The naked truth

I rented "The Sessions" to see Helen Hunt, an actor I've always found direct and compelling.

Photo: 20th Century Fox
By now, most of you will at least know the plot: Mark, a disabled poet  (John Hawkes) in Berkeley of the '80s, hires Cheryl (Hunt), a forthright, empathic sexual  surrogate, to lose his virginity. 

Though she spends much of the film at least partly nude, I was impressed more by the scene of Hunt's visit to a mikveh to prepare for her conversion to Judaism. 

The attendant (Rhea Perlman), unaware of Cheryl's line of work, says, concerning the nudity required for the ritual cleansing, that many women are uncomfortable shedding their clothes. She adds, "This is your body; this is the body God crafted for you". Cheryl recalls showing Mark his body in a full-length mirror, and saying the same phrase.

Watching that, I recalled women I've seen who hide their bodies, especially as they age. At my gym, several older women disrobe beneath a rigged burka of towels. One hogs the single enclosed cubicle (where the scale is) to dress and perhaps scrapbook, for she is in there a mighty long time.

I've got flab, wrinkles and scars, but I figure, it's a locker room, not a runway. We're doing something where nudity outside the privacy of one's home is a natural part of the routine. OK, there isn't a long list of such places: change rooms, hot springs, skinny dips, nude yoga (kidding, but if you have, I want to know.)

And if you've participated in Vanessa Beecroft's tableaux vivants or Spencer Tunicks' fascinating installations featuring thousands of naked people, I'm curious about your volunteerism beyond the call of booty.
Image: Spencer Tunick installation

As a young girl, I was taught to cover carefully, but by my early thirties, years of dance and exercise classes diluted that shyness. (Note to the hyper-modest: If you drape yourself like a Christo project to get out of your soggy workout clothes, you just draw more eyes, because everyone wonders what you're hiding.) 

Situationally modest now, I'll wrap a towel around my waist to apply makeup in a locker room but, at the all-women spa Body Blitz, where suggested attire is "swimsuit or birthday suit", I soak blissfully in the buff (and, I notice, the minority). Once, I was reprimanded at a Y for sitting in the women's sauna without my suit on! (I had complied with all posted requirements and was on my towel.) Young Women Clothed Always?

I entreat post-50 women to maintain an au naturel presence, same as you ever did. Pick your time and place and don't pass the buck, naked.

This is the body crafted for you.


Anonymous said…
Ah Duchesse, a topic close to my heart. In my 50's I was tired of hating and being ashamed of my body. Knowing God had crafted this body for me, I asked him to show me something I could appreciate. Now, mind you, I have had strangers tell me I have beautiful eyes and a body my friends are envious of but I never developed breasts (I'm still a minus A) and that colored everything. Anyway, I now appreciate the body I have and am enjoying finding my style etc. I hope your post today will give many gals the confidence to overcome whatever is holding them back from enjoying this part of their lives. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. jac
Anonymous said…
Oh Lordy, no, I have never been naked in a changing room/sauna or anything like that, even my friends and I wouldn't even dream of changing in front of each other, we leave the room to try something on, I like the sense of propriety that clothes offer.
At the Post Ranch Inn in BIg Sur, I was completely and utterly shocked that people were naked in the hot tub, I found it a bit uncivilised but then we Brits aren't really known for getting our kit off and I do indeed change in the cubicle at the gym 5 mornings a week - door locked, of purse. I like my body but it's private.
cgk said…
I love being naked! I suggest a nude beach for those who suffer from body shame. You see every shape and size and it is all accepted as okay - because it is!
Susan said…
Ha! I've been one of those women naked in the hot tub in Big Sur. Not at the Post Ranch Inn, but across the way at The Ventana. They do have two completely separated pool/hot tub areas--and one is clothing optional. That's the one we use because it is so freeing. We also avail ourselves of the hot tubs at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and enjoy our massages in the almost open air overlooking the Pacific. I don't find this to uncivilized at all and I'm 61 years old this month and have far from a perfect body.
Susan B said…
Another one here who's participated in public nudity. Mostly with groups in hot tubs, or sunbathing at Esalen, but also when I was in a folk dance group that performed at Renaissance faires. We traveled on a shoestring and often put half a dozen in a single hotel room or had to change in and out of our costumes in a communal tent. I also went to the nude beach with friends a few times, and let me tell you, nothing will get you over your body hangups faster than being around a bunch of nude people of all ages, shapes and sizes. After a few minutes you just forget all about yours or anyone else's wobbly bits.
Madame Là-bas said…
The more we are open about our bodies, the more comfortable we can be with ourselves. I was taught to cover up and be modest but in old age, modesty probably won't be an option. If we see only young models or older women with exceptional bodies, we will feel ashamed of our own
Duchesse said…
jac: If a woman has never been naked (in a place where it is usual) they she might try it, but I'm not advocating nudity for its own sake, delightful as I find skinnydipping. My wish is that they uncover as theyonce did not, just because the body is no n what it was

And yes, if finally a woman wants to go nakeder, that can be a freeing venture.

Bourbon: I am not suggesting you or any woman abandon her habits; if you want to stay covered it's your business. But one day, since you love California, you might find yourself in a hot tub without layers of fabric- and it's divine! I urge you to try it, perhaps around people you don;t know (except your partner), that's less inhibiting than being naked around your friends.

cgk: One of my favourite things, ever! I'm doing this as long as I'm upright.

Susan: Most of my hot tubs with strangers have been at Esalen. The first foray to the baths was a little nervewracking but after ten minutes I was hooked for life.

Pseu: That's so true, being among bodies of all shapes and sizes a moving experience- here we all are, and it's no big deal

Mme: Wonderful observation. Respect for an elder's modesty is extremely important yet in health care delivery there is some inevitable loss. Most providers I have worked with, like those who cared for my mother, were kind and sensitive.
Bit contrarian here - if one person is hogging the changing rooms, doesn't that mean there should be more of them? People shouldn't be forced to strip off in public to take part in healthy physical activities - it is a huge barrier for a lot of people.

When I was younger it was no big deal and I posed nude as I was an art student. No desire to do it nowadays. I have absolutely no moral qualms about nudism, on the contrary. It is fine if people want to do it, but nobody should be forced to.
KSL said…
I love going in the ocean without clothing and on Martha's Vineyard where we used to have a summer home, they do have a nude beach area. But, I've always been pretty modest, so I wear a large towel and sort of throw it to shore once I'm starting to get into the ocean.
materfamilias said…
Living on waterfront on a small West Coast Island, public nudity has been known to occur. . . skinny-dipping generally happens at night -- magical in the phosphorescence, My daughter, then 15, was once helping with catering at a neighbour's afternoon wedding on a hot day in August. She was amused and a bit discomfited when the guests collectively decided to swim and, not having brought swimsuits, partook in an en masse skinny-dip. Many were in their 50s and 60s and there was a variety of body types. . . I would have had a tough time there, as a guest, because I've always felt a bit like Jac, leftover feelings of self-consciousness about small breasts as a teen and young woman. If only I'd realized then that I'd some day think of that body wistfully . . .
And to add one more thing, having had the privilege of massaging cream into my 82-year-old mother's skin, her cancer-gnawed body that bore myself and all my siblings, I must say that bodies are beautiful in all guises and we really would benefit from recognizing that while we still have them. . .
Susan said…
The first time we went to the hot tubs at the Esalen Institute, I was prepared to wear my swimsuit. But, when I saw that no one else was wearing one, I thought it would be impolite to wear mine--if that makes any sense. As as Duchesse says, after a few minutes, being naked with strangers just didn't matter. I was with my husband, but didn't know anyone else. I agree that it is probably easier with strangers. I HAVE been in a hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe sans clothing and I was with a girlfriend. The others were strangers.
In my younger days I would hop in the hot tub naked with a mixed group of friends but now I find them too hot to enjoy.
I have no qualms about getting naked in a change room but I do dress and undress rather quickly!
Gretchen said…
I, too, have wondered what people are trying to hide when they come up with all the contortions to stay covered. If they're that wigged out about being naked in a changing room, why do they go to a public gym? Maybe it's from playing sports, or having enough surgeries and other medical procedures to choke a horse, but I figure the effort to cover up is more work than simply getting the job done. Bodies are amazing, and I find the "imperfect" ones to be even more wonderful...these incredible machines function so spectacularly, and on each of us is etched a lifetime of events, memories, and actions. Why wouldn't we be proud of them??
Northmoon said…
I can still remember coming out of the bathroom without my pants on at the age of about 3 or 4 and my grandmother yelling at me. Not sure if this is the reason, but I don't like to be undressed in front of strangers. Just last weekend I was staying at a hotel with a friend and two other young women friends of hers came in while we were dressing for dinner. I went in the bathroom to change.

Perhaps I need to get over this, I do agree that the body God gave me is fine, (more than fine, beautiful in it's way) but it's hard to overcome cultural conditioning.
Anonymous said…
Such interesting reading and I see a real cultural difference, in the gyms here, NO ONE ever strips off, at the very most, the odd person will strip down to their bra and pants but most go into the private changing rooms.

Susan - I'll say hello next time!
Susan said…
Bourbon, I'm sure there are cultural differences as well as individual differences as well. The interesting thing is that the United States has the reputation for prudishness due to our Puritan Heritage. And then there are the French (whom I admire for their attitudes toward nudity on public beaches).

I'm curious about one other thing. Aside from skinnydipping a few times during my college years, I am much more likely to avail myself of a san clothing hot tub now, whereas I was much more modest as a young woman (who had a much better looking body than now.) Perhaps some of my original cultural conditioning has worn off by age 61.
Anonymous said…
I need to follow-up Bourbon & Pearls. I am in the UK and almost everyone in my gym happily goes naked in the changing rooms. It is an exception for someone to use the cubicle. This was also the case in my previous gym in another part of the country. I have also been to saunas where clothes are shed (single sex I should add). So maybe customs are different in different parts of the UK.
Anonymous said…
Susan, absolutely, I honestly thought that 'the Americans' would be pretty much like us, interestingly in France, now the younger generation no longer go topless, it has become really unfashionable, when I was in St Tropez last year, all the youngsters stayed buttoned up on the beach, only tourist and older women went topless.

Really fascinating post Duchesse.
Anonymous said…
Anon, I wonder, do you think it's the Presbyterian Scots?
Duchesse said…
lagatta: They are annoyed not because they want to use it to change, they are annoyed because the only scale is in there and they can't get to it.

If someone wishes total privacy, there are some women-only gyms that have cubicles for changing, but the last two gyms I've belonged to have the usual locker room setup. If you have a moment to plan, it is not one wishes, it is never necessary to be totally naked.

Kathy: Different locales have different customs and sometimes it's great to "go native"- but
only when one is ready.

materfamilas: The soft cover of darkness makes nudity less, well "nude", especially if one is stretching out of the comfort zone. Stripping off at a pool party in front of clothed staff would feel weird, even exhibitionistic.

Susan: I have seen people in suits in the baths @ Esalen, but I am proud of, and remembering my friend Kathy, whose double mastectomy never kept her from enjoying them, like nearly everyone else, in the buff.

hostess: The heat levels can sometimes be adjusted :)

re the pains some women take to cover, I suspect the main reason is their belief that their body is ugly, and/or fear that others will find it so. So many claims to virtue are just masks for our imagined inadequacies. I wonder, if I could wave a wand and say "Your body is now the most exquisite in the world" how many would still be so reluctant.

I know a woman who will not reveal her body even in the most typical circumstances; she has enduring trauma from sexual abuse. That is an entirely different situation.

Northmoon: It is possible to confront the conditioning but not necessary. As I keep saying, I'm not advocating nudity outside one's comfort zone, rather, I'am asking for us to not regress as we age, out of mourning for losing youthful attributes.

Bourbon: That lone cubicle in my gym is where the scale is! Apparently privacy in weighing is thought to be more sensitive and fraught than offering a glimpse of flesh.

When I studied dance in London there was, in all the studios, one big communal women's change room (usually drafty and grotty) but they may have improved those places in the 30 years since I did that.

Susan@ 11:37: Either we have now realized that the dire things our mothers worried about never happened or they •did• and we found that they were fun!

Anon@12:00- Sometimes the actual facility has its own culture, like a micro-environment.

Bourbon: Your comment reminded me of Goa, where on the same beach I saw Indian women swimming in saris and topless Russian women (the bottoms were exceedingly tiny too). I like •designated• nude beaches- then you know what you're in for and can choose accordingly.

Anonymous said…
I think it's hugely valuable for women to see real women instead of digitally manipulated images, especially for children and young girls to see some of the ways that bodies develop.
Viktoria Berg said…
Interesting topic! I was brought up that being naked was natural - in some places, locker rooms certainly being one of them. During my exchange year in Iowa, I realized that girls didn´t shower after PE, which I found disgusting, and they in their turn found me shocking.

Swedes have become more modest over the years (I blame women´s magazines and porn, putting pressure on everyone to look perfect), and it´s been a long time since I visited a bath house sauna, but I´m pretty sure you´d still be reprimanded for wearing a swimsuit in one. You are supposed to enter the sauna thorougly cleansed of all dirty, chlorined pool water. I have been in gender-separated and mixed saunas, I found it no different.

I really wish this was a matter of hygiene, rather than morals or aesthetics.
Gauss said…
I love being naked! I think it's so important in this age of Photoshop to see some real, unaltered bodies - it puts everything into perspective. I've always been comfortable with my body, though, so I can imagine it's very different for people who were told / shown that it's inappropriate to be naked in public.
Anonymous said…
Well, this is thought-provoking! Hot tubs with strangers do not appeal to me much. (Married to an infectious-disease specialist, all I can think of is the germs.) But I so envy Materfamilias and her phosphorescent ocean! My most body-electric memories involve skinny-dipping, whether in an inky, icy lake at midnight, or in my little Aegean cove, where the water was clear enough for me to stand in chin-deep water and see the outlines of my toenails. There is nothing as primal and healing, I think, as swimming naked, especially in the sea.


Mel said…
This reminds me of something I read a while back. A guy was complaining that he hated to go to the "old man" gym because men over a certain age not only stripped in the locker room they would stand around chatting that way while the younger men used the cubicles. He thought that it was probably from the fact that most men over a certain age had been in the military and were accustomed to a lack of privacy.
Duchesse said…
birdybegins: This reminds me of June Callwood, who said her 4 yr old granddaughter looked at her naked and said, "I see when you are 70 your nipples point to your feet."

Viktoria; When I was 16, in the mid-60s, the Swedish exchange student, who came to our small Midwestern town about gave us a heart attack when she began to casually change into her suit in the open, on the beach. "You can't do that here", we told her.

Yes; I find the approach of that Y to be unhygienic too, as well as removing all pleasure from the experience.

Gauss: Being naked around a mixed group of strangers is still initially unsettling for me (e.g. the hot springs), though I will do it, but I'm at ease around women.

C.: So evocative! I liked being in the natural hot springs, too, feeling like a seal on rocks. Swimming nude in a pool is not as transcendent- but can still feel great.
Duchesse said…
Mel: I think it does have to do with acculturation, regardless of one's sex. But in the men's locker room (as reported to me) there are communal showers, so what's with the need to hide while changing?

Elder men sitting around naked and talking is a convention of steam rooms (the "schvitz"), so perhaps they have moved the steam room behaviour to the locker room benches.
Liz Rice-Sosne said…
If someone doesn't like my naked bod - I do not care. I did not care at 15 and I do not care at 66. Although I must say I did look a lot better at 16.
Liz Rice-Sosne said…
Make that 15 and we will see if we can see well enough write my own address.
Duchesse said…
Liz: Tell it, sister! I remember being so self-conscious at 16 but now, looking back, why in the world?

Raven: Heck I'd even take 30!
LPC said…
I first noticed, about 15 years go, that women in their 20s are WAY more modest than we used to be. I grew up in California of the 70s. I remember in the gym we were all naked. These days it seems to me it's not just the older women covering up, it seems to me that EVERYONE does. And why, I wonder, in a time of Facebook et. alia?

I, BTW, just can't be bothered. Sometimes I would worry I was offending people by undressing by my locker, untoweled, but it is just so much work to bring extra cloth to the task;)
Duchesse said…
LPC: I wonder why that is? It's easy to blame the increased pressure for a cultural ideal of a thin, taut body. Or are we so far from the 60s-70s that we've lost that sense of freedom?

I venture it is not "to avoid offending" anyone; I think it's fear of not looking airbrushed-perfect.
LPC said…
I think you may be right. But how horrible is that, to have made so much progress in some areas and conceded in something so critical as how we feel about our bodies?
Marilyn said…
As a young woman in the late sixties and early seventies, it seemed important to claim the right to show my body in a totally non-sexual way in the gym and on the beach. Today, however, it seems rare to see a naked female in a non-sexual context. While body image no doubt plays a role, I wonder if the real reason might be the inability of younger women to see their nudity in any context other than sexual that makes them reluctant to disrobe in public.
Duchesse said…
LPC: Exactly why I wrote this.

Marilyn: Is that due to the prevalence of porn? When I recall life in the 60s and 70s (mine, anyway), porn was of course around but at a remove. A person had to seek it out. Or is that simplistic?
Becky said…
I live in Oman in the Middle East and in the changing room at the pool of a local Five Star hotel is a very prominent sign asking you please to maintain your modesty when you are getting changed. In point of fact it is apparently illegal to be nude in a changing room here - makes getting dressed after a swim very awkward when there is only one changing cubicle !!!!
Anonymous said…
I've had 2 mstectomies and am not reconstructed. At the Y I'm hesitant to undress, more because of children there, not the adults.
So I stopped using the pool there.
Would you be ready to explain to your daughter?
That is actually surprising, as while Middle Eastern cultures are very modest and even prudish, there is an age-old tradition of hammams where people of the same sex can certainly be undressed.
Duchesse said…
Becky: Inconvenient and not customer- service oriented. I'm not advocating breaking laws, just not abandoning the gong naked *if one once did* in places where it is allowed, just because we don't have perfect bodies.

G,: You damn betcha, just as I would any surgery that resulted in a body alteration.

I'm not saying I think you should uncover, that would be up to you. In you shoes, some days I would not be willing to be the teachable moment. But I hope you use that pool.

lagatta: Hammams, among the most delicious experiences of life! The one I visit most often, at the Grand Mosque of Paris, requires bottoms. I've never been to one in the Mid East.

My friend Mar speaks fondly of a Ukrainian women's steam bath in Winnipeg, where the women bring treats to share and play cards. (Or maybe it is women's night at the steam bath.) There it is naked or towel-toga but she said "We got over our shyness pretty fast b/c who wants to sweat into a towel?"

Hammams are a powerful woman-bonding communal experience; do you know if there are any here?
Duchesse said…
lagatta: An initial search of our city shows things that call themselves hammams but are not what I was hoping for- they are either at spas or offer a very short, accompanied experience. I was hoping for a lingering, welcoming spot. Body Blitz in Toronto (which recently opened a second location there) is actually a women-only hammam with the added bonus of a salt pool and other features. You can easily spend a half-day there- though their website says two hours I've never seen anyone asked to move along.
No, I don't think there are any hammams like the one at the Paris Mosque here. I'll ask a Moroccan friend. There are very large Middle Eastern and North African communities here; I know the idea of a hammam was in the works, but don't know whether it actually bore fruit.

The Grande Mosque of Paris is very welcoming to non-Muslims as long as they accept the house rules. Not all mosques might be so welcoming.

Heading off to Earth Day!
Carolyn from Oregon said…
Minnesota childhood memory: my sister and her friend lost their swim suits skinny dipping, in about 1958. They thought my very religious Norwegian Lutheran mama would be horrified. Not so, when she finally pried the story out of them she burst out laughing, commenting that she had skinny dipped as a child too. We kids were faintly scandalized.
Duchesse said…
Carolyn: I love it when our parents surprise us like that!
Anonymous said…
One of my fave nekkid moments was when I went to a hammam in Istambul, around the corner from the Grand Bazaar. I treated myself to the "Imperial Bath" (or whatever it was called), which included being loofahed within an inch of my life, given a massage while sliding around like a wet fish on a warm marble table in the middle of the room, and having my hair washed by the attendant (who wore a tank suit), while sitting on a step below her. It was like being transported back to childhood, having someone carefully but matter-of-factly get you clean. I stayed in the hammam for hours, ordering tea and sweets from the menu. A Turkish friend told me that her mother had been born in the hamman in their small town, where there was no clinic, with the women in her extended family all present for the birth. It is a communal experience like no other I've experienced.

When I told my younger, marathon-running, and very fit sister about my experience, she said that she hadn't dared to take off her undies when she visited the same hammam, and that she was sorry she hadn't!

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