I have recently become utterly obsessed with seeing people naked.
Growing up as an overtly awkward white, middle class Brit, this is not a sentence I ever thought I would be uttering. I’d made peace, a long time ago, with the fact that my future would include a lot of self-conscious changing room dances as I tried to get my knickers on under my towel without somehow flashing my fanny to a woman resembling my grandmother. That any problem occurring in my nether regions would be ignored until it went away, lest I’d have to put my feet in the stirrups and spread ’em for a stranger. That I’d go to my grave with the whitest of breasts since under no circumstances, ever, would I see it appropriate to topless sunbathe.
I’d accepted feeling an overwhelming sense of awkward self-conscious shame when it came to this hunk of flesh that I carted around. That’s just the way we do things here. That’s the British way.
We prided ourselves on our prudishness; giggling as our PSHE teachers pulled condoms over bananas, gagging as we watched a VCR tape of a baby’s head forcing it’s way through the small gap in the enormous 80’s bush, making light work of the infamous ‘knicker trick’ before swimming lessons, so as to never risk exposing even a fraction of your bum cheek.
I grew up as part of a culture that did not celebrate the naked form, and I was absolutely fine with that… Except for all the ways I wasn’t, of course.
I was crippling self conscious growing up. The rolls of my stomach, the cellulite adorning my arse, the stretch marks on my boobs. I hated it. And the things I didn’t hate, I outright ignored. My vagina was as alien to me as an iPad would be to a goldfish. Was it normal? I literally had no idea. I had never seen another, nor did I have any wish to. My breasts, bigger than most of those around me; were they meant to sag like this? Were my nipples the right size? Why was one bigger than the other? Who. The. Fuck. Knew.
No… I’m seriously asking. Who the fuck knew? Who was there to ask???
The first time I remember seeing another woman naked was Kate Winslet in the Titanic (paint me like one of your French girls, Jack).
Bollocks, I think I must have thought. I don’t look anything like that.
Even if my hair was long and red and curly, and even if I lost some weight, and even if I shaved my legs every day between now and forever and even if I had the heart of the bloody ocean hanging between my tits I knew I wouldn’t look a thing like that.
Soon after I started seeing flashes of nudity in the back of the classroom; as boys began watching porn I’d catch fleeting glances at bald vulvas, bouncing bosoms, flat stomachs and soft skin.
I started comparing myself to other girls. Although I’d yet to see most of them naked, my imagination went into overdrive and I was able to vividly imagine how much better naked they all looked than me. My friends, sure, but other women too. Women in magazines, on television, in adverts. They were thin and smooth and beautiful and I’d only need to see an airbrushed ankle poking out from the bottom of a ballgown to know that this woman was an in-real-life-Barbie and infinitely more beautiful than me. I would super-impose faces onto the glorious bodies I’d caught glimpses of in my imagination and I’d compare it to the imperfection riddled skin covering my own body and the feelings of self loathing would intensify.
As social media began taking control of our lives I was met with yet more in the way of unrealistic ideals. Friends of mine, normal girls, or so I thought anyway, would begin uploading photos. Beautiful photos. Breathy-in photos. Flattering photos that showed me once again, how comparatively odious I was.
And that was all before Love Island collided with FaceTune and the combined force hurtled into Instagram like a Freight Train.
Oh yes, this particular prudish Brit was not coping well with the complexities of nudity and nor, it seemed, were legions of others.
For I was not, as it turned out, the only one to be feeling crippling feelings of self consciousness about my body. I was not the only one avoiding even thinking about my vagina. I was not the only one to think I was the only one who had cellulite and stretch marks or weird hairs growing out of weird places.
As I grew older I was able to fully appreciate how many of us there were. Of course, being the prudish Brits we prided ourselves on being, we were disinclined to talk about it, but the proof was in the pudding.
The fact that women were avoiding their smear tests (in many instances because of the shame they felt about getting their vaginas out), who wouldn’t get a proper bra fitting (boobies out), who wouldn’t let their partners see them naked (whole bodies out) was evidential of women suffering due to their insecurities; insecurities that were there, for the most part, thanks to a lifetime spent shrouded in naked isolation.
With the arrival of Instagram and Love Island and Kim Kardashian we are, in lots of ways seeing more nudity than we have ever before been exposed to.
But with their arrival we see too a whole string of unrealistic beauty ideals and we find ourselves comparing our bodies not just to Kate Winslet, the Rose Dawson edition, but to every form perfection has ever taken (be it natural, plastic, or airbrushed), and the bombardment is relentless.
How, honestly, are we supposed to love our bodies when we spent the first half of our lives hiding them away and the latter years comparing them to a totally unrelenting stream of unrealistic beauty ideals?
It is small wonder that so many of us are feeling that we have something to be ashamed of.
Three years ago a friend of mine told me to start blowdrying my hair naked
She told me that I needed to start normalising my relationship with my body; to get used to my nakedness in order to begin on the path towards self-love.
I gagged, ever-so-slightly, at her turn of phrase (I have a ~slight~ issue with the ‘self-love’ brigade) but vowed to give it a go.
I don’t think I’d be being too dramatic if I were to say that the first few times I attempted this I found the whole thing to be rather traumatic. Sitting cross legged in front of my mirror, naked, was something so massively unfamiliar to me I was overwhelmed by my own body.
The way the soft rolls of my stomach sank in to each other as I leant this way and that, the short black hairs forcing their way out of the skin in my armpit, the way my breasts hung, prematurely low-hanging, it was so far away from what I thought my body should be that I found it difficult to confront.
I’ve persevered though and I’m pleased that I did. It honestly helped me make peace with a body that for so long I felt so detached from. Even the parts of me that I’ve yet to learn how to love, I am now fond of, attached to, and accepting of. I feel the same affinity to the flab fighting for space in my midriff as I do towards the tattered old jumper that my mum tries to throw away every time she sees it. Sure, if you told me I could trade it in for a Chinty and Parker cashmere number I’d probably be tempted… but I am, for now at least, very comfortable with what I’ve got.
I was lucky too, that this coincided with a turning point on Instagram that, overdue as it was, has helped to change the landscape completely. There have been accounts that I have familiarised myself with over the last few years that have totally changed what my relationship with my body looks like; women are now proudly showing off their stretch marks, their fat rolls, their wobbly bits, their hairy bits, their sagging bits and I am so totally here for it.
The parts of me that I was now seeing every other day in front of my bedroom mirror as I blowdried my hair, but that had formerly been hidden from the world at all costs, that I was ashamed of, unused to seeing, afraid were something that only I had, are now being shared on social media and I’m able to appreciate for the first time what it really looks like to be a woman.
A woman that isn’t about to push her boyfriend off a board that was definitely big enough for both of them as the ship that they were on sank, and a woman that isn’t trying to squish a baby out of her very hairy vag for a school biology video anyway
To see women like Bryony Gordon sharing photos of herself running the London Marathon in her pants. To see women like Deborah James, loving the shit out of her body despite the fact it’s currently a battleground for stage 4 bowel cancer. To see bloggers like Georgina Horne, post photos of her cellulite like the ~absolutely not a big deal that it is~. To see accounts like Helen Thorn’s in which lumps and bumps are common place. To see girls like Stephanie Yeboah share beautiful photos of her stretch marks. To see Chessie King proudly show off her stomach rolls as if they were the most normal thing in the world… it’s changed everything for me.
It makes me love my body. And when I can’t love it, I know at least that I WANT to.
I’ve recently started taking photos of my imperfections.
Some of them I upload to Instagram, some of them I don’t.
It’s amazing to me that I have ever got to this point, a point I never thought I would. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to be happy looking at myself naked, least of all taking unflattering photos and uploading them to the internet, but I’m finding it incredibly liberating. And fun. And wild in a very ~unBritish~ way that I didn’t think myself capable of. I put up a photo of my stomach rolls yesterday. And I was really happy about it. Who’da thunk it.
The combination of familiarising myself with my body and being invited to familiarise myself with other people’s too, has honestly done things for my confidence that I never thought possible.
I realise now, that I am beautiful.
Probably not in the ways that I had hoped I might grow up to be when I was younger. And probably not according to the ITV bosses casting this year’s Love Island.
But in so many other brilliant ways, I am utterly beautiful.
My cellulite covered skin, my saggy boobies, my squishy tummy.
It is so totally perfect.
And I know this because I got naked.
And because I’m lucky enough to have found women who were brave enough to do that too, and to show me that I have nothing to be ashamed of. That what I am deserves to be celebrated. And that actually, in so many wonderful ways, I am totally and utterly normal.