More Than Nudity

If you think back to the last time you walked through a museum or an art gallery, there were undoubtedly at least a few pieces featuring nudity… maybe photography, paintings, or sculpture. Maybe a piece of film, a sketch, or some pottery, even. Nudes in repose, nudes in action. Nudes in daylight, nudes in candle light. Nudes of common folk and peasants, nudes of gods and heroes. Nudes in nature, and nudes in homes, courtyards, battlefields, beds. Nudes that tell a story, nudes that refuse to.

Artist at work, reflection” by Lucien Freud (1993) is a nude self-portrait of an aging artist with nothing to hide.

Despite a few art classes here and there, I am not an art historian, nor am I an art critic, but it seems clear in viewing any of this art that the point is not the nudity. It’s not nudity for the sake of nudity. It’s not about the skin or the breasts or the genitals. It’s not gratuitous flesh. Every nude body is there for a reason: The nudity serves a role, reinforces a theme or message, instills something in the work that a clothed image would not or could not. A nude body in a work of art could betray human vulnerability, but it could also herald strength and power. It could celebrate the innocence of youth, or lament the ravages of time. It tells us about the people, the values, the standards of beauty and morality of the era. Nudity is the vehicle to tell that story, to humanize the image, capture our emotions, and connect us to different experiences and worlds and times.

Bathing. Summer Evening” by Felix Vallotton (1892) caused outrage and uproar among critics when it debuted for daring to feature the nudity of average, everyday women as opposed to the idealized or eroticized bodies of aristocrats and mythical characters.

Almost as soon as I created this blog and started writing about my experiences and thoughts around nudism, I started receiving comments from readers, usually with positive feedback or kind words, but occasionally less so. And that’s fine. Particularly, whenever I write or Tweet about queer experiences in relation to nudism (such as my entry, Naturism and the Gay Body), I tend to get a couple of comments that basically boil down to, “What does being gay have to do with nudism? Nudism is not about sex!” It’s always a little disheartening to feel… well… intentionally misunderstood. I know nudism is not about sex. I wish the people leaving comments like these knew that being gay is also not about sex, but more importantly, I wish they could see beyond their own experiences and, in the spirit of boundary-breaking nudism, consider a new perspective. It’s also not lost on me that almost every one of those comments comes from someone with “Christian nudist” in their profile somewhere. While they question what being gay could possibly have to do with nudism, I could very well respond in turn, “well, what does being Christian have to do with nudism?” But I don’t need to do that.

One of the things I love about the nudist and naturist community is that, since none of us can help but see the world through our own eyes, we all come to it with a different perspective, each of us finding meaning in nudity and body freedom that’s inspired by our experiences and values. I may not be a religious person, but I love to see Christian nudists and naturists who find the practice of nudism to enhance their faith, their spirituality, their connection with God. I love to see Christians analyzing and evaluating the Bible through a nudist lens, questioning traditional interpretations and imbuing their understanding of the text with a holy and celebratory view of the body. It’s not how I view the world, it’s not my faith, but I respect that perspective and the idea that nudism can be a vehicle to finding deeper meaning in one’s spiritual practices. I don’t have to ask what Christianity has to do with nudism, I can simply trust that Christian nudists are finding meaningful connections and be happy for them.

And that’s just it. In much the same way that nudity in art can carry all sorts of meaning beyond just nudity, nudity in everyday life can also carry a different importance beyond just being naked. I don’t mean to imply that being a nudist is comparable to being a renaissance painter… we’re moving from “big C” Culture to “little c” culture, from nudity in fine art to nudity in everyday life, but the principle remains. When you hear people talk about the reasons they love nudism, being socially nude, being nude in nature, etc., the list never starts and ends at, “I like being naked.” There’s always more: It feels good; It connects people; It liberates; It makes you feel like a part of nature, like a part of something bigger; It sheds all of the shame and expectations and allows you to just be. It’s not the nudity that we’re drawn to, it’s where the nudity takes us, what we learn about ourselves and others, what we overcome.

What I bring to my writing is a perspective that is unique to me, informed by my experiences and values, by what I know, the stories of people close to me, and how I see the world. Sometimes that means exploring the ways that nudity can be empowering and liberating for queer people. That doesn’t mean that mine is the only correct experience, only that it’s one of many, and I think it’s fascinating that nudity can have that power for people like me. What does being gay have to do with nudism? Nothing! But also, everything! Being gay and being a nudist are both integral to who I am, so it’s just as hard for me to separate the two from each other as it is to separate either of them from me. I can’t imagine being a gay man who isn’t a nudist, and I can’t imagine being a nudist without my experience of queerness. I enjoy nudism because I like to be naked, and I like to be naked because it connects me to a deeper level of myself, to others, to nature.

I also know that mine is not a universal experience, that others will have other intersecting values that they couldn’t imagine separating. And I want to know, what does it have to do with nudism? Truly, I’m asking. What does your interest in environmentalism and sustainability have to do with naturism? What does your passion for elevating women’s voices have to do with nudism? What does being a person of color or of indigenous background have to do with nudism? What does your love of photography, film, history, music, art have to do with nudism? I want to know all about it. I want to know the ways that nudity enhances your connection to the earth and the responsibility you feel to care for the natural world. I want to know how nudity can be a liberating force for women to free themselves of ridiculous beauty standards, harassment, shame, and all of the oppressive burdens placed on their bodies. I want to know how nudity can help historically marginalized, disenfranchised, and objectified groups reclaim their bodies, feel empowered, and find community. I want to know all of it, because these rich experiences enhance my appreciation not only for nudism but for the experiences and interests of others.

I think we should all share what it is about nudity or this community that is meaningful to us. And I think we should all try to be curious—about what is bringing us to this shared community, this Venn diagram of all sorts of different overlapping experiences and values and beliefs, the appreciation for the power of nudity there at the center. Is it the nudity that brings us together, or is it something deeper, something about the exploration and discovery that the nudity allows? We don’t need to challenge the importance that nudity has for other people in order to validate the importance it has to us personally, we can simply appreciate that embracing nudity might play a slightly different role in others’ lives than it does in our own. That’s a beautiful and radical thing.

Are you jealous” by Paul Gauguin (1892) celebrates connection to nature, paradise, and the sexual liberation enjoyed by the people of Tahiti, while also revealing the gaze and perspective of the Western painter.