It was one of those freak summerish days that bless Cape Town every now and again in winter. On impulse, a friend and I hit Cape Town's famous nudist beach, Sandy Bay.
It was early, and the beautiful beach was all but deserted. A bareback rider trotted out of the Hout Bay dunes and galloped to the far end of the beach; an extended family arrived and set up nearby, with Frisbees and a picnic. We lounged around, solving the world’s problems. Then it got busier, pervy men arrived with their sliding eyes, and suddenly nudity didn't feel so natural after all. We left.
Bare bodies, left to their own devices, are no more erotic than animals' bodies. It’s the peekabooness of what we wear that makes statements of provocation – it's what we choose to hide that draws attention. It's someone else's leer that makes us self-conscious.
Conversely, it's clothes and conventions that make non-perfect bodies – older bodies, rounder bodies, saggier bodies – seem unacceptable. Look around the change room at the gym, and you'll see what I mean: naked, we're all equal. Clothed, the differences between us, and the value judgements these carry, kick in.
Susie Orbach, she of the 1978 groundbreaking book Fat is a Feminist Issue, this year published a new book, Bodies, which wrestles with our messed-up relationship with our bodies. She argues that our sense of success, and of moral worth, is linked to the extent to which we manage to control our bodies.
"Success means regulating the body: controlling hungers, desires, ageing and emissions," she writes. "Success means seeing the body as a lifelong work. Success means anticipating faults – physical medical and aesthetic – and correcting them. But when and if the ordinary processes of the body cannot be sufficiently restrained, which of course they can't, the body becomes a source of consternation as well as failure.
"...We feel that the problem lies in the ineptitude of our individual endeavours. We have failed to create the body as it should be, or as we want it to be..."
Rather than trying to control the uncontrollable, become something we aren't, beating ourselves up because self-defeating yo-yo dieting isn't working, Orbach says, and putting ourselves at risk of skin cancer on sunbeds, we'd be better off getting to understand how our bodies really work, and scrutinising the source(s) of self-criticism.
It's an inspiring, sensible, encouraging read, and I urge everyone with self-image problems to embrace the idea that beauty lies in wholeness – seeking and embracing health and happiness, and rising above destructive and undermining thoughts.
Me, I'm going to stand in front of a mirror this evening, in my bikini, and look in the eye any sags, folds, bulges or nastinesses that might have developed since last summer. Then I'm going to get over it. Today, my body is healthy, whole, and – with thanks to Boot Camp – relatively fit and strong. This could change tomorrow and so, while I can, I'm going to enjoy it.
May I suggest you do the same.
(Heather Parker, Health24, September 2009)