Controversy surrounds public nakedness—nudism or naturism. Those offended by it assert that public nudity harms children and promotes antisocial behavior—but they’ve never been able to cite compelling evidence of harm. Meanwhile, those who enjoy public nakedness at home, at parties, and at private clubs and resorts say it’s not just fine, but beneficial. They cite research supporting their views—but all of those studies have involved surveys of nudists/naturists, who have a clear interest in promoting their naked lifestyle. There’s never been a study of disinterested people who tried public nuditry and reported on its psychological impact—until now. The sole well controlled study shows that group nakedness increases body appreciation and self-esteem, and reduces physique anxiety.
“You May Be Asked to Participate in Safe, Non-Sexual Socializing While Naked”
The terminology can be confusing. “Naked” means clothes off. Colloquially, many people consider the word synonymous with “nude.” But the latter term implies not just unclothed but nakedness arranged artfully. Painters and photographers portray nudes, not just nakedness. Consequently, people who enjoy group nakedness often shun “nudism” and prefer “naturism.” Naturism means group nakedness without any implications about art.
The recent study was conducted by a psychologist at the University of London, UK. He advertised on Twitter for Londoners interested in “hanging out” with others for about an hour, drinking wine, earning $10, and then completing a survey about “the way we perceive ourselves.” Those interested followed a link to a website that explained they might be asked to disrobe and while naked, participate in safe, non-sexual socializing—with no photos taken and total freedom to withdraw at any time. The 51 respondents included 27 men and 24 women, average age 38, 90 percent white, the rest Middle Eastern, South Asian, or East Asian. During the experiment a random half of the group socialized clothed, while the other half did so naked with strict instructions to be respectful and non-sexual, which was monitored by four research assistants.
Before the experiment, everyone in both groups completed a survey that asked how they felt about three things:
• Body appreciation. These statements: “I do not feel good about my body.” “I have a positive attitude about my body.” “Despite its imperfections, I still like my body.”
• Physique anxiety. “How do you think other people responded to the way you look physically?”
• Perceived attractiveness of others. “What did you think of the people you interacted with?” “How attractive were they?” “How attractive do you think they were to members of the opposite gender?” And others.
Then participants were divided into two groups, one clothed, the other naked. (When those in the naked group were asked to disrobe, no one dropped out.) After 45 minutes, everyone in both groups completed the survey again.
Among those who remained clothed, feelings about the three test elements did not change. But in the group that socialized naked, participants reported significantly improved body image and less physique anxiety (p<.001). In both groups, perceived attractiveness of others remained unchanged.
Bolsters Previous Research
This is the first and only study to identify benefits from public nakedness among those not already practicing naturism. The results support previous research conducted among naturists:
• UCLA researchers followed 200 young boys and girls whose parents practiced naturism at home and socially in groups that often included their kids. After 18 years and many interviews, the children’s near-lifelong exposure to naked adults caused them no harm. They were self-accepting, and had good relations with peers, parents, and other adults. They enjoyed functional sexual relationships, had few sex problems, and were not disproportionately involved in substance abuse, suicidal ideation, or antisocial or criminal behavior. The researchers concluded: “Pervasive beliefs in the harmfulness of naturism are exaggerated.”
• Previous reports by the researcher who conducted the new study have shown that involvement in naturism typically produces “immediate, large, and enduring improvements in body image, self-esteem, and life satisfaction.”
• Naturists’ gains in self-esteem are strongly associated with improved sexual assertiveness, more consistent contraception, easier arousal, greater pleasure, more reliable orgasms, and greater sexual satisfaction—especially among women.
• In a study of 361 college students, compared to those who did not send sexts, that is, naked photos of themselves, those who did reported greater comfort with nudity and their bodies, and felt more attractive.
• Finally, groups and resorts that cater to naturists explicitly downplay sexuality. They’re about letting it all hang out, not sex. Naturists use this no-sex rule to distinguish themselves from swingers and sexual voyeurs and exhibitionists.
Why does public nakedness contribute to self-esteem? Largely because the truth is liberating. Most adults see few other adults naked. They compare their bodies not to those of ordinary folks, but to the bodies they see on television and in magazines, movies, and pornography, bodies usually closer to perceived social ideals than theirs. But when people see lots of naked bodies, they quickly appreciate the great diversity of the human form, and judge themselves less harshly. In addition, many people fear that others think they’re unattractive. But when everyone is naked and no one disapproves of how anyone else looks, that can feel therapeutic.