|Naturism-the Freedom to be Yourself
When I cast off my clothes, I cast off my cares!
Nudity is undignified and an error of taste.
Following the Druid Way involves leading a way of life that helps us get back in touch with the Natural world. As Druids we find our spiritual nourishment in the sense of joy and communion we experience out in the woods, by the sea, standing on top of a hill gazing at the panorama around us. That is why Druid ceremonies usually take place out of doors, unless the weather is really bad. We celebrate in the ‘temple not made by human hands’ – under an open sky, beneath the eye of the sun or the light of the moon.
Most Druids celebrate wearing their everyday clothes, or they put on special robes, which help them become more aware of working within the sacred space of their circle, and which free them from some of the associations and perhaps ‘energies’ that their everyday clothes carry.
Some Wiccans, and more recently some Druids, take the process one stage further and conduct their ceremonies naked, or ‘skyclad’. By freeing themselves of clothes and even of robes they feel closer to the natural world, and feel they can perform their magic more effectively – with their energy unimpeded by shoes or clothing.
Although we tend to associate skyclad worship exclusively with Wicca, in reality it is a concept that has inspired many spiritual seekers across the centuries and around the world. And in recent times it is a concept that inspired the founder of the Order, Ross Nichols.
This article will briefly survey the whole issue of nakedness, nudism and naturism and the political, spiritual, psychological, social and cultural issues it evokes.
|A Minor Matter?
Being naked approaches being revolutionary
Removing clothing seems in many ways a minor matter. If you want to go skinny-dipping or to sunbathe in your birthday suit, what’s the problem? Do we really need to talk about it, and even have websites, books and clubs dedicated to it?
The reality is that it is not a minor matter. It is a huge problem for many people and in many parts of the world. If you are a woman and you remove your burkah in the wrong place you could be brutally punished (A burkah is a veil that covers the entire head with only holes for eyes to see through, worn in some Muslim countries). If you removed your burkah and then all your other clothing and simply stood still, you would be in very serious trouble indeed.
In most of the world you are not free to simply be yourself. You must be yourself and have clothes on, or risk arrest. So the simple act of being naked is often a political act – a statement affirming your right simply to be, without any additions or covering up. Certainly from a philosophical and psychological perspective it is very odd and highly revealing that many people and cultures feel so threatened simply by the human being presented without covering.
Many of us have probably forgotten, or did not know, that Europeans even quite recently suffered from appalling prejudices and strictures in regard to dress. Women had to wear tight corsets, men had to wear stiff shirts and jackets, even in hot weather. As late as 1927 a Captain H.Vincent, an outspoken naturist campaigner who was fighting the absurdity of the rigid British dress code was arrested in Hyde Park for sunbathing bare-chested, wearing only shorts. In court the magistrate told him “to expose the upper part of your body is indecent. I think it is likely to shock persons of ordinary susceptibility.”
Times have changed a great deal. Captain Vincent’s reincarnation in this age is Vincent Bethell, a champion of our basic human right not to wear clothes if we don’t want to. After being arrested several times for appearing naked on London’s streets, Bethell was acquitted of the charge of indecency, with the judge declaring that the human body in itself cannot be considered indecent.
This victory for human rights applies only to England. The atmosphere is different across the pond. Although 80% of the public in the USA approves of clothing-optional beaches (as does about the same percentage in the UK) Fundamentalist Christian groups still fight to close these beaches and force everyone to adopt their minority view that certain areas of the body are shameful. Despite this, there are Christian Naturist groups who believe that ‘man was made in the image of God’ and they choose to celebrate this image rather than being ashamed of it, which they regard as insulting to God.
It can sometimes seem to take a long time to shift the weight of oppression and repression, but realising the political implications of nakedness is not just a phenomenon of recent times. In Coventry in 1043 Lady Godiva rode naked through the town to protest against the injustice of newly imposed taxes. Thomas Paine, author of ‘The Rights of Man’ wrote, “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” And Thomas Carlyle suggested that if all politicians were to attend Parliament naked there might be less dissembling amongst them. John Lennon and Yoko ono took this concept of nakedness symbolising truth, humility and humanity by calling for peace and appearing naked on one of their album covers. In the 1960s at the festivals of Woodstock and Stonehenge, participants took their clothes off to dance and spend time naked to celebrate their sense of joy and freedom, but also to deliberately challenge the Establishment, since such activity was still illegal .
In the USA the poet and part-inspirer of the Democratic Party, Walt Whitman wanted to be at one with Nature, so he lived naked for a time, and wrote poetry that expressed his pantheistic vision, which appeared as ‘Leaves of Grass’ in 1855. In addition to Whitman, the Transcendentalists, pioneered by Thoreau and Emerson, were encouraging a life of simplicity close to nature and as a result of their writings many Utopian communities sprang up which experimented with new ways of living, which often included clothing reform and naturism. These included communities in the east such as Brook Farm, and on the west coast in Puget Sound.
Thoreau, from the peaceful seclusion of his house in Concord, Massachusetts, summed up the absurdity of the taboo on nakedness and highlighted the abuse of human rights that it entails when he wrote: “What a singular fact for an angel visitant to this earth to carry back in his note-book, that men were forbidden to expose their bodies under the severest penalties!”
If you are interested in the political and human rights dimensions of nakednes see the Freedom to Be Yourself website.
|Power Undressing – The Psychological Dimension
The ideas that unite all the different kinds of nudism – political, social and spiritual – are freedom, health, joy and beauty. Behind the simple but controversial act of removing clothing lies the belief that the human body in its natural state is in essence beautiful (even though we may not feel this on looking at ourselves in the mirror!) In addition, a motivating factor undoubtedly common to all who have discovered the benefits of spending time naked is the experience of freedom, health and sensual joy that simply freeing oneself of clothing brings.
Some people find they can best enjoy this experience in complete privacy – sunbathing, swimming, meditating or conducting ceremonies skyclad on their own at home. Others find that these activities can be fun out in nature – on a deserted beach or hillside. There is even a website dedicated to the ‘Secret Naturist’ – full of useful tips and amusing anecdotes for those who like complete privacy and discretion, all laid out in the style of a Field Notebook.
A minority find that far from being secretive, they prefer an audience – and the bigger the audience the better. They indulge in ‘streaking’ – dashing across football pitches or race courses, or on to stages. The 1970s were the golden years of streaking, with it being the most popular in Britain – a country often renowned for its fondness for eccentricity. It is hardly surprising that a country that gave birth to the Goons, Monty Python and The Full Monty should be the country that enjoys the most the inherent silliness of cavorting naked in front of thousands of people for a few minutes. The most famous image of streaking is probably that of a young man, Michael O’Brien, who streaked across a football pitch in 1974. on being arrested, a policeman held his helmet over O’Brien’s groin while photographers captured the image of the streaker, who looked like Jesus, with his beard and arms held outstretched by the other officers. In the photograph, his bearded face is turned to the policeman holding the helmet. The policeman is smiling. Recently he has revealed that he was smiling because in true Monty Python fashion, O’Brien was saying to him “Give us a kiss!”
For archive photos and more information about streaking see www.streaking.net
Human beings are naturally social animals, and while some people prefer their nudism to be solitary, and others prefer the thrill and display of streaking, others prefer what has come to be known as ‘Social Naturism’. This usually involves joining a club or visiting a resort where one can be comfortably and safely naked in the company of others. Most clubs have sunbathing lawns, swimming pools, tennis or badminton courts and clubhouses with cafes, restaurants and bars and indoor games. The first clubs evolved in the 1920’s in Germany, Britain and America and a little later in Australia and New Zealand, until today such clubs can be found in many parts of the world. Together they create a network of resorts across the globe which are often in beautiful natural locations, and which offer the ideal environment for a personal retreat or relaxing day ‘away from it all’. The image of the ‘nudist colony’ (a term never used by naturists) being a hotbed of vice or an unnatural environment couldn’t be further from the truth. Many clubs have websites, and to get an idea of what a club looks like see the Lupin resort’s site. Located in Los Gatos California, it offers accommodation in luxurious yurts set amongst the pines.
The idea behind these clubs is that social naturism is healthy: it’s healthy to swim, exercise and sunbathe (in moderation) in the nude, and socialising in a non-sexual way without clothes breaks down the artificial barriers that clothing seems to construct around us. For most of us, the simple act of being naked in front of others requires courage and the overcoming of inhibitions. We worry about our appearance – am I too fat, too thin? Too big here, too little there? Men worry that their penises may appear too small or too big, women that their breasts may seem too small or too big. Others worry about their stomachs, their bottoms, their operation scars. Suddenly the apparently simple matter of discarding a few strips of cloth becomes a huge deal. The clothing takes on the weight of our concerns and comes to symbolise everything that protects us from the outside world. This is why it is important that Naturist clubs be safe environments. Often it is not easy to become a member, and you need to go through a screening process, since once you are in the resort you are with fellow human beings who have taken the courageous step of baring all, and with that baring of all comes a certain sense of vulnerability and openness that needs protection from unwanted attention.
Engaging in social nudism involves confronting our fears about our own body and its image – and our fear of others’ bodies too. But every fear conquered is a strength gained, and I remember from my own experience that once I had got over this fear when I visited my old Druid teacher’s Naturist resort in St Albans, the feeling of freedom was amazing – I felt free in body and soul, and wondered what on earth all the fuss had been about – in my own mind and in other peoples’ too. I let go of my worries about how I might look to other people and in the wonderfully paradoxical way that life works, found that by making myself completely visible I somehow felt invisible – suddenly I didn’t stand out from the world, I was seamlessly a part of it.
As an example of the care which clubs and resorts take to make their guests feel safe and comfortable, this is what the Lupin resort says:
Nude recreation is surprisingly relaxing and uniquely freeing, as millions in Europe, North America and elsewhere have discovered. It may also be the ultimate experience of self-acceptance. Though nobody’s “perfect”, we’re all perfectly human and quite acceptable just as we really are. A lifetime of ingrained self-consciousness can sometimes evaporate in minutes at Lupin. Most of us use Lupin as an anytime getaway from everyday stress, a place to play or unwind, however it pleases at the moment. It is also a wonderful place to meet new and old friends. At Lupin you’ll meet a cross-section of interesting, fun-loving and humanly conscious people who will accept you as you are and treat you with friendly respect. Feelings of openness and mutual vulnerability help build interpersonal trust and provide opportunities for unexpected friendships across individual differences of gender, age, culture, shape, hue, wealth and career. You’ll find Lupin’s overall ambience family-like and non-erotic. The underlying absence of sexual pressure minimizes stress and assures the safety and comfort of everyone, especially children.
In recognition that some issues around social nudity are uniquely gender based, Lupin also offers special “Women at Lupin” and “Men at Lupin” days to enable visitors to become more comfortable with a nude environment while clothed. Some people also feel that a first nude experience would be less threatening in an all-same gender group.
There are a number of historical roots of Social Naturism, and these are explored in detail in Dr. Cec Cinder’s book The Nudist Idea, available only from the Ultraviolet Press, PO Box 56701, Riverside, CA 92517 USA. In Britain its first manifestation occurred in an outpost of the British Empire. In Bombay in 1890 three Englishmen rebelled against the absurd dress codes of the British Raj. In the sweltering heat of India they were supposed to wear shirts, ties, jackets and hats. In secret they formed the Fellowship of the Naked Trust. Its motives were, as they wrote:
The Fellowship gradually dwindled though, and it was not until 1927 that the first Naturist club opened in England. The story of this club leads us directly into the subject of the way that spiritual seeking and Naturism are often entwined, because it was at this club that the two key figures of the modern neo-Pagan revival – Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner – discussed their interests in folklore, mythology, psychology, magic and religion.
But to begin this story we must turn to the end of the nineteenth century. At this time writers like Edward Carpenter, the naturalist Richard Jeffries and the Victorian clergyman Francis Kilvert, were writing about the sense of freedom and closeness to nature that came from being naked outdoors. Meanwhile, in America, the Transcendentalists were saying the same thing, and the naturalist and best-selling author Ernest Thompson Seton was suggesting that it was, as he put it, one of the ‘seven secrets of outdoor living’.
Seton befriended native Americans and learnt many of their ways, and in his books he warned his fellow Americans of the dangers of their treament of the native population. He founded a group called The Woodcraft Indians, which in 1917 changed its name to the Woodcraft League of America. Similar to the Boy Scouts movement, it encouraged outdoor activities for children, and over the years exerted a formative influence on the entire American summercamp movement. Unlike the Boy Scouts, though, it based its activities around Native American lore rather than the more militaristic and Christian ideals of the Scouts.
To be continued