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Applying Themes of Joy to the Act of Undressing
This is may or may not be a relatable dilemma for you, reader, but I have personally felt emotionally and physically drained by the past few years of, well, everything: Politics, war, the pandemic, the economy, and, of course, navigating relationships with loved ones and colleagues without tripping over any of the aforementioned potentially controversial topics. More recently, in an effort to will myself into a better attitude and outlook on life, I've put a little spare energy into re-evaluating the information that I consume, the way I process it, how much time I'm spending wallowing in the horrors around us, and how much time I'm focusing on more affirming ideas like hope, kindness, and—yeah—joy. I can't stop the war in Ukraine, but I can definitely… uh… not make life any harder for the check-out person at Trader Joe's... that sort of thing. I’m not claiming that I’ve been particularly successful at any of this or that it makes me a great person or something… But alas, in the spirit of this pursuit, I came across a book by poet Ross Gay called Inciting Joy, which looked like just what I needed. It promised to explain what joy really is and how to find it—or incite it, rather, since, according to Gay, joy is not a reward to be got but a practice to engage.
Before I go any further and start into my own thoughts on the concept of joy and how I see it mingling with nakedness, let me give you a crash course on the book itself. Bear in mind, however, that my quick summary is no substitute for the experience of reading the book and savoring it for yourself. If you are able to do so, I encourage you to seek it out at your local independent bookstore. Getting to the point: Inciting Joy is a series of essays that read more like poetry than prose, touching on different aspects of the author's life, past and present, often tragic, uncomfortable, or mundane, and the ways that joy was stirred up in those experiences. Throughout, the author insists that joy is not, as we tend to believe, a “state of sorrowlessness,” a reward for positive thinking, or a feeling that we can buy or create for ourselves and set on a shelf to revisit as we need. Joy, according to the author, is a practice of inviting in our sorrows and working through them, of inviting in others to help them with theirs, of solidarity and unity over common goals, of cherishing those moments of connection, of growth and death and rebirth and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things. Joy is a practice of generosity and gratitude, a disregard for society's demands of productivity and consumption. Joy is engaging in community with one another above and despite all else.
To be clear, Inciting Joy is not a book about nakedness or body acceptance (though there is an especially joyful aside about the body in the book’s final essay). I have, however, been writing about nakedness, thinking about nudity, volunteering within the nudist community, and paying for memberships to naturist publications and organizations for long enough that my mind is wont to draw correlations between nearly everything and this wacky community of naked people. Not in a “this whole book is actually secretly about nudism!” kind of way, but more in a “how does the message of this book inform my appreciation of nakedness and the body?” kind of way. When, in the very first chapter of his book, the author invites his readers to imagine the implications of “joy” for their own passions and communities, it was a welcome challenge. My wheels were already turning. While Inciting Joy makes no mention of surfing or the queer community or baking or traveling (though it does explore joy in the contexts of skateboarding and father-son relationships and football and gardening), all of these areas and more are ripe for exploration in relation to joy. For me, today, I'm looking at the act of nakedness and the nudist community that embraces it.
Gay wrote Inciting Joy in such a way that each essay also focuses on a different core practice in the creation of joy, and while they are all insightful and thought-provoking, I am going to pinpoint three particular areas: The sharing of sorrows, the breaking of rules, and the practice of community. In the context of the nudist community—or movement or whatever you want to call all these folks who gather to get naked—these themes feel perfectly tailored, like truths that we live in and talk around but never quite articulate with much precision or clarity. In conversations about nudism, the idea of "joy" in nudism is so often attributed to its individualism, to personal liberty and freedoms, to the exploration of the self, or to the nude-friendly spaces that we carve out in our homes or our gardens. It's often attributed to the "me" of it all rather than the "we" of it all. I don't mean to say that personal triumphs have nothing to do with fulfillment or happiness, but what I do mean to say is that between our individual pursuits of freedom and our more community-oriented engagement, I don't believe it’s nudity in isolation that makes nudism as an idea and a practice feel radical—though I’m sure there are exceptions. We are here for one another, right? To break society's rules together, to process the weight of the world's shame and abuse together, to do nothing together, and to be emotionally and physically vulnerable with one another in a way that most of society is afraid to do. Nudism, to me, feels like an excellent example of the kind of joy that Ross Gay is waxing poetic about.
The Sharing of Sorrows
I have spent many a conversation—in person, online, in my direct messages or over a Zoom call, in a hot tub or hunched over a beer—volleying the personal stories that brought us to these naked spaces. “What got you into nudism?” is perhaps the most ubiquitous icebreaker you will encounter in the nudist world, especially when you meet someone new or find yourself amongst a new group. These conversations arise quite often for nudists at basically any stage or in any setting, yes, in casual conversations, but also in blog entries and podcasts and articles. They so often lead to personal stories of body dysmorphia, shyness, hyper-sexualization, objectification, abuse, a wild dare, a mid-life urge, or an unexpected revelation, all with the common theme that nudity and gathering with others while nude played a role in their triumph over some hardship or insecurity or in their discovery of something new about themselves and others. Some will weave their journey to accept their naked body with experiences of racial, cultural, gender, or sexual otherness, while others will find deeper meaning in their spiritual practice, their art, or their health and wellness through their nakedness.
Not all of these conversations revolve around “sorrow,” per se, but it does seem that for nudists, we connect over these stories of hardship and triumph. We find common ground with one another over our struggles with body image and shame, with the hyper-sexualization and objectification of our bodies, with all of these complicated feelings we have about the skin we inhabit, how we look, how we feel. When we talk about welcoming in the sorrow in order to find joy, for nudists the sorrow that we gather together to help one another endure and survive is every burden and stigma and trauma that our bodies are forced to carry with us and the nudity we don is the brokenness, the masklessness, the vulnerability, and the acceptance of it all. With the baring of our wrinkles and scars, so come conversations about the toll of living, the inevitability of aging, about experiences harm and even death. Nudity for the nudist is the obvious pillar around which we congregate to recognize and embrace our delicate and fleeting humanity. In this way, the act of shirking the shame of nudity and working through our complex feelings about our bodies together, choosing instead to play and congregate and swim and soak in the sun, is the act that creates joy from the sorrow, embraces the sorrow and vulnerability, and then welcomes it in and invites it to the party. That is joy.
The Breaking of Rules
Beyond simply uniting to congregate and commiserate, there's something else within the nudist community and the nudist movement that rhymes with the lessons of Inciting Joy, and that's the concept of breaking the rules. Maybe "breaking" isn't the word. Maybe it's disobeying, disregarding. Maybe it's forging a path irrespective of the rules. Certainly there are rules and etiquette and expectations that make the world better for all of us, but then there are the rules and laws and ordinances that, according to Inciting Joy, keep us in boxes and make us productive, efficient, unquestioning, and breakable. When we talk about breaking rules in the name of joy, we're talking about those rules, the ones that tell us where to be, when to be there, what to wear, whom to hate, whom to love, for the sake of keeping everything moving according to plan and rendering profits. I think we have all experienced this pressure, this confinement, and I think we have all, in some aspect or another of our life, relished the opportunity to buck those rules to have a little fun: Skipping class, sneaking into a movie, playing the drums too loud too late, skinny-dipping in some pond somewhere, carving out a clever corner in your garden just out of your neighbors’ eyesight where you can slip out of your clothes and soak up the sun.
Nudists seem to occupy this exact space, breaking the rules to make room for ourselves, to make room for a little freedom where there is otherwise constraint. People aren't supposed to be around each other naked, and yet we gather in clubs and homes and beaches to do just that. People aren't supposed to ride their bikes naked through the streets, and yet we delight in the opportunity. People aren’t supposed to look beyond others’ physical appearances and material wealth. People aren't supposed to love their bodies just they way they are, we aren't supposed to reject the objectification, commodification, and hyper-sexualization of our bodies, we aren't supposed to challenge the standards set by fashion magazines and Instagram models. Yet we do. Even the nudist emphasis on leisure time, lounging on the beach or by the pool, and playing pickle ball is—at least in the context of American society—a challenge to hustle culture and expectations of ever-increasing productivity, the nudist indifference to clothing a challenge to a culture of consumerism. In a world that demands constant movement and efficiency, it is, in a way, a radical rebellion to lie in the sun and read a book naked with a bunch of other people of varying shapes and sizes and colors and lovers doing whatever it is they want to be doing. That, too, is joy. A rebellious and free-spirited joy.
The Practice of Community
It seems almost too obvious to state, but humans need one another, need to feel a sense of belonging and to have fulfilling social interactions. That has always been true, but I think deserves extra consideration in the age of social media and unlimited access to one another, which seems to have somehow left us more connected to one another yet less socially fulfilled than ever. What’s missing is the act of community with one another, of gathering with others to pursue a common goal, discuss a common interest, fight for a common cause, construct a common space, or share common goods (the author of Inciting Joy uses the examples of building a community garden and connecting with other home gardeners to share seeds, fruits, and tips). There are very fews areas of my life where I have an opportunity to engage in this kind of active community, and I imagine the same is true for many of you as well, but I think that’s all the more reason to prioritize finding those opportunities and relishing the connections you make. For many, that may be a church community, a hobby group (a friend of mine was once very entrenched in the rock-hounding community and it was a delight to experience vicariously through her), or a political cause. And for some, maybe it’s doing something like taking off all their clothes and creating spaces and events where others can do the same.
Those folks who do build community around nakedness—nudists, naturists, and people who just enjoy celebrating the body—pride themselves in building a community that looks past external prejudgements, social barriers, and internalized shame. For many nudists, it's the connections we make with others that we yearn for, that bring us together, that get us to drive hours to a nudist club or event to see each other, that convince us to seek out any nudist-tolerant online space to feel like a part of something bigger. We find ourselves uniting over something in common, swapping club and beach recommendations, chatting about our favorite nudist podcast episodes, sharing tips and suggestions and clandestine nude hiking and camping and hot springs guides with one another. We find ourselves commiserating over the lack of nude spaces, over society's weird hangups about bodies, over prohibitive laws and local ordinances, over cheeky news coverage and articles using clichés like "nudists bare all about...” We thrive on that connection, regardless of how trivial or repetitive it may become. That is joy, too. Joy in the work, the solidarity, the communion, and the belonging. The joy isn’t in maintaining a state, or achieving the right level of enlightenment, or logging enough hours of engagement, but in an ongoing contribution to something larger than ourselves.
And One More for Good Measure: Gratitude
Of course the last three of these themes are so very clearly applicable to all kinds of communities and families and ways of life, including the nudist community. But then there is this nagging underpinning to the experience of joy that perhaps feels a little bit inverted: Gratitude. Feeling it, expressing it, and meaning it. Gratitude for one another, and for what we add to each other’s lives, yes, but also to all the little things in life that go unnoticed or unappreciated. The acknowledgement of these things contributes to a life full of gratitude, to a life where joy can be derived from every kernel of the world we occupy. Rather than explain why this is important for my nudist reader in their experience of joy, I will instead offer you a long-winded, run-on quote pulled from the final chapter of Inciting Joy, which I think will strike on a gratitude that the body-minded nudist will appreciate.
… there is no blathering on enough about gratitude… and it does not in the least seem an ill-conceived exercise, devotion, project, life, to do nothing other than list or, ha, catalog said gratitudes, perhaps starting with the interior of what before your devotional, your practice, you considered your body, but now because you are thanking the trillion or so microbes in your gut and creepy-crawling your skin and slathering lasciviously through your mouth and eyeballs and nostrils, critters some of whom if they get ill and die off you will be a goner in a heartbeat, invisible EMTs, you might start there, that is a trillion gratitudes… ; or my god, [skin], I don't mean the luster or hue, all of which are gobsmackingly stunning, and that those hues change most often in relation to the sun, that our skin is one of the many evidences that we are directly related to the sun-flower, and other heliotropic critters… I mean the simple fact of our skin, an envelope or satchel or sack to hold our guts in, and how it changes and becomes an archive or repository of those changes-mine variously stretch-marked, pocked, dimpled, flappy, hairy, scarred, grooved, smooth, sagging, of different hues… ; the eyelash, good lord high-five to that; saliva; nose hairs unbecoming though we often say you are, you do your job whatever it is, thank you; ear hairs too, more prominent by the day I notice; and this knee like a pepper grinder but still bending, still not chalk; we can carry on with the body like this, inside, which, even if it is broken beyond repair probably, though not necessarily, there is a rectum and an anus to let the shit out, which either way constitutes a gratitude, there is tubing in there we do not know and maybe do not want to but that might like to know we are grateful… this is just the body we're talking about and we haven't even begun I mean mammals have hair which though the source of much consternation and prohibition and hand-wringing is actually an astonishment and I have been the lucky recipient of so much simple creaturely tending because of it, dozing off in between the legs of some dear braider tugging the strands tight; teeth; the gums that hold them in your mouth you have to be kidding me; fingernails; if you got a nose, and even if that nose is perpetually stuffed or busted by a rogue elbow it might one day who knows drag you to a lily that smells precisely like your mother who is getting old; and if you got toes, whether crooked or not ... we can go out from the body, gradually like this, to the furthest reaches of our imaginations, gratituding the world, garlanding the world with gratitude, an hour a day, a day a week, a week a year, we could do it always and forever and never arrive at the last gratitude, we could never do it enough, let's try, let's start today, shall we.
With these ideas in mind, I will leave you to go incite some joy of your own, whether that’s clothed or unclothed. I will leave you to be vulnerable with yourself and others, to break some rules for the sake of savoring life and having fun, to give yourself to something bigger than yourself, and to take a moment to appreciate the little things, the people, and the world around you in all its variety. I will leave you, also, to consider picking up a copy of Inciting Joy and imagining its lessons in relation to other areas of your life.