Yesterday I gave a talk at the Wellcome Trust entitled
‘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.’
In this and following posts I will summarize (and sometimes expand) on what I said:
I once had to wade across a river in flood in New Zealand. When I got to the other side I was about to put my clothes back on my wet skin, when I asked myself “Why?” I was in the middle of nowhere, on a trek in the bush, and so I carried on walking naked and it was a revelation to me. No need for those heavy walking boots and socks – luckily the ground wasn’t rough – and no need for clothes! I felt like a wild animal – innocent and at one with my environment. I could skinny-dip in pools, feel the breeze on my skin and it was as if the trees and animals of the forest were greeting me as one of their own. I meditated under a tree and allowed the joy of simply being alive to flow through me.
Was I mad? Am I unique in having such an experience? Of course not. How many of us have had the experience of being naked in a way that has generated positive feelings of freedom and joy? It’s easy to pass over any experience we might have had of skinny-dipping or sunbathing naked that made us feel really good, but I believe it is important for us to pause and analyse these feelings – if only because joy and freedom are two of the most important motivators and goals of human endeavour. They are the preoccupations of psychotherapy and religion.
Horace Walpole wrote: ‘When I cast off my clothes, I cast off my cares!’ When I asked how many of the participants at the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Skin: Exposed’ event in London in July 2010 had felt the same way as Walpole, about 80% of the 140-strong audience raised their hands. This is remarkable: a great deal of research goes into working out how to relieve people of cares. Perhaps the National Health Service could save vast amounts of money by prescribing nude therapy rather than prozac, and instead of seeing thousands of people walking around under sedation, we could see them strolling our parks and sunbathing without a care – or at least without pants (as people do in the Englischer Garten in Munich).
Nakedness can, of course, provoke negative feelings and be used to inflict cruelty: to embarrass or humiliate. But our focus here is the positive feelings that it can engender and, concomitantly, the positive uses to which it can be applied.
If we begin to unpack these positive feelings we discover a remarkable range of experiences and inspirations to action that flow from these, which fall broadly into three categories, those of Religion and Personal Development; Politics and Activism; Art and Culture.
The feelings of freedom, joy, closeness to nature, and increased authenticity reported by many people who enjoy nakedness relate to our spiritual and psychological lives. Feelings of authenticity and innocence give rise to a sense of empowerment and the desire to challenge the status quo – hence the power of nakedness to fuel rebellion and protest. Associations with honesty, with ‘the naked truth’, mean that nakedness has also been used on the other side of the political fence, to promote the careers of politicians.
And in our third category, we know that skin tickles: that the body provides us with important ingredients of good entertainment: shock, excitement and amusement. In sum, nakedness can be used to enlighten, empower and entertain. Let’s look at each of these abilities in more detail (in the posts which will follow).
Note added 15 April 2011. I’m sorry the posts don’t follow. I got busy. But you can read in detail the ideas I would have posted in my book A Brief History of Nakedness.