In a society besotted with consumerism and where sex and the nude body are used to sell products, yet casual natural nakedness is frowned upon, or even prosecuted, naturism offers a very positive alternative. Being naked socially provides people with considerable mental and physical health benefits. While naturism/nudism is commonly perceived as being mainly about getting an all-over suntan and hence exposing participants to the risk of skin cancer this is not correct. Read on.
The concept of social naturism has been around the western industrialised countries for more than 150 years and the millions of naturists around the world are proof that it is an idea that is here to stay. The naturist organisations from many countries are part of the International Naturist Federation which defines naturism as " A way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity, with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others, and for the environment". And the greatest mental health benefits of being a naturist come from having respect and liking for ones own body and respecting other people in all their various forms. Accepting their own bodies as they are is especially beneficial for women who today are under constant pressure to live up to the ideal body image as conveyed in glossy magazines, and are made to feel inferior if their bodies are not the size ten of catwalk models. Human bodies come in all shapes and sizes, yet how many people today, other than those in the medical professions, have seen a representative range of naked human bodies. Women are often made to feel inferior because, for example, they perceive their breasts as being too big, or too small, or somehow differently shaped than other women's; yet very few woman have actually seen more than a few other unadorned female breasts and are thus unaware of the great variation there is in breast size and shape. Similarly men often feel sensitive about the size or shape of their penis without realising that among men there is a large range of normality. Thus when they come to the naturist environment women and men become immediately aware that many of their self-perceived bodily imperfections are nothing more than examples of the normal range of human diversity and they have nothing about which to feel inferior. This is a liberating experience and immediately lifts off a great weight of social pressure. Naturists come in all shapes and sizes, fat and thin, short and tall, unblemished and scarred, and they are all accepted as normal human beings.
Of course in the naturist environment ones genitals are seen by other people. In most western cultures the majority of people are raised with the idea that except in very limited circumstances one must keep your genitals covered. This indoctrination begins at a very early age when young children innocently going naked and enjoying the feel of water and air on their skin are called 'rudie-nudies' or another similar term that tells them they should not allow other people to see their genitals. Rather than treating the genitals as part of the whole body with their own function children are taught that there is something nasty about the parts between their legs. This can lead to all sorts of sexual dysfunction in later life. However, research conducted at the University of Northern Iowa found that naturist children had body self-concepts that were significantly more positive than those of non-naturist children - and that the 'nudity classification' of a family was one of the most significant factors associated with positive body self-concept. Furthermore, naturist children showed a significantly higher acceptance of their bodies as a whole, rather than feeling ashamed of certain parts. A study by two other psychologists concluded that children who has seen their parents naked were more comfortable with physical contact and affection, had higher self-esteem, and showed increased acceptance of and comfort with their own bodies and sexuality. Clothing hides and creates mystery, anxiety, and ignorance about natural body processes such as pregnancy, adolescence, and ageing. Seeing other people going through these stages in life is valuable to children.
Even for adults coming to natural social nakedness later in life it can create a major lift in their spirits to treat their body as an integrated whole rather than as something containing parts which are 'dirty'. Men are often taught as boys that their penises are naughty and nasty and that the associated natural functions are something of which to be ashamed. It is thus a liberating experience for men and women to mix socially together naked where no more notice is taken of genitals, than of ears, hair, etc. One of the greatest benefits of naturism is that it allows men and women to interact as people without the socially imposed barriers that go with the textile world. Naturist men and women regard each other first as people. Once our culture's artificial mystique about the other half of humanity is taken away people cease to regard bodies of the other gender as sex objects and relate to them as part of a total person. Being naked with other people shows a sense of openness and trust not usually experienced with current 'textile' cultural barriers. Studies over the years have shown that the major reason humans adopted clothing was for decoration. Clothes indicate the wearers status, position in society, wealth, etc. and usually involve a considerable degree of pretence. The clothes we wear are an expression of who we are. Clothes give status not just relative to one's peers but also in relation to the natural world. They allow humans to regard themselves as better than the other occupants of this world. When one goes naked in a social setting all that posturing is left behind. The naturist's comfort with nakedness shows an attitude of comfort with oneself as you are in your most basic form without decoration or deceit. All one has is one's true self. That is incredibly relaxing. It has been said that a day at a naturist venue is more relaxing and beneficial than a whole week at a textile resort. When naturists are asked what are the benefits of naturism the most common reply is the incredible feeling of relaxation. It seems like when you shed your clothes you shed many of your cares. You give up most of the pretence you project to 'defend' yourself in the textile world and come back to the real human beings we are.
Clothes cut us off from many of the tactile feelings of the natural world. We cease to feel the air and sun on our skin. We cease to feel the rain, the brush of foliage as we go through bush, the ceaseless communion with the wind. Unending wearing of clothes puts us out of contact with the physical world in which we live and on which we depend. We become cerebral beings who lose contact with our bodies. In fact it seems many people would like to dispense with their bodies and live only at the mental level. It seems to come as a shock to these people that they have bodies with natural functions that place demands upon them and change with age. As a contrast naturism places us firmly in the physical world and puts us in touch with the elements on which we depend for life. You again become a whole person and find your true place in the world. This is a spiritual experience. It is joyful to stand in the rain unadorned, feel the warm summer breeze caress all your skin, or walk through the bush naked.
As a contrast to the naturist approach clothing focuses attention on sexuality, not away from it, and in fact often enhances immature forms of sexuality, rather than promoting healthy body acceptance. Partial clothing is more sexually stimulating than total nakedness. Fashion changes are often associated with eroticising a different part of the body as the novelty of the previous fashion diminishes. For women the identification of breasts as sexual objects has led to the discouragement of breast feeding (especially in public), the encouragement of unnecessary surgery for breast size/shape alteration, and the avoidance of necessary breast examinations for health reasons. At the same time the naked or semi-naked breast is used to sell unrelated products.
While the main benefits of social nakedness are the improved mental health it brings through body self-acceptance, freedom from feelings of inferiority, removal of artificial barriers between men and women, and much better attitudes to their bodies by children, there are also physical health benefits. Clothing impedes the functions of the skin, our largest organ. The skin is a barrier to invasion by microbes. We sweat to keep us cool by evaporation. Clothing slows down that process. With clothing the by-products of the skins processes build up in contact with the skin and this can cause irritation. The skin has quite a developed system for keeping us warm, and undue use of clothing impedes that process. Studies have shown that tight clothing can slow down lymphatic fluid flows and aid the advancement of disease. One study showed that bra wearing for more than 12 hours a day leads to much higher rates of breast cancer. Although it is obviously not necessary to go naked to avoid the problems of tight clothing the naturist attitude is that we should use clothes and not be used by them. Exposure of the skin to sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, an essential vitamin especially in the development of children. Sunlight exposure has also been shown to have a small beneficial effect on heart function. Because naturism is generally an outdoor activity - although most naturists also usually go naked in their homes - it also involves exposure to fresh air and some degree of physical exercise.
What about skin cancer? We all must be aware these days of the danger created by the growing hole in the ozone layer. But the limited data available suggests that naturists have a lower rate of skin cancer than the population as a whole. Why is this?. First, naturism is not all about getting a mahogany all-over suntan. When New Zealand naturists were surveyed about their favourite activity at their club/resort less than 20 % said sunbathing. Secondly, naturists have been aware for a long time about the dangers of excessive exposure to the sun, especially the dangers of getting sunburnt. So they have been taking 'sunsmart' precautions for years. Most naturists wear sunhats when outdoors, they slip on a shirt if in danger of getting burnt, and certainly use sunblocks, although that may decline if the cancer creating potential of the active agents in sunblocks are confirmed. Naturist venues tend to be in rural areas with lots of trees for shade and privacy. Naturists expose themselves to the sun gradually and frequently so they do not get the severe sunburns of people in a midsummer rush to get a suntan. These sunburns are particularly related to the risk of melanoma. So while we must all be aware of the dangers of skin cancer, and take sensible precautions to avoid it, the health benefits of naturism, the main ones of which are mental health benefits, can be obtained without risk to ones physical well- being.
So if you want to learn to accept and like your whole body, relate better to other people, get out from under current social pressure for bodily perfection, adopt a very relaxing attitude of mind, or bring up your children to be confident young people assured and happy with their bodies, then take up the naturist approach to life.