Is being in the nude healthy for you and your family?

How your comfort zone with nudity can affect your self-image, and your children’s.

1

Jupiter Images

I did not grow up in a naked house. When I was a kid, doors were closed while we showered and sandwiches were made while we were wearing pants. The body was not frowned upon; it was simply private. I continue to be somewhat ambivalent about being nude. I enjoy, for example, unclothed post-shower strolls around my apartment, and I love to strip down on the rare occasions when I have access to a steam room. But the limits of my affection for nudity were tested by a recent relationship with a very hairy man who liked to take his clothes off, and keep them off — even while doing mundane things like cryptic-crossword puzzles.

I tried to play it cool but quietly cringed every time he sat down on my off-white armchair.

People grow up experiencing varying degrees of nudity, of course. Supermodel Heidi Klum recently revealed that she was raised in a house with often (and proudly) naked parents, and chanteuse Christina Aguilera and her former husband once raved about spending Sundays in the buff. And a new reality-television show, Nak’d Truth, just auditioned prospective cast members who were willing to live together at a “clothing-optional” oceanside resort in Florida.

For Kelly Flynn, one of the best things about growing up in a rural area with few visible neighbours was the opportunity to strip down and run free. Kelly, a 39-year-old humanitarian-relief worker and mother of two who lives in Comox, B.C., had parents who weren’t crazy about closed doors and drawn curtains. The bliss of those early years was broken when she started school. “My mother sat me and my twin sister down and said, ‘Girls, you’re going to be starting kindergarten, and this is what it is — and by the way, keep your clothes on all day.’”

While Kelly was becoming acquainted with society’s hang-ups about nudity, her mother continued her ambivalence toward being dressed. She often gardened in a loose sundress (with nothing underneath) or even ditched clothing altogether. When Kelly brought friends or boyfriends home, she would have to do some initial scouting. “There was an island in our kitchen, and if I came home with my boyfriend and she didn’t come out from behind the island, I knew she was naked from the waist down,” says Kelly. “It was my cue to remove us so she could go off and get dressed.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Beth Palmer, a 27-year-old graduate student at York University in Toronto, who says that she grew up in a household where nudity was not the norm. “I’m a WASP,” she explains. “We are into clothes and not talking about feelings.” In addition to the practical advantages of clothing — Beth grew up in a limestone house built in the early 19th century that she describes as “drafty” — she just finds being dressed more comfortable. “I don’t like sitting on things naked,” says Beth. (Amen, sister.)

While Beth’s attitude toward nudity is tantamount to a shrug, Stef Hurst, 30, takes her distaste for it a little further. While her parents were completely comfortable being seen naked, Stef, a teacher in Ontario, says that she is “never nude” — even in the company of her husband. “When we’re having sex, I’ll be naked, but I’ll put clothes on as soon as we’re done,” she says. When Stef showers, she puts on her bathrobe and underwear before she starts drying her hair. She doesn’t think that her preference for clothes has any deeper meaning. “I’m comfortable with my body,” she says. “I just feel more comfortable with layers against my skin.”

In many households, there is a gender component to nudity — it’s okay for girls to see Mom naked, but Dad is off limits. Inessa Frantowski, a 31-year-old comedian and actor in Toronto, grew up with parents who were Russian artists; she remembers seeing books of famous nudes around the house when she was a kid. Nudity among the ladies of the house was common. “My mom and my sister and I would all hang around in the master bathroom and chat when my mom was coming out of the shower,” she says. But Dad was a different story. “I never saw my dad naked,” says Inessa. “And the one time, when I was around 10, that I almost saw him when I walked into the bathroom, he grabbed a towel and I was really embarrassed.”

The time between eight and 10, on the cusp of those truly awkward years, appears to be the magic age when previously freewheeling naked children start shielding their eyes and wearing turtlenecks. Sara Dimerman, a family therapist and author based in Thornhill, Ont., says that it’s normal for children to be less comfortable exposing their bodies as they approach puberty — particularly for girls to not want to expose themselves to their fathers, and boys to their mothers. But sensing that their parents are comfortable with their own bodies — clothed or unclothed — can be a positive experience for children.

Seeing other average, non-model, non-airbrushed women in the buff can offer a healthy example of what a typical female body actually looks like. Inessa says that she was self-conscious about her “big nipples and pointy boobs” until her mother came into her bedroom one day and shut the door. “I remember she said, ‘You have beautiful breasts! Nobody needs these tiny nipples!’” recalls Inessa. “Because my sister, my mom and I always talked about our bodies, I could compare my body with theirs and see that theirs were just like mine. It helped me feel better about myself.” Inessa says she sleeps naked and, yes, still sometimes hangs out in the buff with her mom and sister in the bathroom.

In addition to contributing to a better body image, Vancouver-based sex therapist Teesha Morgan says being comfortable in the buff can also contribute to healthier ideas about sexuality. “A positive attitude toward being naked can diminish the chance that a child will associate his or her own body with shame,” she says. “People often associate nudity with sexually permissive behaviours, but most social nudists separate nudity and sex, seeing their bodies as natural instead of arousing.”

Dimerman emphasizes that there’s a wide range of normal when it comes to attitudes toward nudity, some based on personal preference and some based on religious or cultural expectations. Pat Heikkila, a 63-year-old retired teacher, who lives in Ottawa with her four daughters, says that her Finnish heritage and the importance of sauna culture have contributed to her comfort about being nude. During social gatherings, it’s common for the women to strip down together and hit the sauna, and for the men to do the same. “Nobody ever thought twice about that,” she says. “If you’re exposed to being nude with your parents and other people of the same sex from a young age, you realize that we’re all shapes and sizes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our value as people.”

According to the Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN), naturism — another term for nudism — began as a reaction to the crowded cities, dilapidated tenement housing, restrictive clothing and oppressive working conditions of the rapidly industrializing 19th century. Some considered exposure to sun, fresh air and water (preferably with loose or no clothes) to be the ideal remedy, and nudist groups began to form.

The FCN conducted a nationwide survey in 1999, finding that almost 9 percent of Canadian households had one or more members who have gone or would go to a nude beach or resort. Nudists were also found to have higher incomes, and people who lived in urban areas were more likely to be nudists than those who didn’t. Over a third of Canadians walk around the house naked, with the highest proportion of home nudists coming from British Columbia.

Outside the house, Canadian laws governing public nudity are a bit fuzzy. We’re prohibited from being naked in public with the purpose to offend, particularly with a sexual intent (such as flashing), but some practices, such as topless sunbathing, are generally permitted. In Ontario, toplessness is legal for both men and women — following the 1991 arrest and subsequent acquittal in 1996 of Gwen Jacob, who dared to bare her breasts in Guelph, Ont. — but both sexes have to be clothed below the waist. Most other provinces, however, still require women to cover up.

Growing up with parents who are comfortable with their bodies — and and who can step out of the shower without feeling the immediate need to grab a towel from the linen closet — is healthier, explains Dimerman. “You send a message to your children that you like yourself, respect yourself and are comfortable in your own skin, but you don’t need to flaunt it by vacuuming naked.”

While modesty can be considered a virtue, never being nude can lead to unexpected problems. When Dale Boyer, a 33-year-old writer and actor in Toronto, was a kid, her mother was so averse to nudity that she would leave Dale alone in the bathtub (but make her sing to ensure she wasn’t drowning).

When Dale reached puberty, her ribs began to grow in an irregular fashion, eventually inverting above her breasts. Since no one had ever seen Dale naked, and she didn’t see anyone else naked for comparison, it wasn’t until she was in her mid- 20s that somebody noticed: “I was wearing a bathing suit, floating on my back at Disney World, when my mom looked at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s really weird.’” (Thankfully, Dale’s condition, pectus excavatum, is typically harmless. “It’s only troublesome when I have to buy bras, because they don’t lie flat across my chest,” says Dale.)

As with so many elements of family life, nudity is a pattern that often repeats. “A lot of our views on nudity come from the family, and they’re not very easy to change,” says Dimerman. Stef Hurst, who recently became pregnant, hopes nudity won’t be an issue with her kids. “My husband is very comfortable being naked,” she says, “and I’m fine with other people being naked — as long as I can wear clothes.”

Meanwhile, Kelly Flynn frequently bathes with her two children, aged 4 years and 22 months. “But my husband is starting to pull out the privacy card, and wants to close the door when he’s having a shower,” she says, “which is something I wouldn’t have ever considered.” Her elder daughter is now full of questions about body parts and even sometimes requests privacy in the bathroom; Kelly and her husband are trying to include her cues when figuring out what is most comfortable for the family. “We will continue to enjoy family openness, as long as it feels right for us as parents and for our children.”

How to do nude

1. Stay calm
Any habit that’s a product of shame probably isn’t a great thing to pass on to the kids. That doesn’t mean that you should start baking in the buff to prove a point, but if the kids walk in while you’re in the bathroom, don’t act as if it’s the end of the world.

2. Nurture their curiosity
Children are naturally curious about their bodies, and sometimes the bodies of others. Allowing kids to see you without your clothes on creates an opportunity to comfortably discuss body parts and their functions whenever it comes up.

3. Show your stuff

Being occasionally naked shows children what the aging process looks like. “If your breasts are big or small, a child might have a question about them, which you can answer without embarrassment,” says Sara Dimerman, a family therapist based in Thornhill, Ont.

4. Follow their lead
If children appear to feel discomfort around nudity — or too much interest — it might be time to put some pants on.

5. Talk it out
Think about what you’re saying to your kids — not just with your words but with your body. “If you can show that even when you’re 10 pounds heavier and you have stretch marks, you accept yourself, that would be healthy for young girls to see,” says Dimerman.

Readers, how comfortable are you being nude in your home and around your family? Please share in the comment space below.

Sarah Treleaven is a regular contributer to Chatelaine.com’s blog “The Happiness Plan.” Check out some more of her work here.

One comment on “Is being in the nude healthy for you and your family?

  1. Pingback: Quoted in “The naked truth: Is being in the nude healthy for you and your family? ” by Sarah Treleaven on HelpMeSara

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *