I’m getting naked a lot this summer. In public. All around the world: from the south coast of England to the Casamance in Senegal. I’ve not done it before…and I’m not sure I ever would have, except that I’ve been commissioned to make a two-part series about the benefits of nakedness. And I don’t even really know if I can do it yet.
Being naked has always seemed just a bit wrong. Obviously not during a shower…or sex…or childbirth, but apart from that. In fact, during childbirth, I thought that maybe I should have sold tickets, but so long as this baby came out in one piece, frankly the more the merrier. My parents were always very open about their bodies as my siblings and I were growing up and used to walk around naked at home – and my husband and I feel this is important enough to do it with our own son, revelling in his innovative nomenclature: “penis beard” being a particular favourite. But still, I have the pervasive sense that the body really ought to be covered and no matter how hard my rational mind works on it, that feeling abides.
The language of it doesn’t help: “stripped” implies you are missing something; “exposed” that you are vulnerable; “are you decent?” that nakedness is immoral. In the UK, being naked has had (and may still have) overtones of sin, impurity and faithlessness, (giving an unintentionally comic edge to the notion of ‘defrocking’).
On a personal and more practical level, I worry about the sun. My skin is not quite Boo Radley, but it’s pale enough to have once (when visiting Paraguay) elicited the disbelief of a local who exclaimed “QUE BLANCA! BLANCA COMO LA LECHE!!”* in rather aggressive tones. And if it’s not the sun, it’s the cold. My first experience will be in Brighton in June, which, even if warm, will probably mean contending with a healthy sea breeze. I always wear three layers when most would only wear one and from that perhaps arises if not a suspicion of skin exposed to air, certainly an unfamiliarity.
To be cold is to be vulnerable, but as a woman too, the vulnerability goes deeper. Part and parcel of being a woman is to come to expect the sexualised sneers, comments and innuendo of (some) men: not all the time, but just often enough to affect your daily behaviour. I have always used clothing to hide my form, to deflect this gaze, and the prospect of shedding this protection is frankly, uncomfortable.
That said, now in my thirty-fifth year, and not least after experiencing pregnancy and its aftermath, I’m starting to think I need to make the most of my body whilst it still has some of its elastic youth. The reason for my immersion into this world is a documentary I am working on for the BBC World Service, and the presenter the social psychologist Dr. Keon West has recently found a positive link between nakedness and happiness. I am clinging to this. Naturally, I find fault with my body and see its many imperfections, but maybe the acceptance of these could be enlightening and invigorating. The people I’ve spoken to describe, in evangelistic passion, how being naked has changed their lives and given them confidence and even fulfilment. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
Still, I’m not just anxious. I’m scared. Will I be normal enough? Will I be stared at? Cold? Sunburnt? Uncomfortable? Where will I be in my cycle? Will I be able to look anyone in the eye? In fact, quite simply, where should I look? Time will tell.
* “What a white girl! As white as milk!”. Although in English the long ‘e’ of ‘leche’ is lost and with it much of the impact.
Look out for irregular updates over the next few months…