Public Naked Bodies, Disability and What It Means To Be Called “Brave”
Guest blog by: Nicolette Barischoff
As someone who has been a practicing naturist for almost a decade, I’ve been publicly naked in large groups more times than I can count. At festivals, protests, World Naked Bike Rides, art exhibitions, all-nude performances, both onstage and as part of the audience. I’ve been painted naked countless times and attended Body Painting Days, on both the east and the west coast.
And at all of these events, I have noticed a trend: I get noticed. No matter how well-attended these events are, no matter how many dozens of other Beautiful bodies there are around me, doing exactly as I am doing, I get singled out. If there are photographers, I get photographed. If there are artists, I get sketched. If there are news outlets, I get interviewed. Curious onlookers with smartphones? You can bet I’m a feature in someone’s latest YouTube video.
I’m not bothered by it. I can’t even really be flattered by it anymore, it happens with such baffling consistency. No matter what utterly charming, spectacularly photogenic body I happen to be sitting next to, I’ll be doing my bit for the camera before the day is out. Why is this?
I mean, really, why is it? Alright, yes, one reason is almost certainly that I am easy to pick out of a crowd. I have a visibly disabled body, and an expressive face. I talk loud, I talk a lot, and I usually have very loudly colored hair. “Visually striking” were the words used by a much more statuesque and naturally camera-ready friend. “You’re interesting on camera.”
But visually striking bodies are kinda what the whole nude art thing is all about. Bodies are interesting on camera. That’s what makes them such a great medium for artistic expression, right? I don’t imagine my body is in itself much more striking than the other celebrated bodies around me.
But I tend to hear certain words thrown around a lot by people who pause to speak to me at these events. Words like Brave, Bold, Courageous. I just love how Brave you are! Goodness, you’re Bold! Can I take your picture? You are just such a Courageous young lady!
Language like this used to make the scruff on the back of my neck stand up. What did they mean by calling me courageous? Courageous is what you call someone who’s afraid, and doing it anyway. What do they think I’m doing that I should be afraid of? Did they mean I was courageous for bucking social norms and putting my naked body on display, something they feel they could never have done themselves? In that case, aren’t all these vulnerably bare smiling people equally Courageous? What makes me More Courageous than the trembling, goose-pimpled journalist standing next to me taking off her clothes in public for the first time in her life? How dare they minimize her bravery!
Unless they’re implying I have some particular reason to feel Not Courageous? That if they were in my place, possessed of such an obviously disabled body, they would feel too self- conscious of its weird, weird differences to show it off in front of a crowd? I’m courageous because I’m willing to ignore the murmurs of scandalized onlookers. That’s probably it! They’re calling me a freak, those condescending bastards! I’m the pioneer of freaks!
Now that I’m a little more accustomed to the cameras, and the compliments that come along with them, I think I’m better able to understand what somebody very unlike me might mean when they call someone like me courageous. Or at least I’m less ready to misunderstand.
It took me a minute, much longer than it should have, to realize that most people have never seen a naked disabled body before. All the bodies they are used to seeing (that aren’t the bodies of their young children or their significant others) come from the very streamlined, very airbrushed worlds of media. In other words, most of the naked bodies they’ve seen look pretty much the same. They’ve never seen a body that didn’t fit the strict specifications of Hollywood unreality used in art before. Far more than standing out in a crowd, I am the first evidence that a disabled person even can be naked that most of these onlookers has ever seen.
And it’s a little amazing, isn’t it, to see someone whose body is totally unlike yours, and realize with a grin that they’re actually not unlike you at all? Isn’t that part of the reason that naturists do what we do, to remind ourselves over and over and over again that we’ve all got the same parts underneath? That all bodies are made of the same basic star-stuff?
Are they calling me brave for doing something they can’t imagine doing themselves? Certainly there might be a little bit of misguided awe in there. Disabled people are not the only people who get told by society that their bodies aren’t fit to be looked at naked. Every woman over a certain age has probably been told that indirectly at one time or another, and people over a certain weight don’t even need to be told.
Most people on earth, in fact, have been told in a million different insidious little ways, that there’s something unattractive about their body that makes it not worth looking at. And the sad thing, I realized, is that most of us just believe what we’re told. We obey. We keep our clothes on. We hate ourselves in front of the full-length mirror, and leave all the good sex and all the fun, non-self-hating nudity to the bodies we see in movies.
It takes a long time to get to a place where you can call bullshit. Where you strip bare, look around you, realize you look exactly as awesome and sexy as most humans on earth, and lean back for a little sun.
When people call me courageous and bold and brave, what they’re saying is: “Wow! You’re body’s different, like really different, and the TV keeps telling me all the stuff that’s different about my body is bad. How’d you shake out all those horrible little hobgoblins telling you that nobody wants to see all your stupid flaws? I wish I could get there!”
You’ll get there, I say to them, sometimes out loud. You’ll get there.
About the Author: Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Podcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.
She can be reached on Twitter (@NBarischoff) or through her blog at nbarischoff.com.