Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
This post kicks off the 2017 black history month series this year themed, decolonizing naturism. It will explore some observed barriers to diversity and inclusion of African American and lesser extent people of color in the naturist and nudist community. For the purpose of this series we will be using the definition of naturism provided by the International Naturist Federation, euro dominant naturist organization, to guide the discussion. I believe it is also helpful to define the words decolonize with is the central focus of this series and Eurocentric the specific focus of this first part.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of “decolonize” to free from colonial status
Merriam-Webster’s definition of “Eurocentric” reflecting a tendency to interpret the world in terms of European or Anglo-American values and experiences
In a world where the European is a global minority the question that rises is why is naturism and nudism still mostly practiced by people of European heritage? Are people of non European or African descent inherently adverse to naturism/nudism? Are people of African descent and other people of color culturally opposed to nudism and naturism? Is there any rhyme or reason?
Why does that matter in decolonizing naturism? Despite pronouncements of equality and welcoming friendliness from sectors of the naturist/nudist community, the practice of naturist and nudism is still dominated by people of European descent. Naturist bloggers on the web and those on social media regularly opine about the equality of naturism and the way naturist venues are bastions of harmony and equality. This would suggest that everyone is welcome and a various experiences are valued. However, that suggestion does not reflect awareness of behavior which does not engender that desire. There are still naturist/nudist venues that host red neck weekend parties.
All of this may seem perfectly normal through a Eurocentric lens. It’s just people having fun expressing themsleves; until a different cultural lens is used to view the circumstance.
Some will undoubtably decry the above observation as being overly sensitive or divisive, without pausing to think about this. We all see the world through our own cultural lens. Naturists and nudists are no different. There is nothing inherently malicious or racist about looking at the world solely through your own cultural lens. After all culture is the way we all make sense of our world.
However, when I think of my cultural lens as the normative cultural lens, the lens through which everyone else should see and understand the world, it has the opposite effect from promoting equality and creating harmony and respect. It is the difference between my cultural lens being THE LENS and being A LENS. That is the difference between a Eurocentric view of naturism/nudism and decolonizing naturist/nudism.
The world view through which you see events shaped one’s perception of the cause, effect and response. The recent Women’s March in the U.S. capital Washington D.C. is a perfect example how a Eurocentric or euro-dominant lens can fail to capture the enthusiasm of people of color because the response of those using that lens has divergent impact.
The point here is simple, when we can only see or make sense of the world through the lens of a dominant culture, it usually means other cultural voices become invisible. The impact and influence of the dominant culture on the lives of those outside the dominant culture ends up being invisible as well. That is why decolonizing naturism is an essential step. That is if there is a genuine interest is seeing the naturist/nudist practice become more common among African American and other people of color.
What does decolonizing naturism and nudism look like? Here are a few decolonizing shifts that would go a long way in the process.
Decolonizing the history
Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”
Before the emergence of global connectivity, history painted a picture of the world as seen through European eyes. People of color and particularly people of African descent are not prominently featured in that history. When most naturists and nudists talk about the history and origins of naturism, they to harken back to the free body culture movement of early twentieth century urban Germany. Germans who had moved to the industrialized cities of modern Europe lost their connection with nature, the outdoors and the fresh air of the country. (Parmelee) However any reasoned reading of the International Naturist Federation’s definition and a more probing view of history would illustrate that many African tribes lived the way of life described in that definition. This was long before the formation of the FKK; before European colonialism literally killed those practices.
When naturists and nudists do venture back in history beyond the early 20th century they usually cite the practice of clothes free competition in Greek culture. Rarely acknowledged is the historical evidence which points to the practice of social nudity in ancient Egyptian culture circa (1385-1353 B.C). Also rarely mentioned is the practice of naked spirituality observed by Alexander the Great in India in his eastern conquest. Historians suggest Alexander obersavations of the naked sages of India, who he called gynmophists, may well have been inspiration for expanding social nudity in Greek society. (Goodson pg 156-157, 161-163.)
“It is now known that social nudity in Ancient Greece was encouraged by the existence of nudity among the holy men of India.” Goodson pg 161 Therapy Nudity and Joy
Just as decolonized history of the world reminds us Christopher Columbus did not discover the new world, as there were already people there, decolonizing naturism reminds us that Europeans did not invent or originate naturism/nudism. If anything it was European colonists who deprived the first naturists of that way of life. (Goodson pg 155, 163.) Consider for a moment how empowering and inviting it might be for culturally conscious African Americans to discover that the practice which looks so euro-dominant in modern times is something that is a part of their ancient heritage. That however requires us to decolonize naturist and nudist history and make room for other more accurate non euro dominant origin histories.
A second and significant way to decolonize naturism and nudism is letting go of assumptions. Probing history is a great start as it will help to broaden our understanding. However, learning to avoid blanket assumptions of experience is another important step. Many naturists and nudists are wont to make blanket generalized statements about racial or cultural equality being standard in naturist/nudist environments. It is a practice I really wish they would avoid. Reason being that while it may be an individual experience history and lived experiences show it isn’t always the case. If as a member of a dominant culture one does not see or experience the lack of inclusion of others, that doesn’t mean it does not exist.
The very first time I visited a naturist venue I was on the receiving end of a derogatory racial comment and immediate suspicion from a group of people of European heritage. This was at a weekend sponsored by a regional nudist organization, one that tends to be euro-dominant in its composition. Now the reality is I did not get treated that way by everyone, on that first occasion or on subsequent visits. However, I have seen subsequent racially tinged incidents at that venue, alongside wonderfully welcoming encounters. I have suggested before that naturists and nudists are just like everyone else. There are welcoming and prejudiced, biased and inclusive, accepting and racist people who take the label. That is not a a new phenomenon.
One man, fearful of what he assumed to be hypersexual African Americans, wrote to the editor claiming that only a person with a “sinister object in mind” would want to bring other races into nudist camps. (Hoffman)
It could be argued that a eurocentric or euro-dominant world view may promote that kind of thinking. This invisibility of this reality to some may well be a consequence of a learned cultural reality.
Samuels reasoned, “You were born without clothes. You were born without racial hatred. You were taught to wear clothes. Likewise, you were taught racial prejudice.” (Hoffman)
A decolonized reality is simple acknowledgement that the naturist or nudist experience is not universal. African American people and other people of color may have a different experience of the practice. People of African descent may also have a different motivation for engaging in the practice of naturism and nudism.
Allowing for those differences and listening to those experiences rather than assuming one type of experince from one person or one point of view is normative can go a long way towards decolonzing naturism. The challenge in decolonizing naturism and nudism here is not allowing the experience of the dominant culture to become the normative experience. Letting go of assumptions can address that in part.
Decolonize cultural differences
There is an important aspect of this discourse to note; Having a eurocentric view of naturism is not something limited to people of of European descent. One world view is not wholly and completely defined by one’s race or the color of one’s skin. Because of colonialism the whole world has at minimum been exposed to a European world view and in some cases other cultures were forced to conform to that world view. The legacy of colonialism shapes the world view of all people who were subject to that cultural conformity. So it is fair to say African Americans and other people of color may have had our way of thinking shaped by eurocentric values, as that is the dominant cultural global value system. That does not mean no cultural differences remain nor does it mean individuals are only influenced or shaped by one set of cultural influences. Human beings are much more complicated than that. In an earnest effort to decolonize naturism and nudism understanding and appreciating cultural differences is key.
Psychologists and sociologists suggest one such example of a cultural difference, is the way that people priotize the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. Recently I came across a blog post by a person of African descent who described his individual need to experience public social nudity in a cultural environment where public nudity was frowned on. Some commenters joined the original poster in bemoaning his predicament. One commenter whose avatar suggests she is of European descent (because you never know in the age of fake news and fake personas) took a different view.
First of all, as a very well travelled woman, and fellow Naturist, I am suprised that your blog is all about your need to be naked. Especially in such a different culture. How about sharing their cultural history, that leads to their natural distain for nudity?? Tell us MORE and a little in depth historically about HOW they became so timid about uncovering their bodies.AND do they actually nudist resorts of any kind there?
After framing her comment in a context of cultural awareness the commenter goes on to describe the historical and current realites of naturism in that place taking into consideration the group and not just individual cultural difference.
What ARE the penalties for what I can only presume to be Indecent Exposure. Do they chop it off???! How about nudist massages? In spite of still being a new concept in Vietnam, naturism has caught up and became a fast accepted freedom among visitors and some locals. The land of waterfalls and gorgeous sunsets has a lot to offer naturists.Naturism is not allowed in Vietnam. The government once banned a naked painting terming it as a violation of the Vietnamese values in 2008. A lot has changed since, and as much as naturism is not official, it is tolerated. Actually, before mid-2000s, naturist beaches and resorts were not established, and naturists had a hard time finding somewhere where they could have fun and relax. However, you can still have fun and meet other naturists in Vietnam as long as you restrict yourself to the designated areas and outside the public places.If you have visited and looking for a good place for nude bath, try the alluvial ground in the middle of the Red River. This alluvial became famous for naturist baths ten years ago. It is unique for naturism in that it is open-air.
Time and again I have read news reports often of people of European descent pursing the individual “need” to get naked, in sacred places with differing cultures where the respect and honor of the group holds sway. As cited earlier it is not my contention that this kind of incident is done with any kind of malicious intent. I think it reflects a cultural difference which prioritizes of the individual experience and “need” over group tradition and expectation. This practice, though often cheered by naturists and nudists, is anti-thetical to the definition of naturism previously alluded to as it does not express a respect for others.
This dialogue illustrates an important point that cannot be ignored if naturism is to be decolonized. NO GROUP OF PEOPLE IS MONOLITHIC. One size does not fit all. Africa is not a country, rather there are many countries with various tribes customs, traditions and cultures on the continent. African Americans, people of African descent and other people of color are not all the same. We have been shaped by many and varied social and cultural influences. A country and its culture is far more than you may see on the surface through a particular cultural lens.
On the practical side this kind of dialogue about cultural differences would suggest that a different method of inviting and encouraging participation of black and brown people in naturism and nudism is in order. Group events that engage black and brown people and not just the individual naturist may be the most effective as they are much more likely to participate as a part of a group than as a solo individual. I have had several African American friends tell me they would never go to naturist or nudist resort by themselves, but would definitely do so as a part of a group of African American people. Now there are many factors involved in that but the cultural priority of group over individual experience is certainly a significant one.
I realize this flies in the face of the notion that naturist and nudist communities are all peace love and kumbaya, but I hope the previous discussion disavows you of the notion. The point is not to start segregating groups of people into events or let go of the ideal of harmony or equality. Rather it is recognizing that to decolonize naturism means giving more than lip service to the respecting of others by respecting and accepting the cultural differences and well as the similarities. I look forward to your thoughts.
Goodson, Aileen – Therapy Nudity and Joy 1991 Elesium Growth Press
Hoffman, Brian – Naked : A Cultural History of American Nudism 2015, NYU Press
Parmerlee, Maurice – Nudism in Modern Life 2013, Muller Press