The nudist who could be your next-door neighbour
“I’ve learned that I’m bold enough and that I have the courage to do impossible things”
Nudism may just be the final frontier of body positivity. I’ve preached about self-acceptance, but I’m also the kind of person who quickly drops her towel and changes into her clothes before leaving the bathroom, lest I catch too many glimpses of skin in the mirror.
This hypocrisy stems from patriarchal morality ingrained in me as a child. It’s hammered home by photos of toned bodies and poreless skin that have me bookmarking 10-minute ab workouts on YouTube that I rarely end up doing. It’s not news that women fall prey to it more than men.
I’ve felt the jealousy of seeing a man taking his shirt off, regardless of body type, on a hot, dry North Indian summer day. But the hyper-sexualised female form won’t feel the sun shine on our skin, in the same way, no matter how much we want to #freethenipple.
Because nakedness is inextricably linked to sex, the idea of nudism has a tinge of wickedness in most people’s minds. But speaking to Namrita De*, a practising nudist, or naturist as some call it, has me deeply rethinking my relationship with my body.
When we think of nudism, two images come to mind. One is considered a sacred practice by devotees and sadhus, and on the other end of the spectrum, are hippie couples dancing at raves.
As a lifestyle, nudism involves non-sexual nudity, literally just living your life while choosing to not wear any clothes. Naturism, others believe, emphasises more on a harmonious connection with the environment.
Though secretive, the nudist community in India is growing. There are secret get-togethers and meet-ups, online communities to connect with like-minded individuals and even dedicated resorts, beaches and campsites across the globe that allow people to practice nudism in the open, which many countries have outlawed.
Would you believe that one of the world’s first nudist communes was set up in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai? Founded by Charles Edward Gordon Crawford, the ‘Fellowship of the Naked Trust’ had a short lifespan from 1891-92 but many hold it as the first plunge towards a de-clothed life. Unsurprisingly, Crawford didn’t allow women to join.
The question which remains, in modern society, is who even does this and why? After speaking to De and scrolling through the comments on nudist message boards, I’ve come to realise that the community is quite wholesome, in a way. For the women, nudism has become an act of rebellion. A way of becoming comfortable with their bodies, which have always been policed by others.
It’s not just your kooky chacha or some wackadoodle weirdo you spot in Goa, but like De, it can be the next-door neighbour who comes over for a pleasant lunch and then spends the rest of her day lounging nude on the sofa while reading a book. Or the woman you bump into in line at the ATM.
The first time De donned her birthday suit was close to eight years. ago. “I just read an article about nudism which I found very weird and crazy, but at the same time, it was interesting. I started to read more and more about it” she tells me.
A few days had passed and the interest had only grown, especially after reading about the World Naked Bike rally. She found the courage and one day stood in front of the mirror, naked, to “test the essence of nudism”.
She felt the shame we’ve been taught to feel when it comes to our natural selves but bore it. A few days later she tried it again, and again. Slowly gaining confidence each time she was totally bare in front of the mirror.
“The first time I did it, I asked myself, what am I going to do, is this right? Am I okay? When I stood in front of the mirror, it was a mixed feeling. I was scared of… something. I felt very nervous but at the same time, joyful,” says De.
While mostly a private practice at home and at nude beaches, De’s first time in the nude in ‘public’ followed a massage at an Ayurvedic centre in Kerala.
Now it’s like a hobby, she says, as would be reading and cooking, something she enjoys in her free time. She may be onto something too. Studies show a connection between naturist activities and increased self-esteem and body image. So maybe the answer to feeling good about yourself isn’t hopping on to the latest fashion trend but instead, kicking them aside.
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After our chat, I stand in front of the mirror and feel squeamish looking at my own body. The longer I look, the more foreign it feels.
I only see projects that needed to be improved.
Dry skin that needs extra moisturising, stretch marks that can probably be zapped by lasers and the extra set of leg lifts I need to even out the cellulite on my hips. I wasn’t thinking about health here, just aesthetics.
A year’s worth of stress and emotional eating and lockdown weight gain wasn’t easing this exercise of self-acceptance.
Speaking to friends, only one of the seven women I speak to says she was comfortable being nude by herself, and with her partner. “I always turn off the lights, darkness is democratic,” comments another.
It’s an international statistic: a survey in the UK of 2,000 women found that one in six don’t feel comfortable getting naked in front of their partners.
De says her best friend is the only one privy to this side of her that feels free and confident, hidden away when the clothes come back on. “After getting dressed, I always feel like I’m a different woman. One who is ready to serve as a family woman.”
I feel our collective trepidation when it comes to nudism stems from vulnerability.
Women have fought hard to be taken seriously, at home and more so at the workplace. We put up a facade as an act of self-preservation, curating first impressions with our external shell.
You can fake a smaller figure with vertical stripes. Project seriousness in the office among the menfolk by staying away from floral prints and bright colours. In the nude, there’s no pretence to hide behind nor layers of clothes. The walls I spent years building became so set in stone, that standing there bare seemed more unnatural.
Perhaps De is right and it’s time to drop the act of trying to be someone else. Through nudism, she learned that she is “bold enough and that I have the courage to do impossible things.” We could all use some of that, especially going into this new year.
Along with a newly adopted workout as our New Year resolution, I propose we include exercises in nudism into our wellness routines.
I must admit that after that initial awkward first time, as most firsts are, I was looking at myself in the mirror longer, and with kinder eyes.
There is power in positive affirmations, mental health experts agree. So for five minutes after I bathe, I’m going to look at myself in the mirror and practice positive affirmations.
Not for the eyes and ears of anyone but myself. Maybe one day, I’ll have built up the confidence to roam the house in the nude and even visit a nude beach, like De.
If nothing else, I say do it a rebellious act of shedding societal expectations. Even for a brief moment of euphoria.
*Name changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity