Perhaps it is a relic of growing up in Northern California, compounded by asexuality: I really don’t get the big fuss about unclothed bodies, no matter their shape, size, or ability status. This is one of those cultural differences I struggle to wrap my head around and often fail at, because it’s so alien to my own experience. Some people think naked bodies are icky and unpleasant, and others are ashamed of their naked bodies, or have very firm ideas about modesty and are very uneasy at the thought of being naked or exposed in public. I cannot help but suspect that my acceptance of size, of physical disabilities, of tattooed bodies, came easier because I was exposed to them more or less constantly growing up.
I remember once in college, a bunch of us went swimming on a hot August night. I grabbed a towel out of my room and happily waltzed to the closest waterway, where I proceeded to strip and then dive in. I brought a noisy, boisterous group to a sudden and uneasy silence and was blissfully unaware of it until I surfaced and looked back at the bank to see everyone staring at the water with expressions of utter confusion.
‘Come on in,’ I said. ‘The water’s fine.’ And the moment ended and people slipped out of their clothes and I realised they were all wearing swimsuits, which I thought was just hilarious. I get wearing swimsuits to the public pool or in a highly trafficked swimming hole, but alone, at night, in August? Really? I think some people thought I would be embarrassed or would feel awkward because I was the naked one in a sea of swimsuits, but I really couldn’t give a fig. And I noticed, on the next swimming trip, that a few people went starkers; apparently I needed to break the ice, so to speak.
I have an uneasy relationship with my body. My acceptance of nudity and fundamental lack of caring about whether people see me naked is a completely different matter from my body image. The things that trouble me about my body are there whether I am wearing clothes or not. People will speculate about my body whether they’ve seen all of it or just some of it. They will make hateful comments about it on any grounds they like. My attitudes about nudity are rather distinct from those about body image, which seems to be a big difference between me and a lot of other people. Many people I know closely tie nudity and body image, associate comfort with nudity with body pride and positivity, when that’s not really the case for me.
To me, naked bodies are just bodies. They are not loaded with meaning until people do something with them. I understand, on an intellectual level, the sex signaling that occurs with things like lingerie and lacy panties, although it’s rather lost on me. I can appreciate a body on an aesthetic level, when invited to do so, but it’s not something I do around naked people. Those nightmares that people have about walking naked onto public transit or showing up naked in class? Let’s just say they don’t really apply to me (although I did show up naked in class once, but that’s a story for another day).
The attitudes constructed around naked bodies confuse me and often leave me at a disadvantage when I am in environments where bodies are supposed to be charged. From a very young age, I’ve attended mixed-gender bathhouses where no one wears anything. I’ve gone swimming in rivers and oceans. I’ve stripped down for countless doctors. The last time I got a tattoo, the artist was very concerned about my modesty because he had to expose my back and I just looked blank; I was more worried about being cold because I couldn’t wear a shirt or bra than I was about the fact that someone might see my exposed torso.
I didn’t realise that my upbringing with nudity and nakedness was unusual until I went to college and entered an environment where nakedness became something other than what I was used to. And I also learned there that many things I took for granted were considered suspect, even dangerous. I used to take showers with my father to save water, and that was my primary experience of mixed-gender showering; people would hear that and be horrified, thinking there were some kind of hinky sexual doings there because that was what naked bodies, parents and children naked around each other, meant. I grew up in a house where people wandered around naked in the summer because it was too hot to wear clothes, where we crowded around the woodstove every morning in the winter to warm our clothes and dress, and nakedness was just another state of being.
Years of seeing different kinds of naked bodies also put me in a very different position from most of my peers. I saw older adults naked, amputees, wheelchair users, people with surgical and self harm scars, tattoos, and everything in between. I saw fat people and thin people and everyone in between. Different hues of skin. I learned about the way skin looks different depending on whether it spends most of its time under wraps, I learned about how the skin around scars puckers and blanches in heat. The unremarkable nature of naked bodies was just something I accepted.
This isn’t something that people can learn, I think. If you grow up around it, it comes naturally, and if you do not, it can take a lifetime and you may still be uneasy. Sort of like how every time I buy beer, I giggle nervously because I still think I’m doing something naughty, people who got accustomed to naked bodies later in life always feel a little bit awkward and out of place to me. And I cannot help but wonder how much they missed as a result of their lack of decent exposure; how much the fear of other bodies is rooted in the unknown, how things like physical disabilities might not seem to scary and alien if people had seen them stripped down to their essence, the body alone.