Modesty, Body Image & Why I’m Joining NYC Bodypainting Day
Guest Blog by: Nicolette Barischoff
When I first came out as a naturist to my family (made up of Burning Man hippies and ultra-conservative Christians alike), reactions ranged from “Yeah, I kinda figured,” all the way to “Didn’t you do this a few years ago?”
I’ve pretty much always been naked. It’s hard to pin down when or how that happened. My parents were both fairly conventional non-denominational Christians, and the importance of modesty was stressed at me early and often. It just didn’t really take. I remember countless lectures on the sanctity of a woman’s modesty, the mysterious and sudden weight of responsibility that was a Woman’s Body. “You have a woman’s body, now, you can’t just go around without thinking!” I remember quiet, careful, urgent asides reminding me how crucial was my role in making sure that men were not frightened / filled with unshakable lust / given wrong ideas about me. I lost count of how many times I mortified my siblings by coming out of the bathroom bare-ass naked when they had friends over. I wasn’t trying to embarrass them, I just never quite deciphered what there was to be embarrassed about.
You see, I was born with spastic cerebral palsy. Put simply, my brain fires in random directions to make my muscles do all sorts of bullshit that I didn’t ask them to. I don’t walk; I use a wheelchair to get around, or if I’m at home, my hands and knees. I’ve always needed more help than most people. That often meant help getting dressed or using a particularly inaccessible restroom. When my parents weren’t around, that meant help from near-strangers. This modesty, this easily shattered virtue that I was supposed to guard more carefully than a girl guards anything else, had to be shed in an instant if the circumstances demanded it.
How, then, was I supposed to button myself back into my modesty after I’d just had a stranger pull my underwear up for me? How was I supposed to know when to care about who was pulling up my underwear, and when to not? It didn’t take long for me to realize that nobody had any really good answers. If strangers selected by chance and necessity could gaze upon my naked body without turning to stone, just who exactly was I protecting? The children? (The same ones who would happily run through the streets of my community naked as the day they were born until their beleaguered parents wrestled them into some coveralls?) Myself? No, I still didn’t give a shit. Men? Not even gonna dignify that one.
I guess what I’m saying is, despite the efforts of my exasperated kin, I never learned modesty. It never felt important. I have to lay on the floor to pull my pants up. Am I to lay on the cold linoleum of the bathroom with the warm comfort of the living room’s eighties carpet just a few feet away? Fuck that. I am used to people who shouldn’t see me naked seeing me naked. They all lived, and so did I.
Still, I never took that plunge and called myself a naturist. Old ideas die hard.
My first ever experience with intentional public nudity wouldn’t come until I was twenty-one, on one of those big European College tours, faced with my first French beach. The atmosphere was a revelation. I had known that European beaches were usually topfree, but I wasn’t expecting the sheer naturalness of it. Bodies of all shapes and sizes, nude to the waist with neither snarky comment nor creepy leer. Children and their mothers.
And their mothers’ mothers. Adult sisters. Locals and obvious tourists. And adolescent boys weaving through them all, utterly unfazed, as if they’ve seen this every day. Because they have. I looked over to my newish boyfriend (who would later get promoted to full partner) with a question in my eyes. His answer to that question was that it wasn’t up to him. It was my body, and therefore up to me. Up to me. Well, okay then. Off the top went, as quickly as I could get rid of it.
And, oh, holy crap, there I was. It’s weird to realize that our society doesn’t permit our breasts to feel ocean air. Something as simple as a sea breeze crawling across my skin was at once invigorating and exhilarating. And then that feeling, that sweetness of liberation and excitement and daring, passed. Surprisingly quickly. And then I was just a human, one among hundreds, existing as I was most comfortable. I never looked back from that.
I’ve been naked in public a lot since then, among other people and, occasionally, all by myself, the nude voice of reason among a confused and clothed crowd. I’ve been to Burning Man, to Faerieworlds, to Seattle’s World Naked Bike Ride. The wonderful women of the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society were kind enough to write an article about me. But to date, I’ve never participated in an art project on the scale of Bodypainting Day. On Saturday, I will strip to the skin in the middle of Manhattan with a hundred other beautiful people, all professionally painted, in full view of a city that may not understand me, and I will feel more comfortable than I ever do wearing clothes.
It’s hard to have a positive body image when you’re disabled. People approach disability with such a spectrum of assumptions, and ideas about what you should do or be or how you should behave. And this never involves having a body. That old idea of modesty comes extra hard when people aren’t used to thinking about what you might look like naked. That’s why I’m doing this, why Bodypainting Day is so important to me. It’s the ultimate expression of body-positivity. It’s art and acceptance and freedom. It’s an exploration of our relationship to the body, and a direct challenge to the childish notion that most of us “just shouldn’t be seen naked.”
I sincerely hope you will join me.
The next NYC Bodypainting Day is on Saturday, July 18, 2015! Learn more at www.bodypaintingday.org.
About the Author: Nicolette Barischoff is a Locus and World Fantasy Award-adjacent science fiction and fantasy writer. She can be reached on Twitter at @NBarischoff, or on her blog nbarischoff.com, where she talks about writing, disability, and body-positivity. She likes being naked, and if that doesn’t bother you, she likes you too.