I can remember with great clarity an incident when I was perhaps 10 years old, staying in the city with my aunt and her family. One morning she came wandering into the living room where I had been sleeping on the couch. She was completely and astonishingly in the nude, fumbling about and saying, “Darling, I’ve lost my glasses. Can you help me find them?” She was voluptuous and I was very impressed with her unfettered nature. I quickly collected myself and found her glasses for her—but it was one of those defining events. I was destined to be more liberal from that moment on.
Other than the odd glimpse like that, it’s a bit of a mystery to me what people get up to in the privacy of their own homes. I rarely ask anything like, “Do you sleep in the buff? Do you wander around your bedroom with no clothes on? Do you stroll about the kitchen making your morning coffee on a warm day with it all hanging out? Do you sunbake in your back garden? Do you go to nudist events?” These questions just don’t tend to rise to the top in casual conversation. You and I talk about the gardens and the kids, about pollution and war and peace and the economy—but not about nudity.
Is that because it’s such a non-event or is it because it’s an awkward subject? Perhaps the charge that hangs on around nudity relates to the WASP background that lurks in many of our pasts. Or perhaps it’s genetic memory of the glacial ice ages that kept our ancestors cuddled in their furs. Whatever the cause, culturally we’re funny about nakedness. In my experience, families can be pretty relaxed about nudity until the kids hit their teenage years, when suddenly a cloud of deep modesty descends on a household. And even if you’re comme tu veux about it all, the odds are that you rug up when you’re staying over at a friend’s or sharing vacation time with others. It’s strong programming.
At any rate, somehow it’s come to pass that I’d be surprised if you showed up on my doorstep au naturel, and you’d likely be surprised if I answered the doorbell in that state.
You can see where this is going. Knowing we Shedders are a closely knit group of old friends who now share a house together, you could be forgiven for thinking we are a liberal, free-wheeling bunch. Those of you who’ve read Shedders might remember an incident where on one of our first holidays together, we stripped down one brightly-moonlit night and dived into the surf together. But here’s a truth that surprises me when I think about it: since then we have not seen other naked in a public area of our house. I have yet to meet up with a housemate in the kitchen without at least a touch of modest coverage, nor to watch television on a hot summer’s evening in the privacy of our entertainment room without my gear on.
The six of us had an open and wide-ranging conversation on the subject earlier this week, after dinner and a glass or two of wine. The topic was initiated by Housemate X, who said something like, “If this were my house, I’d feel free to walk around on a warm day without clothing…But WAIT!—it is my house. So why aren’t I doing that?!”
Good question, I thought. Isn’t that bizarre that, ground-breaking as we are (and relaxed as we are in our personal spaces about no-clothes), in all our six or so years of living together, we haven’t developed any conventions allowing some public nakedness. Rather, we’ve fallen straight into the standard cultural tradition of clothing-on-always. When I think about it in those terms, I’m astonished. Embarrassed, even.
Anyway, the dinner table conversation got interesting from there. We took turns expressing our views and no doubt represented most of the positions you would expect of anyone in our society discoursing on the subject.
We said things like:
- It’s a question of freedom—of doing what feels good.
- It’s a question of intimacy—letting you see me in my outer warts-and-all builds trust that I am letting you see my inner warts-and-all.
- It’s a question of propriety and reputation—we live in the country; we already live unconventionally and that’s distracting enough without giving local people more to worry about.
- It’s a question of comfort—there is only a thin range of temperature when you’d even want to be without clothes; it’s either too cold or you get too sweaty for the furniture.
- It’s a question of hygiene. (No need to explain further.)
Although views were strongly expressed, and at times appeared to be contradictory, when I stood back far enough, I could see that there was no significant difference of opinion on the subject. The issue of freedom was more (or less) important to some; the issue of other people’s reaction was more (or less) important. But basically we were all saying we wanted to do nothing that would discomfit visitors and nothing that would unduly constrain ourselves. I didn’t sense that anyone would be offended at the sight of another of us in the buff; none of us seems to have a high level of modesty. Interestingly, no one raised the issue of body image, which is often core to the question of nakedness. Although we’re as wrinkly, bulgy and lopsided as the rest of the world, I’m not sure this is an issue for us.
To me it boils down to the fact that we are a communal household, trying to merge our personal lives with those of other people—and that we suppress ourselves in this area.
At any rate, we bared ourselves (metaphorically) more than usual in the conversation. We didn’t make any resolutions but paved the way for a more mindful, less automatic way of being. There’s nothing to be done but try it on (or off as the case may be) and see what happens.
Perhaps there’ll be something new to get used to as I wander into the kitchen first thing in the morning!
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On my computer screen beside the Word document I’m working on, photos of my children as toddlers slide-show past—racing on the beach in the buff, free and filled with the delight of the feel of the world on skin. Not a bad way for people to live, even older, wrinklier people.
As a culture, we do tend to make a big deal about nudity. It seems like a small thing on which to pin our concerns. Off with our burkas and onto the beach! Really, who cares?