“Free Yourself, Man – Woman!”

“Free Yourself, Man Woman”
By Samantha Kelly

This article will be featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news: bodies!

The textile world.

That is the phrase used by members of Aquarius to describe the outside world, occupied by the general, non-nudist public. That is, world where everyone is expected by society and required by the law to wear clothing. This is one of the phrases uttered in the conversation between Maureen and I as she steers us toward the camp at Browns Plains.

At this point, I think it’s important to rewind and explain why the hell the readers of a feminist magazine should care about a caravan park half-way to the gold coast occupied by people whose only known common ground is their aversion to clothing.

My interest in naturism spurs from a variety of different sources. The first time I began to think critically about the stigma that is often associated with nudity was at the beginning of 2011 when I began modelling for a life-drawing class. I was living with my Mum in Bribie Island and it was virtually impossible to find a regular job in a town full of family businesses. What I did find however, whilst flicking through the local paper, was an ad seeking amateur models for an amateur drawing class. The work I soon became involved in was extremely casual: about one shift every month or two. But the extra cash on top of my youth allowance wasn’t my only motivation. I felt an inherent contrast between the way these artists viewed the human body and the way it was seen by others. I felt as if this difference existed in two primary ways.

Firstly, because the human body is too often sexualised. Something completely natural has been hijacked by raunch culture. Being nude is naughty. Pornographic. Secondly, because the human body is subject to standards that dictate what is attractive or unattractive. People who fit these narrow criteria are encouraged to expose their flesh on public beaches, on television and in magazines. Those who don’t are mocked and marginalised. The life artists had no interest in perpetuating these ideals. In fact, the group appreciated being able to draw diverse range of men and women with different body shapes. Having figures that were bonier and others that were fleshier, some that were muscular and some that were curvier was a good way to practice drawing real human beings.

I have since moved to South Brisbane and have become less involved in this particular class. But I have learned that two of my friends practice nudism regularly on a clothing-optional beach in Byron Bay.  I have also attended a nude dinner party and have grown more interested in the idea of disassociating nudity from sexuality, and rejecting the concept of an ‘ideal’ body type.

Recently, I discovered the Topfree Equal Rights movement, which overlaps the philosophy underlying naturism and the goals of activists who advocate gender equality. So I decided to further explore the nudist community and set out to answer this question: How compatible is nudism with feminism?

I’d been emailing Maureen throughout the week and we had arranged to meet in the city before heading to Aquarius for the day. On the way to our destination, she revealed a few interesting things about herself. Maureen grew up in New Zealand, where there is no law explicitly forbidding nudity. She recalls that it was much more accepted in this country, and quite common on public beaches. She was secretary of the Naturist Federation Australia until she developed breast cancer, after which she resigned for health reasons. She said that she is “feeling pretty much back to normal now” and “committed to this great lifestyle.” We also discussed the portrayal of beauty in the mainstream media, and the idealisation of certain body types. This was a topic on which we seemed to think in much the same way.

When I asked about nudity outside of Aquarius, she revealed that she’s often naked in her own house. She emphasised that although she believed in accepting nudity, she is always careful to consider others. This is why naturists wear clothing out in public. It is also why, she explained, she would put clothes on if she knew that someone was visiting who was uncomfortable with nudity.

It was a quiet day at Aquarius. Most of the members had plans for Father’s Day.  But I did see a couple playing tennis as Maureen gave me the tour of the grounds. After Maureen ditched the sarong and singlet she’d worn in the car trip, I was the only person clothed. And about twenty minutes afterwards, I undressed as well ¾ mostly because I’m not a fan of standing out.

Almost every caravan in the park was decorated with bumper-stickers or hippy-ish décor. The flags also suggest that quite a number of other members grew up in New Zealand. Sport seemed like a fairly popular thing amongst the community at Aquarius.

Maureen introduced me to her partner Mark, who was preparing tea and coffee. One of the few regular traditions at the club was for everyone to have afternoon tea together on a Sunday. Members took in turns to host the afternoon tea, and this particular week was Maureen and Mark’s. There were usually a large crowd, but because it was Father’s Day, Aquarius was particularly quiet. When the five other club members who weren’t off celebrating with their families showed up, we introduced ourselves and had a good conversation about life, work, study and our mutual dislike for Campbell Newman. Maureen asked me about the Zine I was writing for, at which point I described the women’s collective.

“And is that still a big thing, women’s equality?”

It was apparent to me at this point that Maureen doesn’t identify as a feminist – despite her views about body image mainstream media. But when I began to explain the attitudes and injustices that still exist, I realised that much of what I described was not so evident at Aquarius. The prelevance of scantily clad women in the media, for example, is only a problem when nudity is seen as sexual; and to Maureen, that in itself is a bigger problem. The behavioural expectations also seemed less relevant to a woman owned a motorbike, played a lot of sport, didn’t wear make-up and whose male partner was in the kitchen washing the guests’ dishes.

I am by no means attempting to claim that sexism is entirely a textile-world problem. Many of the other forms of inequalities I mentioned such as equal pay were things that Maureen suggested to be the result of individual women’s choices, rather than a system, which I thoroughly disagree with.

But she did go on to mention other women who embraced the lifestyle as an aspect of their support for gender equality.  The vice-president, Jackie Fuller, wrote on the website for the Australian Nudist Federation:

I would like to encourage more females to join social nudism rather than stay at home behind closed doors. Being a social nudist helps with self esteem, relaxation and builds self confidence.

There is also the Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA), which is geared toward pointing out the injustice about the lack of legal and social acceptance of women who are topless, as compared to men. Again, it is important to understand that a part of the female body has been deemed taboo, simply because it has been objectified and sexualised by men.

Although TERA like to be recognised as being distinct from naturism, there are a number of members who are also involved in nudist groups.  A common pattern I found amongst many of those from the online TERA discussion group was those who advocated for gender equality, and believed the current state of laws and social norms to be sexist- but didn’t identify with feminism for various different reasons. And yet the small number of younger people I know who embraced the lifestyle are all strongly feminist-identifying.

At this stage, having only been exposed to a small part of this lifestyle, I can’t draw any definite conclusions about it. But I do believe that whilst nudism and feminism may have their differences, they are compatible with one another. That is, that the principles of nudism and the goals of TERA are an excellent way of addressing some of the forms of inequality. 

Later, after the other campers had left, I had the chance to ask Maureen a couple of questions. Since reflecting on the interview and my visit to Aquarius, I’ve been following the TERA discussion group. In future, I’d be interested in seeing how many people who embrace nudism or Topfree Equality do so from a feminist perspective.

The important thing for me is that there can be a positive relationship between these causes and I feel that this is somewhat illustrated in my interview with Maureen. Read on to see what she had to say!

S: How did you discover nudism?

M: My husband saw an ad for the local club… looking for members or people interested in nudism, and it was actually more like a dare. He made some sort of sarcastic remark to me and I was like ‘well, yeah, why not?’  So he said, ‘right then, next Saturday we’re going out to visit.’ So, it was curiosity really.

S: How is nudism perceived in the mainstream of Australia in comparison to other parts of the world?

M: I find Queensland people are really conservative and… are surprised by nudism. Or are probably misinformed, because they’re so conservative that they don’t want to know or find out about it. But then you get people who say ‘I’d love to do that, but I don’t know if I could’. So…. They’re not quite ready to look into it. And in New Zealand it’s not illegal. Like, Queensland and Tasmania are the only states where it is illegal. There are other states where it is legal, but I don’t know how accepted it is.

S: What kind of positive effects do you feel nudism has for the individual?

M: Oh, great because… your forced to learn acceptance, tolerance and respect. And the positive things that come back out of it, is that you get it all back. You know? When I had breast cancer, I had a lot of friends here. And to come back here, when I was off-guard… and really felt… blergh… you know? And sitting here… it didn’t seem to matter. You know? The people here… don’t care. They’re mostly just really genuine people. Because they get to know each other… instead of getting to know what you look like.

S: What kind of effects do you feel nudism could have on society?

M: Well, I think, because of the respect and tolerance… the good thing that it does is promote those things. And, health-wise, too.  I think you become more aware of nature… and of the sun. There’s a lot of active people. I think people feel free here, too.

S: Have you ever been subject to negative reactions from those who might misunderstand social nudism?

M: Oh yes, absolutely. Probably the most shocked people are those who think it’s all to do with sex. People think it’s a big swingers party… and it’s nothing to do with that at all. Or others think we’re all tree-hugging hippies…  which we’re not.

S: What is your opinion on the double standard that exists in relation to the exposure of male chests and that of breasts?

M: Oh, so unfair. Absolutely. I mean, on a hot day… why should we have to tog up… you know? But I do think it would be better again if we could just all wear nothing, too.

S: Do you feel as if the nudist community has a positive attitude toward diversity?

M: Definitely. Because of the many different body shapes. Different races. Genders. All age groups…  although more of my age group, for some reason.  But I definitely think there is diversity here and it would be good to have even more.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to become a nudist, or to embrace nudity with open arms. As a person who has had insecurities about my body for my entire life, I know how deep-seated it can be. I know what it’s like to know rationally that you should accept yourself and still fail to do so. To be aware of an ongoing problem and still be damaged by it. However, I think it’s worthwhile to consider nudism and recognise its legitimacy in our society, especially in regards to feminism: because hey, which one of us wouldn’t like to be a part of a community where all genders in their naked form are not ridiculed, sexualised or objectified?
~ Samantha Kelly

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