Are Australians less comfortable naked than the rest of the world?

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Photo: Simon Winnall

I remember it vividly. It was on a beach, a quiet, rather secluded one, on a Greek island. It was hot, of course, peak-summer sun beaming down on the handful of bodies scattered across the sand. I looked around me to see who was in ear shot or eye shot or any sort of shot that would have me spotted, seen. No one was looking. I lay back on my towel and rolled over onto my belly. From this position I deftly undid my bikini top and slithered out of my bottoms. I lay there, walrus-like, a little longer, eyes darting again. And then, taking a deep breath, I flipped over and offered my very nude body to the sky. Naked as a jaybird. Naked as a nudist.

Nothing happened. There wasn't a clap of shame-thunder, the water didn't reel back in horror and then rush to cover me up. No one pointed, no one looked meaningfully at my 'problem areas', no one made any comments about bikini bodies or being bikini ready. Actually, no one even glanced my way. The old nude French man was far too busy loving life with his old nude wife, the merrily naked gay couple behind me were trying to find stones big enough to weigh down their towels and those who strolled by on occasion simply kept strolling by. My nude body was absolutely, unequivocally no big deal. It was a body.

We're self conscious about our bodies, even when trying to be proud. 

Living in Europe I am, largely, consistently reminded bodies are just bodies, as opposed to being constantly reminded bodies are public property, subject to constant dissection and judgement, subjects of constant quests for betterment. Europeans in general have long been known for having a far, far more relaxed take on all things nudity and sex. And the Germans, well … they'll nude up at the drop of a hat. That couple on a Spanish beach playing nude racquet ball? Guaranteed German. Strolling through the, ironically named, English Gardens in Munich? You'll find both seasoned nudists and those seeking an all-over tan. Saunas, domain of the Scandinavians, obviously, are nude. Hell, you can go nude camping or nude hiking if you want to. And being nude, should you want to be, at the local beach is a given (although some seek privacy in the rushes or long grass which admittedly lends a sort of perviness to the entire thing).

Growing up, I learnt, as all my friends did, very early on a whole lot of things about the human body, messages that are slowly, thankfully, finding their way to the door and being kicked out by more helpful ones. Messages I still do battle with, deep into my twenties. Through the 90s and early 2000s, I learnt fundamentally the body is best when slim. End of. I learnt that it is embarrassing when nude and how best to avoid being so in any situation that may naturally require it, like change rooms. I learnt it is shameful when nude and not slim and 'covering up' is to be encouraged if you're outside the parameters of slimness. I learnt that bodies that don't 'cover up' are showing off or, obviously, slutty. I learnt bikinis are ideal because they hint at nudity, but actual nudity? Mortifying. Avoid. Avoid.

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The concept of and education regarding body image is undergoing, has been for the past decade, a massive overhaul. But we're still quite prudish and somewhat confused when it comes to nakedness. We're self conscious about our bodies, even when trying to be proud. Bodies and their unclothed form are still a thing, something to titillate with, make a statement with. They don't just simply exist. Most of us blush just a little (or flush with unadulterated horror) at the concept of being seen publically nude. Every sex scene that comes out of American, British or Australian television, with the exception of, naturally, anything produced by HBO, seems to involve the female actress being firmly swaddled in enormous bed sheets from go to woe, lest a boob pop out or a groin area be hinted at. We'll show, or nod at, sex depending on the time slot, but only covered up with a bra on and the bed sheet in place. It's this very type of image – the bed-sheet swaddled post coital couple - that reinforces the attitude we cannot escape from; nude bodies are naughty,  sexy when within certain aesthetic parameters, and seeing them is abnormal and alarming.

Over here in the country that came up with Freikörperkultur – free body culture – and was home to the first known nudist camp, nudity can be on TV during prime time and it isn't a big deal. I remember seeing the uncensored portfolio of a glamour actress competing in a Saturday night TV game show challenge. The whole portfolio and the whole model at about 8.30pm on a Saturday night, on a family TV show. No big deal. Out she jogged onto the stage, waving. Eating lunch at a swim-up bar and restaurant in the Baltic meant gazing out over the sea and clocking a couple of penises and a pair of boobs as Germans changed openly from their brisk swim. I remember being told by a family friend of my parents' generation, that I must join her in the sauna and I demurred, saying I didn't have my swimmers with me. She looked at me in horror and said, 'no swimmers.' I looked back at her in prudish horror and we regarded each other in mutual horror, hers revolving around my desire to wear a swimming costume in a public sauna, mine around her desire to be naked in a public sauna with her, as much as I love her.

I don't know where the UK and thus Australia and the USA peeled off from Europe in its attitude toward the human bodies, although I can hazard an uneducated guess (church, prudish royals etcetera.) I do know religion doesn't stop the Germans getting their kit off, or not caring a jot about being naked, and that how a country deals with the human body is ingrained in their greater socio-cultural relationship with sex (and that's one of the most flawed, damaged relationships we have). And I do know Australians could borrow a little of the European attitude to bodies; it's just a body. Get rid of the bed sheet. It's no big deal.

 

23 comments

  • Australia has become less comfortable with nudity since the 1980s. For a decade or two before then, nude swimming was commonplace among people I knew. It seems to have gone the way of a lot of the carefree hedonism of those times.

    Commenter
    rudy
    Date and time
    September 02, 2013, 6:43AM
    • i miss germany so much - as a 16 year old exchange student it taught me a lot about bodies and sex asa you wrote in this article. I hate going to saunas here in aus now... weird having to wear swimmers - although i'm tempted to nude up one time and see if they kick me out ;)

      Commenter
      k
      Date and time
      September 02, 2013, 8:59AM
      • Less comfortable naked than the rest of the world? I don't know about that... but yes we definitely have nakedness issues as a relatively progressive and liberal western nation.

        It took me years to shed the notion of "being nude is naughty". It took me years to finally be comfortable enough to drop my dacks in the gym change room before wrapping a towel around me... I just got tired of awkwardly trying to remove my undies with a towel already placed around me. You just look stupid. Its like two seconds. What's the big deal?

        I think the problem is we seem to associate nudity with sex. Its like as soon as you're naked its seen as sexual. Which is totally wrong.

        We are born into this world naked - its natural and normal to be naked. Yes clothes are practical, they keep us warm in winter and protect our skin from the harsh elements. But to be honest I enjoy nothing more on a warm day than to sit outside naked and enjoy a cold beer.

        What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.

        If you've never tried it, before denouncing me as evil, I emplore you to give it a go and then comment.

        Commenter
        Adrian
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 02, 2013, 9:01AM
        • Article is too true. I have no problem with my body personally. Yes I'm fit and I don't mind baring it, it's a really nice thing to feel the sun and wind on your body. And for me, I feel what better way to be a role model than to show something that's naturally obtained? I lived in Japan for years and the community baths were actually really nice - very community minded, and very social. We miss out on that

          But what gets me is that I can walk past a poster of a dude (usually Becs) in his underwear all across the city. But I walk around or jog without a shirt and I get the occasional "put a shirt on" holler. Two faced is what I call it. Besides people, we all have the same bits, and no two bodies are exactly the same. Just accept it, we've all got a body! If you want kids to grow up and love their bodies, you've got to do it yourself too you know, those actions speak way louder than words.

          Commenter
          Mike
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 02, 2013, 9:11AM
          • In general, I think men are more comfortable with nudity than women.

            Commenter
            Audra Blue
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            September 02, 2013, 11:52AM
        • I agree.

          I have a problem with other peoples nudity because 99% of the time they are flaunting an old, wrinkled, fat, decrepit body that turns my stomach. It is selfish in the extreme that these people expect us to be comfortable looking at their hideousness. I don't inflict my naked body on anyone and expect the same courtesy in return.

          Commenter
          Dirk
          Date and time
          September 02, 2013, 10:03AM
          • You could always not look??

            Commenter
            andilee
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            September 02, 2013, 1:14PM
          • Yes, but you inflict your hideous attitude on others.

            Commenter
            Public Joe
            Date and time
            September 02, 2013, 3:31PM
        • Agree that Australia needs to grow up and get over nudity.

          I have always found sex scenes in American tv and movies so ridiculous, half the time the girl doesn't even take off her bra (as my mum once remarked 'who does that?'), and yes after the deed is done the two lovers wrap themselves up as tightly as possible in a sheet because even though they just had sex they can't bear to see each other naked? It's absurdly unbelievable even if they are just catering to prudish audiences.

          The HBO series Girls is an interesting one because obviously some of the girls are happy to act out sex in a fairly natural way, while the others insist on being wrapped in sheets while they hop to the bathroom after sex. The girl who plays the character Marnie is the worst for this, she makes sex look like some weird challenge of keeping her body covered as much as possible at all times, grimacing at the indecency of it all. Maybe that's what her character is supposed to be like but again, how could anybody like that seriously be having sex in real life?

          Commenter
          Mellah
          Date and time
          September 02, 2013, 10:23AM
          • I'm not comfortable with public nudity, neither my own or anyone else's. I would never go to a nude beach, for example. I don't think nudity is disgusting, it's just a matter of personal privacy for me. In this current culture of celebrity sex tapes, reality television and idiots being famous for being famous, we have become oversharers and I find that disturbing. I'm not interested in everything about you just like you shouldn't be interested in everything about me.

            Surely we have to keep something to ourselves, something that's just for us that nobody has access to? For me, one of those things is what I look like underneath my clothes.

            Commenter
            Audra Blue
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            September 02, 2013, 11:46AM

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