The case for getting naked this summer

Remind us why this isn't a great idea again?

Remind us why this isn't a great idea again?

(Source: Instagram, @parisjackson)

I'm sinking my feet into warm sand at Vancouver's Wreck Beach on a recent Sunday when a slim, bronzed man catches my attention. I watch him, struck by how graceful, streamlined and almost animal-like he is as he darts across the beach, jumping up to catch a Frisbee … completely nude.

I remain in awe – eyes averted – of this man's body confidence at the clothing-optional beach for the remainder of the afternoon. Was it his nudity that bred confidence? Or his confidence that bred nudity? It got me wondering: should we all be getting a little more naked this summer? After all, proponents of non-sexual nudity rave about the benefits. Body positivity advocates say stripping down can help build self-confidence, feminists say nudity can help desexualize the female form, and nudists say it's just natural and freeing.

Nudity's power is something Paris Jackson, actress/model and daughter of Michael Jackson, addressed earlier this month when she posted a photo of herself outside smoking topless on Instagram.

"Being naked is part of what makes us human," she wrote, adding that she gardens naked. "It's actually a beautiful thing and you don't have to make it sexual the way many Hollywood stars (and the media) do."

'This is the body I have, and it's not going to change… So I may as well put the work into being OK with it, and hopefully one day I will be"- Caitlin K. Roberts

It's not the most profound statement, but Jackson touched on something North American society struggles with: how to approach nudity, whether it's our bodies or others. It's a debate we see play out every time Instagram censors images of pubic hair, Kim Kardashian posts nude photos of herself, people get outraged about women breastfeeding in public or the #FreeTheNipple movement causes a stir.

"Why are we so sensitive about a nipple or about a vagina or about a penis?" said Julia Busato, a Guelph-based photographer and body positivity advocate. "It's not a sexual act. We shouldn't have to fear it."

(Julia Busato, The Mannequin Series)

Busato specializes in boudoir photography but for the past year, she's been photographing people – mostly women – posing nude with a mannequin for a project called The Mannequin Series. Through it, she showcases people whose bodies don't fit the socially imposed ideal.

"My goal and my passion is to make women and men feel great about themselves and their bodies," she said. "Not what they don't have, not five more pounds. It's what they have right now."

Despite the body-positive nature of her photos, Facebook banned her for 30 days in March after it said she violated the company's nudity guidelines. Busato maintains none of her photos showed explicit nudity. She's now back on Facebook but the incident disturbed her.

(Julia Busato, The Mannequin Series)

"The naked body is not a horrible thing," she said, tracing North American regard for the (typically female) body as a sexual object to advertising's use of oversexualized bodies and an abundance of freely-accessible porn. "I just want a naked body to be a naked body."

While Busato works to destigmatize nudity, others are employing it as a therapeutic tool to open up conversations about body image.

At Body Pride, a four-hour workshop in Toronto, participants of mixed genders get together to talk about sex, relationships and body image, all while nude. Founder Caitlin K. Roberts started the sessions to help people confront their body insecurities.

"It's a step in thinking: 'This is the body I have, and it's not going to change… So I may as well put the work into being OK with it, and hopefully one day I will be,' " Roberts told the Washington Post.

For others, they don't need to be encouraged to get nude; they're already happiest that way.

"It's part of, for me, living a very simple, uncomplicated life," said Daniel Jackson, spokesperson of Vancouver's nudist Van Tan Club. "As soon as I get home I take my shoes off and go 'ah.' I take the rest of clothes off and go 'ah.' What a beautiful feeling."

Jackson calls nudity the great equalizer. No one knows if you're a CEO or a student, how expensive your shoes are, or if you drive a flashy car when you're naked, he said.

Stripping down can also strip away body self-consciousness, he said.

"(Nudity) tends to be an almost instant evaporator of shame and body self-loathing," said Jackson. "Within five minutes of shedding your clothes, you wonder why you ever had those sorts of concerns."

Busato, too, has noticed her photography subjects shed facades when they get naked.

"They just seem to come out of their shell," she said. "When you're naked, that's who you are. You're vulnerable."

As for me, I'll be honest – I'll probably never go totally nude in public. But as someone who's seamlessly slipped from bathing suits to shorts and t-shirts underneath beach towels for decades, there's really nowhere for me to go but more nude.

Perhaps I'll take up gardening.   

Katrina Clarke is a Vancouver- and Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.