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An essay unpacking the silent gender scripts woven into nudist norms
Tonight, beauty made me cry but not in the poetic way of being moved to tears. Beauty rubbed salt in old, raw wounds, wounds that are an initiation rite for the vast majority of women.
Buzz cuts, behind A4s, and Barbie botox
The instigator of salt was an article on Chinese women defying their beauty culture. These women are getting buzz cuts in a culture that values long hair, rejecting high heels, diets, makeup and other norms, risking abuse and censorship.
Fairly, they point out that to stay beautiful, you need to invest time, money and energy, and men are free of this. The diet culture is so severe that an “A4 challenge” that has gone viral involves holding up a sheet of paper to see if the woman standing behind it will disappear at the waist…requiring her to be smaller than a piece of paper 8.3” wide.
It’s not just China. In Japan, women fight against workplace dress codes requiring them to wear high heels. Last year, Iranian women cut their hair. In North America, the pressure to look like things women are not -- from the reversal of the Kardashian-inspired BBL, Barbie Botox and Snapchat dysmorphia -- mark similar pressures from a different kind of culture.
Routinely naked women
Three decades ago, Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, subtitled: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. She heavily deconstructs the impact of the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty, stating plainly that “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.”
For a naturist audience, I find the following quote, also from Wolf, to be relevant:
“To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren't is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”
Routinely naked women show up everywhere in Western culture. The naked torso of a woman in a magazine ad. The stripped victim of a crime show. The backup singers to any famous star. A 2018 analysis of 1100 popular films found that 25% of women had roles with some nudity in them vs 10% of men. I won’t get into the degradation of women’s bodies in other types of media.
In their nakedness, women learn their inequality. They learn their bodies are made to sell things. That they are symbols of victimhood or wantonness or background entertainment. This is one mirror that is held up for women from a young age. The other mirror is their beauty duty and all the pressures that come with it.
Naturist communities both know and don’t know this. There is a forgetting that happens as time is spent in a naturist community; a forgetting that these violations are both real and inescapable in the textile world. When there is an acknowledgement of these issues as barriers to women participating in naturism, the work is passed over to naturist women to remove them through testimonials and evangelical outreach to other women. I’m here to ask why.
There’s an unfairness that issues primarily born from male power dynamics are passed to women for reform, and that this happens both in the textile and naturist world. My current hypothesis is that if naturist websites contained the same amount of space dedicated to educating men as it does on women’s testimonials, things would shift with more speed.
Women take on a lot of things we don’t own; over 75% of unpaid work is done by women. Not only does this seem to add to that bucket, it doesn’t make sense that the smaller population segment is charged with recruiting the biggest potential new base.
Many articles I’ve read on naturism have an absence of female perspective. Often, it’s because not all voices may have been at the table to shape the past narrative. A topic that I haven’t often seen a focused reflection on is the emotional journey of a new naturist. There are sprinkles of it through “first time” stories that indicate curiosity, nervousness, leaps of faith, etc. as transitory emotions, but most of the men I’ve read and spoken with reference freedom as a key emotional state.
Women differ here, because of the world we live in. A woman’s first key emotional state, should everything go right, will be safety. Once safety is achieved, then maybe she will reflect on acceptance - and yes, maybe even beauty, if that’s something she would like to claim for herself. Freedom will hopefully follow.
This reflection on emotional states is important for me to share so that the men reading understand the pointedness in what I have written. This article is not to criticize but to begin developing your own awareness so that you can be part of creating safety.
Action and initiation
I would never talk to a woman who wasn’t a naturist and try to persuade her that she did not have things to worry about in nudity, especially if she had not experienced it before. I would talk to her and show that I understood the things that worried her, so that she could begin to trust that my words and experiences fit within hers.
This can’t happen if you don’t seek to educate yourself so you can feel empathy about lived experiences, elevating awareness to an action. Naomi Wolf (referenced here) has flaws, but some of her books are powerful; so are many others that I’m sure you can find with a bit of research. Take the time to educate yourself in order to have the conversations about beauty duty and other pressures.
I’m sure that men also have barriers related to their own bodies, and my observation is that young men today feel more pressure in that regard. I look forward to reading those reflections in their own writings.
These observations I have shared are initiation for many women; they are old wounds and they are new wounds, and deserve to be seen as much as our bodies do. Don’t pretend they’re not there; nakedness does have more sides than beauty. Perhaps the new duty could be to our wholeness as humans. It doesn’t have to be the way it always has been. 🪐
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