Roni Fine talks to naturists about body image.
Going to a wedding, an interview, a party or a first date? These occasions usually involve worrying about what to wear! We want to create a good first impression. Image! It's an important thing and not just with clothes but with our whole bodies. The fashion industry has indoctrinated us with what the right look is and which size and shape we must be.
Most of this is an impossible ambition and many people suffer from eating disorders and depression along the way. This can be a problem for all of us at some point in our lives unless we are wise enough to be at peace with ourselves - accepting of, and comfortable with, what we are. You know what I'm going to say: that last bit refers to naturists!
How important is the visual image and how much relies on our attitude, body language and what we actually say? Can we still make friends and influence people when we have no clothes to hide behind? I think we make more effort with eye contact and communication. We use our natural instincts, many of which have been forgotten over the years.
It also seems that people who are reticent to uncover in public find the naturist community the one place they are able to do so, knowing they will not be laughed at or have cruel remarks voiced out loud. It is very sad that they should suffer people's bad manners on top of what might have already been traumatic times in their lives.
One of a couple who joined Blackthorns had had a leg amputated after a motor-bike accident and the couple told us how they had been to beaches and heard hurtful comments. They had put an end to this by joining a naturist club, where they knew they would be accepted by all. Indeed, on their very first visit to Blackthorns he felt so comfortable that he was able to remove his artificial leg and use our pool.
Ray and Marnie told me how they met up with an old friend at an event. Ray recalled, "We went over to say hello, having not seen her for a year. Later the same day I happened to stop and talk to her again – it was not until I saw her for the second time that I noticed that she'd had a mastectomy!" That says it all! They spoke to the person - not her body, not her breasts!
And just as losing a breast must be traumatic for a woman, so must losing a testicle for a man. Andrew had testicular cancer 20 years ago, at the age of 26. "I have found that being a naturist has helped me not to worry about body image and actually be proud of my body, even though I now have only one testicle," he says. Andrew has noticed how naturists are all so tolerant: "Whether or not you have an operation or disfigurement, you are treated with respect from understanding fellow-naturists. That has helped me through, and I now feel confident about my body."
Teenagers tell me they are more confident about themselves as a direct result of being brought up with the awareness and acceptance of people's bodies.
Leah is 18 and is pleased to have been raised this way. "As a naturist I take people for who they are, and not what they look like," she says. "When unclothed, no one is rich or poor, no one has good or bad fashion sense - people become equal." It is nice to think these youngsters stand a good chance of avoiding the worries of extreme dieting and body image issues.
I've chatted with women who admit they were worried about being seen undressed and feeling fat, but are glad they gave it a go and found they could brave the looks of others without being stared at, and they became relaxed with nudity and comfortable with themselves.
Someone who went through these worries is Andy, who admits it was her size that stopped her practising naturism when she really wanted to, until she saw sense, went to Studland Beach and took her clothes off! Andy admitted, "After many years of trying and largely failing to lose weight, I became resigned to the fact that I was never going to be sylph-like and decided to concentrate on being as fit as I could for my size." She was conscious of what others thought of her, but decided, "If they don't like it that's their problem – the sun and sea are there for us all and if they don't like the look of me they can just look away." But this didn't happen. "In fact, I found people far friendlier than on a textile beach, probably because the initial barriers had been broken down. We had something in common, so making conversation was easy." Taking that initial step has led to her feeling more confident, as she explains: " It might have even helped in my being successful in recent job interviews – the self-confidence I have gained in the last few years – not necessarily talking about naturism!" Her one regret? Waiting until she was over 40 before doing it! But she says, "I have given up being obsessed about losing weight. I try to eat sensibly, exercise and try to have a positive outlook on life." Sounds like good advice to me!
It isn't just women who have this concern about being overweight. Graham found he put on weight and developed rosacea, primarily as a result of a stressful time in his life. "It sapped my confidence," he explained, "I just didn't take care of myself any more and dressed so as not to be noticed, so I looked a mess!" It was when he visited a naturist club that he found people accepted him for himself, as he explains: "Being naked was the only time I didn't feel awkward about how I looked. Whenever I was dressed, my clothes felt wrong and I felt awful. When undressed, people talked to my face and I didn't feel they were noticing my bad skin, but my eyes, and for the first time I felt I was seen as a person. It was only when I had gained this renewed confidence that I was able to take control of my life, and with the help of a Channel Five programme, Diet Doctors, I have lost three stone and feel so much better for it. But I did that for myself, because I know I need to be healthy as well as happy!"
Naturism has many benefits, but if it can help us accept ourselves for what we are and not what we think we should be, then it is doing a grand job! If we are steered away from obsessive dieting and gain the confidence to take on a healthy lifestyle, then it is a bonus. Naturism seems to promote a more sociable environment and we all benefit from the friendship and support of others.
So if you are thinking you would like to go naked in the company of like- minded people, but daren't because you think people won't want to see your body, please throw off those doubts and give it a go, because we really don't care what you look like! The only thing we would like to see you wearing is a smile! Come and join us!