Naked photos online: The power and the pitfalls.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand why most nudists are camera shy, or why the majority of controlled clothing-optional spaces are No Photo Zones. The reasons are so ingrained and so obvious that I won’t reiterate them here.

A volunteer playfully admonishes me while reminding onlookers to obtain permission before taking photos at an event in San Francisco.

 

Even among those who blog on the subject of naturism, the majority protect their anonymity. Most spread nude-positive slogans and memes, but post only pictures of naked strangers found on the web, or faceless images of themselves. I don’t blame them. I have recently intensified my naked presence online with this new blog. I am learning that, even for those comfortable with having non-sexual nude pictures of ourselves disseminated, it can be challenging. We may share our photos for idealistic reasons, trying to convince the world that a human body is no big deal, but we have no control over what the viewer might do with them. Once a photo has been published as part of a pro-nudity blog entry or manifesto, some jerk will inevitably save that photo, and repost it, out of context and regardless of copyright, between GIFS of blow-jobs on a Tumblr page. This blog has successfully helped me to reach like-minded advocates of body freedom, but I have also been discovered by those who clearly view my photos as some kind of daddy porn (although these days I am more of a grandpa type). On the other extreme, images of me have been turned into anti-nudity memes by the so-called “family values” crowd. Either way, my message has been distorted in direct opposition to the statement I’m trying to make. It makes me feel used. I have been considering how and whether to proceed.

 

A Conservative meme opposing public nudity (that’s me) and legalization of marijuana.

Despite these negatives, I have reached the conclusion that sharing nude images online has power, especially if they are images of one’s self. To convince others (and perhaps ourselves) that we are not ashamed of our bodies, we must be unashamed. The best way to get more people accustomed to non-sexual nudity is by “normalizing” it through exposure. If it sounds like I am preaching, “expose yourself,” perhaps I am. Of course, I realize that not everyone is in a position to do this. We live in many different cultures, religions, families, and legal systems. That is precisely why it is important, for those of us with the freedom to do so, to stand up and be counted.

 

A stranger at a street fair asks me to join him in a selfie. 2012.

 

I am fortunate. I can be open about the role nudity plays in my life without serious repercussions. One way I can spread the message of Body Positivity is by allowing my nude self to be photographed. I am often naked in public settings where no consent is required for photography or publication, so just being there is granting permission.

 

ABOVE: Posing for a photograph at a street fair. BELOW: The rear-view picture taken by the photographer in the background of the previous image.

You may question why, with so many photos of me already in cyberspace, I would fret over whether or not to post a few more. I’ll try to explain…. By being photographed in public I am stating that I am not ashamed. In that moment, I relinquish all rights to the images. The odds are that I’ll never know where they end up, and what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me. But, when I see my own blog entries re-posted or re-tweeted as porn, I feel complicit in supplying those images. I concede that, once my picture finds its way to a porn site, it hardly matters how it got there. The difference boils down to my own purely emotional gut response to seeing my face there, and knowing that they got the photo from me. As you can already see, I have decided to continue sharing my pictures because I believe that they may do some good. Seeing photos of other nudists has helped me and changed my thinking. I want to pay that back.

 

ABOVE: I smile for the cameras at the World Naked Bike Ride in San Francisco, 2013. BELOW: I turned my own camera on photographers on the sidelines at the same event.

I tend to prefer sharing pictures in which I make direct eye contact with the viewer, giving clear consent to being looked at. I post them with full knowledge and resigned acceptance (which is not the same thing as giving permission) that I lose control over these photos as soon as they are on the Internet. They can end up anywhere and be used to make whatever statement porn collectors or prudes might wish. So what? No matter where they put a photo of me, it will show an average man looking into the camera lens without embarrassment or shame.

With a friend in San Francisco, 2014. And, yes, I asked his permission before posting this.

 

 

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my life in the nude

I believe, deep down, that I am hard-wired to be a nudist. There are times, whether in nature, at a social gathering, or on a city street, when I think, “This moment would be perfect, if only I were naked.”  Being dressed can actually make me somewhat claustrophobic. Society has trained me to overcome the urge to rip off my clothing in most situations, but the feeling is real.

One of those perfect moments when the desire to be nude and the option of being nude coincide. Croatia, 2018.

I describe myself as a “nudist,” not as a “naturist.” When discussing the importance of nudity in my life, I want to be as clear as possible. There can be no misunderstanding that a nudist is one who likes being nude, whereas I think the word naturist smacks of obfuscation. It is too often confused with “naturalist.” Even when correctly understood, it conveys an image of communing nude with nature in unspoiled surroundings. That may be an apt description of many who call themselves naturists, but I am a city dweller. I am most often naked at home or in other urban spaces: I am an urban, sometimes public, nudist. Some call me an exhibitionist (as, I might add, is everyone who posts selfies on Instagram). I consider myself an activist for our basic right to be non-sexually naked when and where we choose.

Burning Man Decompression, San Francisco, 2012.

Nudity is our default state. Putting on clothes is an action. To be ashamed of (or offended by) the human body is to be ashamed of (or offended by) simply being human. I don’t buy the argument that we should always defer to those who are offended by nudity. Most of us are frequently faced with behaviors we find objectionable, but seldom are we harmed by them.

That’s me at San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race, 1990s. No “family values” were harmed.

I did not grow up in a nudist environment. I don’t remember seeing my mother naked, or my siblings except during shared baths when we were very small, but as a child I was naked a lot and it was a non-issue. My earliest memories of nudity outside the home, and certainly of seeing nude adults, involve weekly skinny dips with my father at a YMCA pool in Los Angeles when I was about 8. I had no direct interaction with anyone there except my dad, but I felt a powerful camaraderie and spirit of belonging among those naked men and boys. Several other memories of boyhood nudity remain equally vivid. It’s undeniable that I now feel most alive when I am nude, and I think this was also true during my childhood.

I feel most alive when I am naked.

During puberty I became horribly self conscious. Shortly before I started middle school (we called it junior high), my family moved east to a suburb of New York City. Around that time I went from total comfort with my body to being intensely embarrassed by it. I can’t say anyone imposed shame upon me, but my sexual awakening brought extreme repression. Just telling my mother that I needed to buy a jockstrap for gym class was difficult for me. In my teens I loved being naked more than ever, but I was furtive about it. I secretly began sleeping nude. Home alone, I wandered through the house with nothing on. Late at night I crept naked into our backyard to lie down on the grass or climb trees, marveling at the sensations of breezes, tree bark, and moonlight touching my skin.

The heightened sensation of walking naked in nature. 

I was 16 at the time of Woodstock and the Summer of Love. Non-sexual nudity had previously been unheard of, except for snickering remarks about art models and “nudist colonies.” Suddenly, images of naked people were everywhere. Nudity in films became commonplace. I saw “Hair” on Broadway, with its famous nude scene. Comfort with nudity was a feature of the era’s hippie culture. I admired and envied those confidently naked people in magazines and on stages. I yearned to unlearn my body shame and become one of them. I wanted to stop hiding my nakedness and let it be seen, because without clothes I felt like my truest self. I still feel that way.

One of the images of non-sexual nudity that made a big impression on me during my teens in the 1960s. This is the only photo used here that is not of myself.

After graduating high school in 1970, I moved into my own tiny apartment in Manhattan hoping to pursue an acting career. I found work ushering at an Off Broadway play that featured a nude sequence involving most of the cast: I was a wannabe on the fringes of both the theatrical community and the world of body freedom.

I soon began dating an unemployed actor who spent his days at Riis Park, a [then] clothing optional beach near NYC. On hot days it was mobbed, with only narrow paths of exposed sand to walk on between “wall-to-wall” beach towels. The great majority of people wore swimsuits (including my boyfriend, who cultivated his tan-line like a work of art), but nudity was legal and accepted. It was my first opportunity to be naked outdoors without fear of being caught. I spent long happy days in the nude, body surfing, gathering shells, and sunning. Unlike my companion, I got tan all over. It was very public but also very anonymous; a liberating combination. Well, it was anonymous for the most part… I once recognized my former camp counselor, and one day I saw a retired couple who lived upstairs from me. All of them wore swimsuits. My first impulse in both cases was to turn away and hope that I had not been seen, but I forced myself to say hello. We had friendly conversations. My nudity was neither acknowledged nor awkward. When I later encountered those neighbors in our apartment building, I realized that their having seen me naked changed nothing. For me, these were moments of growth.

Being naked on a beach is still one of the great joys in my life.

I forayed into a different kind of social nudity later in that summer of 1970, when I attended a party given by a friend’s girlfriend. Among those dancing in the crowded living room was one naked (and very stoned) man. I was awed by how free he was, and by the fact that no one batted an eye. I could imagine how wonderful it must feel to move like that in the nude. Knowing I’d be disappointed in myself if I missed this opportunity when a braver soul had already cleared the path, I mustered the courage to take off my own clothes… but then sat in a corner, pleased to have met the challenge but too self conscious even to cross the room for a drink, let alone dance.

Nowadays, I am perfectly at ease with being the only naked person at a party.

When autumn came, I began working as a model for college art classes in Manhattan. Modeling was different from my previous nude experiments. At a beach or party, no one was necessarily even looking at me, and I could get dressed if I felt vulnerable. But a nude modeling gig was a commitment to three hours of being literally on display with nowhere to hide. At first I found it overwhelming; I got through it by imagining myself elsewhere or fully concentrating on whatever music was being played. After a few classes I was able to be more present. I could return the gazes of the students. It was interesting to listen to the instructors coaching them, often calling their attention to the particulars of my body: “He’s unusually long waisted,” or “See how he’s bow-legged?” At first I was mortified by these observations, though I knew them to be true. I grew to understand that no one was criticizing my body; they were merely stating facts about it. In the long run, the experience increased my self-acceptance. It was as though I was building up a callous on my body shame.

In my work clothes, 1990s. A 12-hour pose for a painting class (four 3-hour sessions).

Meanwhile, I still had my job as an usher. I had watched the show dozens of times and knew it by heart. One desperate evening when several actors were out sick, I was asked to go on as an understudy with one quick rehearsal. I was mainly focused on being in the right place and getting my lines out, but in terms of nudity it was a watershed moment for me. There I was, 18 years old, naked on the stage of a sold-out theater in New York City. Unlike the dimly lit nude scene in “Hair,” the all-white stage set was flooded with light. Previously, I had mostly kept quiet about my love of nakedness. Few people (except strangers) knew I went nude at the beach. I had talked with almost no one about being a nude model. But I was so proud to be in a professional play that I announced it to my family and friends without hesitation. There was no need to mention the notorious nude scene; everyone already knew about it and asked how I had dared. Their curiosity provided an opening for me to discuss my deepening convictions regarding body acceptance and shame. I came out as a person to whom being naked is both enjoyable and important. Since then it has been a facet of myself that I share pretty easily. I went on to act in dozens more plays and musicals, occasionally nude, more often not. Between acting jobs I held down a variety of “day jobs” where I managed to keep my clothes on (!) but seldom hid the fact that I was a nudist in my time off. I have continued to model nude for artists, including some well known photographers.

Working as a photographer’s model, circa 1976. 

In my thirties I left New York for San Francisco, a city with a reputation for tolerance, eccentricity, and freedom, and with a history of public nudity. Here I have been nude (and photographed) at more street fairs, parades, demonstrations, foot races, bicycle events, and parties, than I can remember. I think being naked in public and online is beneficial in terms of advancing acceptance. Seeing bodies of various shapes and ages “normalizes” nudity by desensitizing viewers and resetting their expectations. Until San Francisco changed its nudity laws in 2012, I could sit naked in a sunny little plaza near my home, sipping coffee, reading a paper, and chatting with acquaintances. I could step outdoors to bring in the mail or put out the trash bins without covering up. A neighbor once phoned, offering to send her husband over with some soup she had made. I asked her to delay for a few minutes because I had nothing on, and she replied “What else is new?” When a nude photo of me was published on the front page of a local newspaper during the political battle leading up to the city’s ban on public nudity, a dentist’s receptionist greeted my spouse with “We’ve been seeing a lot of your husband lately!” Even when clothed I am frequently recognized as one of the city’s Naked Guys. I accept that title with pride.

I made the front page when San Francisco politician Scott Wiener launched anti-nudity legislation.

I find it easy to be nude around most people, no matter whether I am among fellow nudists or am the only one. I have always had non-nudist friends who are comfortable if I am naked in social situations, and others who are not. I generally broach the subject early in a friendship. If a person reacts favorably I might disrobe on the spot or ask whether they would mind if I were naked during a future visit. This way, as a friendship develops, my nudity has already been established; I find it more difficult to introduce nudity once there is a pattern of always being clothed. My family knows I am a social and public nudist. They have seen a few published photos of me. My sister and cousins seem to have a “so what?” attitude, but they live thousands of miles away and I have not spent time naked around them as an adult. My aunt asks for vacation photos “from the waist up.” I would guesstimate that 95% of people in my life are aware of my nudism and perhaps 50% have seen me without clothes.

Pro-nudity rally. San Francisco, 2018.

I try to let my freak flag fly rather than stifling my true self in an attempt to appear “normal” …speaking of which, what could be more normal than a human body? We all have one, and there are few surprises among them.