series of strange experiences at my local pool some years ago. The female changing rooms had an open communal shower. I hate the smell of chlorine on my skin so I would always strip naked to wash (I wouldn’t wear a swimming costume at home in my shower!). I was surprised at how many women remained in their costumes, despite bringing shower gel to wash with. It seemed so odd to me, and a little sad, that despite being all girls together, there was this unspoken disquiet about getting naked. If I was the only one naked, I would often feel really uncomfortable – it felt taboo; I would always give a little inward cheer when there was someone else there who had stripped off too – there then became this silent kinship with that person or persons and I’d feel so much more at ease.

    I would suspect that it was overwhelmingly a lack of body confidence that led to that strange and impractical situation. It makes me feel incredibly sad that so many women feel so badly about their bodies that they would feel compelled to wash clothed in front of others (which is why I love Gok Wan and want him to come live with me for ever and ever!!).

    When we take the risk to share with others our nakedness, it can actually boost our confidence because the act of revealing strips away the sense of ourselves as being unacceptable. When we share this very vulnerable state together, I think we come to realise that what we thought was unlovable about our bodies is actually perfectly normal and even rather wonderful. All of us have quirky imperfections and when we see these in ourselves and others, it helps to prevent those limited and rigid stereotypes of ‘perfection’ dominating our thinking and damaging our relationships with our own bodies.

    Our skin is that extraordinary interface between our inner selves and the world outside. If clothing becomes a shield – rather than adornment or providing warmth – then we risk an easy flow of connection between that inner self and outer world becoming blocked or distorted. I think shared nakedness potentially promotes an honesty and kinship between people; in that most basic of states, we share what it means to be human in the most fundamental sense and this can only promote empathy. I think it is this empathetic sensitivity that ultimately impacts not only on our relationships with others but also with how we relate to all life. Quite simply, if we love and accept ourselves, then the way we move through life – and interact with it – becomes loving and inclusive.

  3. Thank you for this post Philip. will you be coming to the Naked Bike Ride’s Skinny Dip this Saturday 3 July at the Pells Pool then? (Britain’s first public swimming pool) It’s 7.30 – 10.3pm

    This time last year, I was struggling with the fact that being about to have my left breast removed because of cancer would mean that I’d never be able to skinny dip again. I voiced my sadness with friends, one of whom said that she knew someone who swam naked in public and that if we accpeted our bodies other people would too.

    A week after I had the operation I was given a leaflet by someone in the Farmers Market inviting me to the first skinny dip at the Pells Pool, organised by the Naked Bike Ride. I protested that I’d just had a boob removed and couldn’t possibly. Matthew just replied that he couldn’t see there was a problem; there was man there who was born with no willy, after all.

    A week later I turned up and the moment of frisson and fear when I took off my TShirt turned into one of liberation as I realised that we are, after all, the same in the skin. Bulging here, scarred there, what’s the big deal?

    Being naked, then, is it about turning self-consciousness and vulnerability into freedom?

  4. I’ll just add a comment based on my experience, that I feel is relevant both to Maria’s and Adrienne’s posts.

    After I and 159 others posed for Spencer Tunick at the Saatchi Gallery opening in 2003 (A Brief History of Nakedness pp. 222-223), we were invited to join the VIPs inside the gallery, on the condition we remained naked. Around half the participants, myself included, took up the offer and entered the gallery.

    Now, I would be right to guess that most of us get nervous and excited about being amongst celebrities at the best of times, so the prospect of joining a celebrity party with no clothes on could be extremely daunting (and I do not recall another similar situation in recent history, so this may have been unique).

    What we experienced though was something even more unique than the setting itself. For the first few minutes, we were the nervous ones, not sure what to do and how to conduct ourselves surrounded by so many famous people.

    But within minutes, it was us who were getting the attention: celebrities wanting to talk to us, have their pictures taken with us and find out how the experience was for us. In a complete turn of the tables, we were suddenly the ones who were walking around in confidence and as naturally as can be. We had command of the situation, and the VIPs were the ones who were feeling a bit out of place. My only surprise is that some of them did not see fit to strip off and be a part of the experience.

    My point here, is that we really have the ability to empower ourselves by just being our naked selves, warts, scars and all, and once we feel confident being naked in what we consider a natural setting, and project this around us, it will be the clothed people who may begin to feel out of place, and – with a bit of encouragement – may find their own way to this truly liberating experience.

  5. i remember hanging out with a group of Devon based people used to getting their clothes off – except pants and knickers I have to say – and leaping into the various bodies of water in the Dartmoor area for the sheer fun and pleasure of it. My God what a way to experience River Dart, all the beauty magnified, senses heightened, an exhilaration of unification with nature. We went on a journey for at least 50 feet, swimming or picking our way over smoothed stone and gushing water. We ran back through the woods yelping and laughing and spent time in the sun cartwheeling and playing before returning to the closetness of our clothes.
    A profound experience of skin, senses and nature that has enriched my journey no end . . .

  6. Hi – just wanted you to know how much I am enjoying your book (currently I have just read the first chapter, but I did flick through to look at the pictures!). I would love to have the courage to have taken your advice from the opening paragraph, but I don’t think stripping off in a bookshop in Scotland is very wise – Steven Gough, I believe, is still in HMP Edinburgh of walking naked through the streets of the city! It seems ironic that there is also a photograph in the book of a protestor taken during the G8 Summit in Edinburgh in 2005 – did he end up behind bars? I find this image quite powerful, as the guy defiantly raises his clenched fist whilst being surrounded by police in full riot gear – it’s as if “society” is so threatened by the sight of a lone naked male figure it needs seven riot police to remove him from the sight of others. Is he brave?, or stupid?, or is it that he thought his nakedness would give more attention to the cause he was protesting about?, or is he just seeking attention?
    In your book you mentioned the time you found yourself alone at Mount Caburn, and the “feeling of joy” you encountered. Can I ask was this your first time of being naked outdoors? Why I ask, is because this is how I felt the first time I stripped off a couple of years ago – it was something I had always thought of doing, and one day on a walk in the Scottish lowlands I found myself at the top of a hill and I just shed my clothes. I had not planned to do it, and I don’t know why that particular day, but I felt for the first time in my life totally at ease with myself, and at one with nature. I have not felt the same since then, now when I am naked insecurities build up in my mind – am I going to get caught?; what would people think of me?; could I be arrested by the police?. I still enjoy being nude outdoors but unlike that first day I am unable to have a completely free mind and spirit because of my insecurities. I have never been to a naturist camp, and I suppose that if I wanted to enjoy being naked without all the worries it is something I should consider.
    Just a final question for you. I found out about your book from reading a review in “Naturist Life” magazine – what was happening in the accompanying photograph? (I’m just curious).

    • Hi Tom,
      Glad you are enjoying the book! The Mt Caburn experience wasn’t the first time – I had been skinny dipping before – but it was the first time I found myself asking questions like “Why is this roblematic in our society?”. In the photo you mention I was having a lesson in martial arts. I was being taught how to deflect blows – though it doesn’t look like it!

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