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.
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.