by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell
Introduction: We have been writing lately about sex, and about sexual freedom (including its limits). But this blog is also about bodies, and we have mentioned them pretty much only in the context of sex and sexual activities. But bodies are far more than instruments of sex and sexuality.
From the moment of birth to the moment of death, we live in and through our bodies. The English language makes it possible to speak of our bodies as if we are separate, can stand apart, from our bodies, and yet the reality is we are our bodies. Wherever we are, there are our bodies. Without them, we are not.
And yet, most all of us have conflicts about our bodies—too fat, too tall, too short, too thin, breasts too big or not, penises too small or not, sagging skin as we age, bald or hairy, big hips or small, big noses or not, thick lips or thin, etc. And most people are not keen on showing off our naked bodies to others, surely not in places more public than locker rooms (and the trend today is against what used to be called “gang showers” where everybody stood under nozzles in one big room, divided by gender, of course). It was not all that long ago that men and boys swam naked at YMCAs, but today such an idea would result in wholesale condemnation.
What is it about the naked human body that scares so many of us? Why is it that the sight of a naked toddler running around at the beach is considered adorable, but the sight of an adult, or even an older child or teen, doing the same thing is considered scandalous, rude, offensive, even ugly? And why is it illegal in almost every public place? Who and what are we protecting? In this post, Robin and Malachi explore both their relationships with nudity as well as discuss the social climate and response toward bodies in various stages of undress.
Robin: For Christians and Jews, biblical texts carry weight. “God saw that it was good,” is the divine response recorded in the Book of Genesis in response to creation. And then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” . . . . and “God blessed them . . . .” and “God saw that everything God had made, and indeed it was very good.” The website Christians Enjoying Nudity and Erotica makes many of these points more fully, albeit with a more conservative biblical worldview and without recognizing sexuality other that the hetero- variety or gender outside the usual binary.
Created in the image of God, and yet we hide, as if somehow we are ashamed of God, ashamed of our lineage, afraid to show our part of the divine image and afraid to see others (even as we are often titillated by images of naked bodies). We have taken the lesson from the second chapter of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve violate the command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge and discover they are naked, cover themselves, confess to God what they have done, and are punished by God for it. We continue their cover-up down to this day.
In 2016, I still see news stories about someone being scandalized at a
mother exposing her nipples in public while breastfeeding an infant. Sadly, this most beautiful and loving of human encounters is turned into something morally unclean.
And, the campaign for “top equality,” letting women go topless the same way men do, shocks many. Their objections often take on the tone of “how dare people upset this ancient standard.” Yet, it is not so long ago—in the 1930s and 1940s—that men were freed to bare our nipples and even go shirtless.
The outrage over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show of the SuperBowl in 2004 now seems dated, and yet I still hear of people who belittle her because of it. Network television went through periods of great controversy about showing naked rear ends, but now we can see naked everything on some cable shows. In some European countries, television is not restricted.
And the controversy over sexting reveals a cross-current of emotions and attitudes. In terms of sending nude images or sexually explicit images (these are not necessarily the same thing), consent is the primary issue in
many instances, and those under 18 are generally considered unable to give consent to receive or send any such images. Many observers also note that the usual gender divide operates in sexting: it is more acceptable for men to send these images than women. The ease with which phones and their cameras can make it easy to take nude pictures of oneself and/or of one’s spouse or partner or even friends has resulted in an increase of non-professional nude images easily available on the internet and elsewhere. Some of this is simply part of the sexual lives of lovers/spouses. But because there are people who exploit others, and because sexting often involves nude bodies, there is considerable social conflict.
I have been undergoing changes in my own practices of late. It is not that I have not enjoyed being naked with others, and by myself, in the past.
I remember growing up in the country—fifty acres of mostly fields and forest, with a few of them taken up with my father’s nursery and our home and outbuildings. Sometimes, in the summer, when I was home alone (probably age 12 and up), I would take off my clothes and run around our back yard. And, on occasion, I would head to the “back 40” and find a good spot to be naked (and try not to get eaten up by mosquitoes).
This might have given me some clue that I harbored nudist proclivities, but it has taken a long time for me to recognize it and really own it. That is not to say I have not been naked around others (in addition to gym changing and showers in school) at times in the years between then and now—clothing optional beaches and swimming, Radical Faerie gatherings (where I met the man who eventually became my husband, Jonathan), and one visit to a nudist gathering in Maine.
But today, I enjoy being naked in our home. And I realize I would like to be publicly naked in more places than beaches and social groups where it is permitted. It is not so much the thrill of it, although at times the feeling of freedom can make me giddy (see “Baring My Body, Opening My Soul” about my experience of naked yoga), as it is simply feeling centered and good in my body. And, as regular readers of this blog know, this freedom has helped me come to terms with my small penis, and to actually begin to appreciate it (and not simply endure it as I use it for peeing and pleasure).
One of the reasons I began this blog was to explore questions of nudity, specifically to help create conversation that is thoughtful and non-exploitative, for myself and for others. I recognize that most of us get naked to share sexually with our partner(s), but as the organized nudist/naturist movement never tires of saying, nudity does not equal sex. Just because people are naked does not mean they want to have sex.
Many of us are naked, enjoy being naked, because it feels good. I am
learning to like my body, in all its particularities, and I feel more whole as a result. For the first time, recently, I wrote a sermon while naked; I think it helped me be more honest and clear. Part way through the first period of writing, it occurred to me that this may be how God sees me ordinarily—and that helped me feel the divine presence more than usual while composing the text. I somehow doubt God is all that interested in my clothing, but I am quite sure God is interested in the real me.
So, I am now ready to call myself a nudist, or a naturist—I have yet to make a final choice among these too, but I think I lean toward nudist, because I want to be really clear about my identity (while recognizing no part of identity is probably ever entirely clear and fixed). That is the reason I chose a very clear title for this blog—no obfuscation, masks, or euphemisms.
I am blessed to have a husband who, while not joining me in this identity or behavior (except at the beach and during our love-making), appreciates the sight of my naked body as we navigate life at home. I am really enjoying his positive, and playful, comments.
Now, if I thought my neighbors and townspeople would do the same…..that might begin to feel a bit like Eden. But that is not to be, at least yet!
If there are readers, however, who share, or want to share, in the nudist life with me, let me know. Perhaps we can find time and space for mutual care, support, and society.
I like the way the sun feels on my skin. But more than that, I like the way that I feel in my skin when I am in spaces where nudity is an accepted aspect of the space. In fact, I often find that my lower back begins to hurt after several days of being in clothing-optional environments because I am actually standing up straight, and the muscles in my back are not used to good posture. That’s true of a lot of transmasculine people- posture issues arise from slouching shoulders forward to conceal breast tissue. While I’m not ashamed of my breasts, sometimes, I need to find a bathroom to use, and have to “pass” as something. When I’m in clothing-optional spaces, I find that my posture is better and I hold my head high and push my shoulders back.
I have not spent time in nudist cultures, but I understand that the lack of clothing does not create a sexualized environment. My experiences being naked in public, however, are within sexualized spaces: several times a year, I attend a BDSM/kink-focused event that allows for public nudity (as well as public sex). By attending these events, people understand that they will be encountering all types of bodies in all states of dress (or undress). I recognize, as a result, that my relationship with nudity may be impacted by that difference in sexualization, and I absolutely do not claim to speak for nudist culture- simply my relationship to being naked in a semi-public space. Right now, I am gearing up for one of these events coming up soon, and I can’t help thinking about my relationship with nudity- and more than just nudity, but my relationship with revealing aspects of my skin as the weather makes a sudden turn toward summer.
I have fairly prominent facial hair, as well as a decently large chest. As we approach summer (or, in the case of this year, make a sudden pivot from freezing rain to August heat), I have the think very carefully about my safety when navigating the juxtaposition of these two gendered characteristics. If I wear shirts that reveal “too much” cleavage, then I am at a much higher risk for violence: especially if people can’t tell “what” I am. Yet I don’t tend to like clothes that come up too high on my neck; they make me feel like I’m being choked (not in a good way) and besides, I like the feeling of the sun hitting my shoulders and the top of my chest.
It’s one of the downsides of so much media around trans people and trans bodies. All of a sudden, everyone has an opinion about bodies like mine- not just about bathrooms, but about how we should transition and present ourselves. People with the best of intentions will still say things like, “Well, if you would just wear clothes that didn’t reveal your shape…” or “I’m fine with people who want to transition, but these confused people who are ‘in the middle’ need to pick a side.” Comments like this tell me that if only I was the “right” kind of trans…
…then what? I’m never quite sure how that sentence ends, but the insinuation is that I “ask for” or “invite” the harassment and comments by the way I present myself. If I could just pass a little more, people wouldn’t even notice my breasts. If I could just… look like one gender, then there wouldn’t be any problems. In short: if I could be a little more inauthentic for everyone else’s comfort.
But the reality is, I like wearing some women’s clothes, especially shirts. They make me feel good, and I’m not ashamed of my breasts, and I have a nice, curvy figure that, if only I would shave off this beard and various instances of body hair, would make me a very beautiful woman (by young, white, slender, able-bodied standards of beauty). But since I went on testosterone to be able to grow facial hair (and I’m actually quite attached to my beard), wearing the shirts I want to wear reveals a part of my body that puts me at risk for violence. And society tells me that it’s my fault.
Perhaps this is why I prefer spaces where clothing is optional. Because while I might be as much of an anomaly there as I am in the rest of the world, I don’t feel this strange division to hide certain parts while revealing others when, quite frankly, my entire body is fetishized and sexualized on a daily basis. In fact, I feel more sexualized walking down the street fully clothed on an average day than I do walking around completely naked with 1,000 strangers at a BDSM-focused retreat. And perhaps that’s where my frustration comes in: if I’m going to be sexualized anyway, then why do I have to put on these clothes that feel restrictive and sometimes bulky and are so dang hot? If people are going to wonder what’s in my pants regardless, then why bother wearing pants? I feel like I am being undressed in the minds of others, but don’t get any of the benefits of being naked.
Of course, I understand why that’s not a viable option. Not everyone is comfortable with public nudity, and, as Robin and I discussed last week, we must be sure that our expressions of sexual freedom do not minimize or infringe on someone else’s experiences. But as a non-binary trans person, I just get so frustrated. Come to think of it, as a human being, I get frustrated. How much skin is too much? The answer to that is so full
of double standards and hypocritical nonsense, I’m not sure where to start. Nipples of people who either (a) have a penis attached to their bodies or (b) have had reconstructive surgery to remove the mammary tissue are fine for public consumption, but nipples attached to people without penises who have not had reconstruction surgery are NOT OK- even while breastfeeding (which is what nipples are for…) Women go to swimming pools and beaches in bikinis, but if she answered the door in a bra and underwear, that would be totally inappropriate. Men are expected to have a certain amount of body hair (because body hair=testosterone=masculine), but women are expected to shave it off (and those who don’t often become targets of ridicule and some will choose to cover their armpits and legs to avoid the judgement). Armpits and legs. These are not inherently sexualized parts of the body (although some do find them sexy or sexual). Even women who adhere to the strictest of body expectations and standards are then treated as walking sexual objects- and it’s “her fault” because, of course, why else would someone want to look like that unless she was wanting attention?
Knowing that people who are comfortable, for the most part, with the binary dichotomies and standards often can’t win the “how much skin is too much skin?” fight reminds me that I am not alone in this- but there is also a twinge of despair in there. “If cis-folks can’t just exist in the world without people policing their bodies and using their bodies to blame and shame them,” I think, “how can I ever hope to?” And maybe I can’t. Sometimes, with a body configured the way that mine is, with an identity that manifests the way that mine does, every action I take with my body- from using a public bathroom to getting dressed and going to the supermarket- feels like a revolutionary action, simply because it is being done by this body, and this body (clothed or otherwise) has to fight for a space to exist. And sometimes, I get tired of being a revolutionary just because I woke up
and left my house (instead of actually doing something revolutionary). So I seek respite and reprieve where I can. And if kink camp is the space where I feel completely comfortable in my body and in my skin, where my back hurts because my posture is finally amazing, where I have to use sunblock for once in my life because the breasts and my butt are the only parts of my body at risk of burning, then I go to kink camp.
Certainly, this is not the experience of every trans person. Binary or non-binary, I know plenty of trans people who don’t feel comfortable being naked in public. My relationship with my body as a trans person is unique, and I would be curious to see how I would feel in a nudist space that was not inherently sexual in nature. Nonetheless, though, my experience as a trans person cannot be separated from my relationship with nudity because both require an element of examination of internal comfort and external presentation.
It’s about nudity, but it’s about more than nudity. It’s about an understanding that my body is really not that strange, although living in this world would have many believe otherwise. It’s about claiming that space, not because I am so interesting, but because every body is interesting- your body, and mine, and the person next door, and Robin’s and whomever- all bodies are interesting and beautiful. Being able to be naked- whether the space is inherently sexual or not- takes away the shock of people being naked which, in turn, means people stop fixating on what’s between people’s legs and start wondering more about what’s inside people’s heads.
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What do you think? What are your thoughts on nudity? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed.