Jane Ayres explores the liberation of being naked, reflecting on how her experiences with naturism and life modelling helped her to gain a more balanced perspective that extended far beyond body image
Like most teenagers, I was painfully shy about my body. School changing rooms after the swimming lesson were especially excruciating, as I wrestled with my towel in an effort to ensure no part of my naked form was on show.
Having to use the communal showers after PE was an even worse ordeal. Not only was I afraid my body would become an object of derision (a fear completely unfounded), but I was embarrassed to be surrounded by other naked forms and tried to avert my eyes. I know I wasn’t alone in such frankly bizarre behaviour.
Many of us, from a young age, feel acutely self-conscious about what we hide beneath our clothes. However, my hang-ups were challenged when I attended my first contemporary dance class and discovered, to my horror, that not only was the changing area mixed, but male and female dancers happily walked around in various stages of undress without a care in the world. At first, this lack of inhibition seemed alien, although to the other dancers, I was probably the strange one. After a few weeks, I got used to it, and once communal nudity became normalised, I found it wonderfully liberating.
The female form
So much so that, in my twenties, I decided to try life (ie, nude) modelling for an adult education art class. (We are so coy and evasive about the words we use to describe nudity, such as ‘the altogether’ and ‘birthday suit’). To start with, I felt nervous. Walking into the classroom of strangers and slipping o my robe was harder than the dance class changing room. After all, I was on display. But the respectful atmosphere soon had me feeling relaxed.
It was fascinating being both object and subject of the gaze, with each student interpreting my form differently in the drawings, seeing my body as a composite of light and shade, of shape and texture. Physically, I was surprised at the stamina a model requires to stay in the same position for long periods of time. Despite frequent breaks, my muscles ached. But the process of being still was meditative – you had to simply be – and made me acutely aware of how I experienced being in my own body.
A few years later, I found myself getting naked once more. A mature student studying for a music degree at Sussex University, I decided to earn much needed extra money by doing what was quaintly called ‘glamour’ modelling for a local photography studio. My previous experiences gave me confidence, and made it easier to adapt to the more intimate situation of being in a one-to-one with each of the photographers, all of whom were respectful and professional.
I preferred nude assignments – not just because they paid more, but I found the end results interesting creatively, and still have an album of my favourite images. Feeling at ease in my own skin had a knock-on effect on other aspects of my life, boosting my self-esteem and social skills.
Set yourself free
It felt like a natural progression when, at the age of thirty, a friend invited me to a naturist club and, being in an environment where everyone was naked (and not just me!), I explored another level of freedom. Swimming was such a delight – the sensation of the water on all of my body, unfettered by a costume, was both sensual and restorative. No hiding behind clothes or props is a real leveller – a reminder of what we all share in common – which makes it both a great way of getting problems into perspective and a deeply relaxing release.
Without any worrying distraction about what you look like, or having to make a particular impression, it is easier to focus fully on whatever activity you are undertaking, be that dancing, walking or just having good conversation. An aid to mindfulness. You are free to just be.
Yet the media encourages unhealthy body anxieties by habitually mocking people who enjoy being naked – especially mature exponents. Our ageist, image-obsessed society decrees that bodies must conform to some non-existent norm, that only ‘perfection’ should be on display, and anything else is shameful or wrong. No wonder it is so easy to feel uncomfortable about nudity.
Thankfully, there are those who bravely challenge this. Emma Mitchell, (aka Miss Glory Pearl) is a writer and comedian who often performs unattired and whose work centres on the female body, and its relationship to culture and identity. In 2014, Emma wrote and performed in her first one-woman show, The Naked Stand Up, which received critical acclaim and award nominations.
“For many people, the only thing worse than being in front of an audience is being naked in front of an audience, but the nudity has always bothered me less than being funny and entertaining – that’s what I get nervous about,” says Emma.
I understand this. As a writer and poet, I’m more nervous about reading in public than stripping off. Reciting my words to an audience, fully clothed, ironically makes me feel far more exposed – perhaps because poetry can reveal the vulnerable inner being we keep hidden.
Bare book club
Currently studying for a Creative Writing MA at Brunel University, Emma has featured on Late Night Woman’s Hour and is the producer of the London chapter of Naked Girls Reading, a celebration of literature and nudity. Emma explains, “The concept, created by Chicago-based burlesque artist Michelle L’Amour, describes itself as performance art that seeks to re-frame female nudity, shifting the body from object to subject via literature. It’s an incredibly safe and warm stage, where the nudity seems to engender an intimate dynamic with the audience. It’s like nothing else I’ve experienced.”
I love the idea of Naked Girls Reading. My experiences have allowed me to enjoy an incremental journey of exploration, step by step. Some may draw the line at modelling naked, others might shy away from naturism.
But perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with our physical selves and discover how being naked can provide a pathway to reconnect with our mindful selves. Embrace your nudity – it’s only natural!
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