Why Are Aussies Less Keen To Strip Off Than Europeans?
Is it our isolation? Our English DNA? Or is it simple self-loathing, guilt and shame?
Earlier this year my family and I stayed on the Greek island of Corfu and stumbled upon an isolated nudist beach called Myrtiotissa, below a mountaintop nunnery, which Lawrence Durrell hailed as "perhaps the loveliest beach in the world."
It’s now a mere three-metre stretch of sand and pebbles, eroded by waves, very different to its wide expanse in the 1930s. When we got there, it was crammed with about 50 people. They were local Greeks of all shapes and sizes and ages. They were not ‘exhibitionists’, they weren’t being creepy. Older men and women lay on deck chairs under umbrellas. A young couple played backgammon. A little boy played catch with his naked dad. Being Australian, we kept our swimmers on and were the only people in the water. There were too many dangly bits to deal with in that tiny space, but the Greeks seemed totally unfazed.
At the beach where I live in northern NSW, there’s a ‘clothing optional’ section. Sometimes I swim nude there, but only when I have my husband with me. When alone, I’m sick of being leered at and made to feel uncomfortable. Even when I swim in my bathers I’ve been followed, propositioned and stared at for so long I’ve simply cut my time short and sprinted to my car.
I swim every morning -- winter and summer -- and on some cold, rainy days I’m the only one on the entire beach. When I see a lone man arriving, who then proceeds to swim or sit right near me, I feel threatened. I hate feeling fearful. It angers me that I feel unsafe on my neighbourhood beach.
There’s a huge difference between the local naturists who come to swim and sun themselves here and the ‘sex pests’, interstate tourists in search of an encounter, who make the beach unsafe for both women and men. There has been a long-running campaign by locals to close down the nudist part of the beach because we’re sick of being sexually assaulted, harassed, stalked and having to endure suggestive remarks and behaviours.
Before the advent of hook-up internet chat rooms, everyone -- including families with children -- swam nude at this beach with no fear. Now we’re on alert, with surveillance cameras everywhere and a ramped-up police presence. Even this has not made us feel safe.
Why do some people equate nudity with lewd sexual behaviour? Are Australians prudish compared to Europeans? Is it our geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the world? The pervasive slip-slop-slap ads and our terror of skin cancer? Is it a particularly twisted form of misogyny? Or is it simple self-loathing, guilt and shame?
In southern Europe women and men are not inhibited by their perceived fatness, sagginess or wrinkles. Their bodies are there to be celebrated. Patty, 45, who recently returned from Italy, "found it so refreshing to see women of all shapes, sizes and ages [on the beach] wearing whatever they wanted without a care and without judgement." I’ve been to many nudist and non-nudist beaches in Greece, Portugal, France, Italy and Spain, and never felt as uncomfortable on a nudist beach in Europe as I do here.
Sam, 54, believes as I do that "Aussies think nude is rude. I grew up both here and overseas so that stands out to me as an Aussie thing." Amanda, 47, thinks it’s due to "English DNA? Isolation? I think our dominant Australian culture is less mature than European culture…we haven’t been marinating in the Great Masters nude art and sculpture." Selena, 47, says, "it’s partly racist too. Catholic and Protestant missionaries saw the Pacific native inhabitants as 'savages' and licentious because they didn’t wear clothes."
Bohemian literati aside, the culture of ‘wowserism’ was dominant in Australia in the mid-20th century. Norman Lindsay, celebrated sculptor, painter and author, fought constant battles with what he called "pious hypocrites" who wanted his sensual, erotic works seized by police. Wowsers attempted to condemn acts they deemed sinful or immoral. Lindsay’s first book, The Age of Consent, published in Australia in 1938, was promptly banned. As late as the 1960s, Melbourne’s Myer department store was forced to cover up plaster copies of Michelangelo’s statue David by the police. Beach inspectors prowled the shores of Bondi and Manly, measuring the width of women’s bikinis.
Today, the ‘new wowserism’ is alive and well. It’s still illegal for a woman to go topless on the beach, unless in a designated area, while men can. Men can also walk down the street bare-chested. One of the downsides to the increased police presence on my local beach have been the fines some women have been given who decide to go topless or nude on a quiet, isolated stretch of beach. The law takes no account of subtlety.
Teri, 69, says "we fought for our right to own our bodies, along with the right to go topless on the beach if we chose…I have since been astounded at the reversion to prudery of this generation…me, I’m a brazen hussy who believes everyone has a body. When mine was young and pretty I was happy to show it off. Now it’s not, I don’t give a stuff."
Like Teri, I’m learning not to care either. We do all have bodies. We need to throw off this outdated hangover of culture and history in order to see our bodies clearly for what they are: incredible vehicles for experiencing reality. Is that so hard to do?