It’s the start of the new year, and, as with every year, the body-shaming weight-loss parade is well at work in our society. The bookstore displays are laden with every diet plan possible; the dieters are beginning their journey down many of the promises they’ve made themselves year after year (promises, which, by the way, function poorly when they derive from shame and self-hatred); the television is abuzz with shiny deals on diet plans and gym memberships.
Body-shaming season is in full force.
But there’s something more insidious going on. It’s not just that we, as a society, as producers and consumers of media, and as networks of individuals, are shaming those bodies which are not perfectly toned and fabulously styled: we are waging war on ALL bodies. We are attempting to erase the body (the sensuous, moving, functioning, glorious body) from existence.
Here’s what I mean.
No less than an hour ago, I decided to flip on the television and watch the noon news hour on GlobalTV. I don’t usually watch the news, nor do I watch this particular broadcast, but it seemed like a good as thing as any to do while I prepared my afternoon tea.
The usual news headlines of January 2nd: the first babies born this year in our province; polar bear swims. Joyful bodies! New bodies, tiny ones. Brave ones, leaping into the frigid waters for a moment of delight.
AND THEN…a small montage of bodies – mostly older, male ones – wading into the waters at the clothing-optional beach near White Rock.
The responses from the three news anchors – two women and one man, all in their 30s or 40s, very attractive – were thus:
Amongst their giggles and awkwardness, the anchors made comments about the editing people having to suppress their “gag reflex”, about very “careful editing” having to be used, and when one female anchor was, in jest, asked if she would participate in one of these events, she laughed awkwardly, shook her head, and another round of collective laughter and disgust ensued.
I rarely get up in arms over bullshit comments on the news. But I’m very, very angry about this, for a number of reasons:
1) There is a societal and cultural problem with the way that nudity is treated. Nudity is often seen as inherently sexualized, and public nudity is considered by many to be part and parcel of some sort of sexual deviance. (I should note that while it is not illegal for women to be topless in public here, that it is nevertheless monitored and discouraged by both law enforcement and the public at large.)
2) There are demands (perceived or actual) on bodies that are revealed on public beaches which are mindblowingly hostile. You’ve heard it before, the snarking about which girl looks fat in her bikini, or the friend that REFUSES to buy a bathing suit because she’s terrified about being judged for her appearance.
3) There are pressures put on aging bodies to cover up, to be extremely modest, and not to reveal loose flesh and wrinkles to the world (especially not on a beach). (In fact, a recent photography project that used older women as pin-up models reveals, in some of the comments received, ongoing prejudice against the aesthetics of the aging body.)
4) There are pressures put on male bodies to conform to a series of aesthetic principles (muscles, little to no chest hair, abs, etc), and these are increasing with each year. I know many men, of various ages, that struggle to feel as though their bodies have worth, as though they are lovely and perfect just as they are.
And so, when three broadcasters make jokes and implicitly denigrate nude beaches and naturism – which, by the way, they (like the rest of the public) are in no way obligated to participate in or attend – it is symptomatic of a culture that has reduced the natural body, the sensuous-but-not-always-sexual body to an object of disgust.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but this has to change. We need to think seriously about our aversion towards certain bodies, and towards certain situations in which those bodies are in.
For many, being able to attend clothing-optional beaches has been a source of shedding (if you’ll pardon the pun) the layers of shame and of public humiliation that has long covered their bodies. I know many women for whom being able to lounge in the sun and swim in all the gloriousness of their imperfectly perfect beautiful bodies has been life-changing. The spectres of body image problems and sexual abuse/harassment can do GREAT damage to people’s perceptions of their naked flesh, and while there may always be a gawker or two at clothing-optional beaches, the community that is built there (one which is implicitly based on trust and respect) is one that can facilitate healing, for men and women alike.
I know of no other venues in which male nudity is not seen as TOTALLY ALARMING AND EXPLICIT. I know of no other venue in which bodies can just BE BODIES, where people are not reduced solely to the visible markers of their gender or their sexual function.
I’ve only visited Wreck Beach a few times in all my years of living in Metro Vancouver, but I can say that those days were liberating beyond my wildest imaginations. No shame. No discomfort. No insidious, negative self-talk. Just BEING, as I came into this world, nakedly.
Ultimately, here’s the lesson to take away: if you don’t have anything nice to say about others’ naked bodies, or about those who choose to attend nude-beaches, keep your hateful comments to yourselves. If you’re a news anchor, move to the next piece of news instead of making faces and talking about how people had to suppress their gag reflex. If you’re someone who has concerns about “modesty” and “decency”, well, please keep your comments to yourselves, and don’t go to a nude beach if it offends you – no one is forcing you to go. If you’re someone who has issues with your own naked body, please don’t take them out on perfect strangers by using their bodies (the old ones, the wrinkled ones, the fat ones, the too-thin ones) to make yourself feel better.
We all come into this world being both naked and vulnerable.
We should all aspire, regardless of our beliefs, our personal practices, and values, to respect the bodies of others, especially when they are simply just BEING.