Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., is an educator, writer, and nationally renowned lecturer, and a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she recently completed a six-year study of shame and its impact on women. After interviewing over 400 women across the US for her study, she learned that more than 90% of the respondents, age 18 - 80 struggle with body image. According to Dr. Brown, body image appears to be the one issue that comes closest to being a “universal trigger” for causing feelings of shame. In fact, she observed, “body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging and a woman's ability to speak out with confidence.”
Body image is how a person thinks and feels about their body. It is the mental picture that we have of our physical bodies. Generally when we speak about body image we are talking about a general reflection of what we look like. But often women who struggle with body image do so as a result of specific body parts that come together to create this image. Women most often experience poor body image as a result of becoming trapped in a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations of who, what and how they should be, their perceptions of what the social and community expectations are for individual parts of the female anatomy. As they consider their individual parts, many women look at each of these areas, have specific body part images for each one and often develop a mental list of what they want those specific parts to look like and what they hate to have a specific part look like. Women develop negative body image and lack of confidence about their appearance over deep feelings of dissatisfaction with individual parts that run the gamut: hair, neck, face, ears, skin, nose, eyes, lips, chin, teeth, shoulders, back, breasts, waist, hips, stomach, abdomen, buttocks, vulva, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, pimples, scars, freckles, stretch marks, cellulite and moles. For some it is just feeling they are overweight in general. Having body issue problems can fill a woman with shame and feelings of worthlessness. It can jeopardize her connection with herself (her authenticity) and the connection she has with the important people in her life. For some, poor body image keeps them from enjoying sex or pushes them into having sex when they don’t really want to because they are desperate for some type of physical validation of worthiness. And as mentioned in my previous post, poor body image is one of the primary reasons that women are less willing to participate in social nudity.
Unfortunately, how a woman views her own body may have little to do with her actual appearance. It is her image of how here body compares to her image of what she “should” look like. In Western culture, women are constantly bombarded by mass media with images of the “perfect body.” Most often this measure of perfection is a young, extremely thin, toned, nubile and large breasted female with perfect hair, teeth and skin. Actually no one could live up to a standard like that because the images are not real. In the photographs air-brushing and make-up are used generously to cover any flaws to arrive at that model of perfection. Sadly, a failure to live up to these unrealistic images causes women to suffer body image dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders and can lead to unhealthy lifestyles. Interestingly, I have read interviews with extremely thin women, many unhealthily thin, who stated that when they looked at themselves in a mirror, they saw themselves as being overweight.
As a male I can’t fully comprehend the female perspective on body image or understand what she sees when she looks at her body in a mirror. Men for the most part simply don’t have most of the negative body image issues that women do. At most we might feel a bit self-conscious over things like penis size or male pattern baldness, but few men worry about having extra weight on our hips or stomachs. That is quite understandable however when you consider that we aren’t constantly being shown an impossible “ideal” and then being subtly reminded on a daily basis that if we want to be desirable, successful, happy, etc. we must look that way. Given that, I know it is much more difficult for a woman to overcome all that and be vulnerable enough to remove her clothing in front of other men and women in a social nudity setting. Yet for those women who are able to summon the courage and the resolve to do so, there are many benefits awaiting them.
Without exception, women who have somehow learned to feel at ease while participating in social nudity report that their body image and self-esteem improve dramatically. First, among other nudists they feel the unconditional acceptance and learn quickly that no one expects them to have a “perfect” body. Nudists I think more than any other group in society understand and accept the diversity of the different sizes, shapes and ages of the human body. Secondly, when a woman decides to participate in social nudity she learns that despite the fact she will meet people smaller, larger, younger and older than she, everyone does look pretty much the same when nude. This too helps diffuse many of the negative feelings she might have about her own body and appearance. In a real sense, as one nudist observed, nudism isn’t really about the physical but about the mental.
While one of the biggest obstacles to female participation in social nudity, body image possibly holds the greatest promise for helping a woman learn to feel more accepting of her own body and appearance. We need more women in naturism/nudism because we need the diversity. In all aspects of society, women are a big part of the equation and bring to the table unique opinions, perspectives, views and life experiences that men can’t. I think the more women who are willing to get beyond their body image issues and try social nudity the better the lifestyle will be for all. A few women willing to adopt the pioneer spirit and participate, the more easily women in the future will be able to find the courage to try it and discover how meaningful and enjoyable it can be.
One way a woman might improve her body image and body acceptance is by undergoing a reality check. Develop critical awareness by asking yourself questions like;
- Where do the expectations about my body come from?
- How realistic are my expectations?
- Can I be all these things all of the time?
- Can all of these characteristics exist in one person?
- Do the expectations conflict with each other?
- Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be?
- What are my fears?
Women often ask, “Can I feel comfortable as a nudist even though I don't have a perfect body?” The answer is, absolutely yes! Enjoying social nudity and nude recreation is not about comparing your body to another. Nudism is all about accepting your body and everyone else’s just as nature made them. Let me conclude with an observation of one woman named Lisa, and what social nudity has come to mean for her…
“When I'm at my club with other nudists, I’m in a relaxed community. It’s a very supportive environment. Being nude has become the most normal thing in the world. I sometimes wonder if you’ll pardon this well-worn phrase, what took me so long. The people I’ve met are courteous and friendly, there are no pressures, no daily hassles. At my club it’s easier to relate to people on the basis of who they really are, not by the image their clothes say they are. And I feel a sense of respect for me as an individual. It feels fabulous to be judged by who I am and not by the physical condition of my body or the style clothing I’m wearing. Now, whether Im at a nudist club or at my job, my self-esteem says, ‘Hey, I am a beautiful person!’ My whole being is more relaxed; I’ve never been this confident.”