Nudity and the clinical scientist – can there be therapy for pain by going nude

By Noigroup HQ Science and the world 02 Oct 2013

Over on NOInotes, I have outlined an unexpected visit to Europe’s biggest nudist colony at Cap d’Agde in France. Quite a confronting experience for a rather pink and porky non nudist just out of the Australian winter to be amid 20,000 brown all over nudists involved in all sorts of activities.

As a clinical scientist lying on the beach, I made a few observations and had a few ideas. One is that I felt that the potency and protectiveness of the extra-cortical space ( the space around the body coded into notions of self) is diminished. It kind of melts into humanity around you as perhaps mirror neurones react to everyone else’s body. It makes me think that clothing, fashion and the body individualising by augmentation, tattooing etc may enhance the potency of the extra-cortical space and potentially the pain experience.

Would graded nudity may be therapeutic for some, if they were to realise that the rest of the world does not really notice the body part or area that is being defended so well?

-David Butler


  1. This is a nice trigger for clinical ideas even if therapeutic nudity is ‘out’ for most.

    Some patients seem trapped by is their brains construction of their body and what is happening to it. Any free and liberating expression of the body could become part of renewing the brains representation, breaking the cycle and reclaiming a ‘healthier notion of self’.

    Perhaps the physical experiences we create/advise need to challenge the brains representation of the body in a more holistic sense. A representation that is not just mechanical and sensorial but also emotional, sexual, useful, creative, relational and contextual.

    Anyone for NudePilatesTM © 😉

    Daniel Harvie

  2. One of our readers who is also a writer sent these observations.

    I’ve never been to a nudist colony or beach before, but I fully agree with what this article observes. The least inhibited I have felt is on quiet islands whose beaches are sparsely populated by quiet, older family folks with little naked toddlers running around (no six-pack abs around). People seem happier, more relaxed and that has a domino effect.
    Clothes, instead of clothing you, seem to reverse logic and dictate instead, how your body is meant to be shaped. While no one decries the idea of being fit, being healthy, exercising regularly and eating healthily, the obsession with a particular type of body is as much determined by fashion as it is by other kinds of social baggage we take on.
    For example, work clothes or the “power suit”: I think they should call the power suit the “disempowering” suit. This is about forcing the body into a de-sexualized (or sexualized in a very particular way) outfit to dominate boardrooms. I think women surrender a lot of what works about their body to “fit into” this sort of attire.
    If/when I ever need to don clothing like this (and I rarely do as a writer – thankfully), I find these are the days I feel the most physically exhausted. Being aware of your core and using your core to walk / sit / stand and work is one thing. But squeezing your belly in all day long to create a “flattering profile” is wholly something else. Tight clothes simply constrict movement and constantly send signals to the brain (especially for women) that their body – as it is – is imperfect and must not be exposed or revealed in its real state.

    I recently spoke to a friend who, like many women, exercises often and is, in her own words, “obsessed with abs”. She dresses impeccably well in clothes that are flattering and reveal her slim figure in a dignified way. And yet, she is in constant pain (lower back, shoulder etc.). This is the usual “working at the computer too long” issue, despite yoga, pilates and massage sessions. And I wonder to myself: if she allowed herself to be a little less fixated on her clothes, a little more easily relaxed in her body, if she danced, if she enjoyed her naked self as much as she enjoyed her well-clothed self, perhaps her pain would ease a little?

    I frequently walk around my apartment in the nude (why ever not?! It’s my apartment!) or in the least amount of clothing possible (what I wear can’t be constricting, especially around the core / entire belly area). This freedom is so very important. Fortunately I work from home, so this is viable. It also means I see myself as I am and become more conscious of taking 5 minutes out to lie on the mat and stretch. If I were all dressed up and worried about how I look, I wouldn’t even be listening to the internal signals.
    Nudity is interesting: it de-sexualizes the body and takes away the idea of revealing a bit as suggestive / sexual etc. And yet, when everyone is nude, as in the colony / beach you describe, there is also an immense sense of empathy, adoration, intimacy and love that can be possible. This is it: this is who we are, warts and all. The body is free and when you feel that free, that uninhibited, you are liable to feel less pain, more confidence, more calm etc. all of which is, in the end, very sexy!
    So hoorah to nudity! Not Hollywood nudity, not “arty” nudity from catalogues and coffee table books on photography and postmodernism. Just plain old nudity – all shapes and sizes, moving through the world in a state of ease.

  3. In my younger days I found nudity quite liberating, I lived in Amsterdam for a while where there was a very refreshing nude, mixed sauna culture, and I was partial to the odd bit of nude sunbathing where I could get away with it! But chronic pain pushed me back into my shell, made me hide in all sorts of ways, made me distrust and often despise a body which I perceived as letting me down. I have recently learned to swim, and this has forced me to shed many more clothes in public than I wished, particularly, this summer, on the beach of my hometown which is full of young, nubile students! The exposure I felt at the pool I found actually to be quite a leveller, and slowly I am finding that I trust this body more. I particularly love how it moves through the water with a fluidity and suspended gravity that I largely have lost in my day to day activities. So, although my changing relationship with my body is largely to do with a renewed sense of what I feel it can do (in the water), it is also to do with dropping a little self-consciousness, feeling less ashamed of how it looks, how it functions, caring less, and that stuff carries through to other areas of your life. And occasionally these days I even find I walk a little taller fully clothed.

  4. There is a place in British Columbia (Canada) called Sooke Potholes. In the 1970’s it was a pristine system of geological formations with pools and waterfalls. It forms the headwaters of the Sooke River and back then it was an ideal spot for a nude beach, being somewhat sequestered from civilization but not too difficult to reach for people of all ages. On a bright, sunny day, my brother-in-law and I headed out with a goal to swim and climb from the beach to the top-most pothole.
    My hair was quite long in those days, so I wore a swim cap when up for a serious swim and goggles to enjoy the underwater beauty. I donned the obligatory Speedo with no breast support, typical uniform of serious swimmers, and Tai Chi slippers to clamber over the rocks. I had always been a “live and let live” kind of gal, so I was not flustered by the bevy of nudists we walked through to get to the start of our journey. On a personal note, I would never be caught dead nude sun-bathing – in public. And I certainly would not be bending over unabashedly like Papa Smurf over there.
    We swam and scrambled up a few potholes until we reached one with a good climb. Robie was an excellent climber and chose to go up the chimney further along the pothole. I was to do the less technical climb that I was familiar with. I had a choice of a more vertical climb to my left or a climb to the right with an overhang taking me back to the left. Feeling adventurous and invincible, I chose the overhang which I found more challenging. Halfway across the overhang and about 30 feet up, I got stuck. My arms were as high as I could reach to get to the lowest hand holds. My feet were spread uncomfortably with very little purchase for my left toes. My belly was being pushed back by the overhang and I could not see my feet.
    After about 30 minutes of hanging there, unable to figure out how to shift my weight or find better footholds, with scenarios of perhaps pushing off hard enough to make it to the water or hanging on until my muscles gave out and tumbling straight down to the rocks below, my muscles burning, I heard splashing and laughing below me. Peering under my right arm, I could see that two of the nudists had swum up to the pothole. You would think I could yell for help, but I just wanted to be invisible.
    “Do you need help?” “Yes” I shouted to the rock in front of me. “Hang on!” “Right” I mumbled to the rock. A god-sent lanky nudist gracefully climbed along side me. Stretching out for handholds higher than mine and footholds lower than mine, He slid on by and glided over to the ledge on my left. I felt like an idiot. Executing a beautiful spiral turn, he crouched and reached out a tanned hand, with his wild hair blowing in the breeze. “Can’t see my feet” I explained to the rock. He verbally guided my left foot to go further left, making the stretch even more uncomfortable and I needed to let go of my right handhold to get my left foot to where he was directing me. Once my left toes felt supported, the rest of my body did what it needed to do to get to his hand and the ledge. He led me away from the edge and I sat curled on the rock. “Are you OK?” “Yes.” My head was screaming ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’, but no words came out. I rested my head in my hands for a long time. When I looked up, the wild man was gone. There was no one swimming in the pothole so I imagined Wildman and his friend had continued up the potholes.
    I don’t know how I got back down the cliff, but when my body hit the water, all I could think was that I had to get back to those happy naked people. I swam like my life depended on it. When my hand hit the stone of the beach, I evolved from a swimming creature to a crawling land animal to a standing being in less than a second. I shook off some water and aimed myself at the most horizontal piece of rock that I could see. Off with the goggles, off with the swim cap, off with bathing suit and off with self-embroidered Tai Chi slippers. It didn’t matter who I was and it didn’t matter who they were. It didn’t matter who I had been or who I wanted to be. I plastered myself to the horizontal rock and gave it a kiss. I rolled on my back, palms up, feet out-turned; open, trusting and safe. All that mattered was that I was breathing, my heart was beating and the sun was shining. I still remember the feeling of the warm rock pressing into my backside.
    My brother in law later told me that he thought I had completed the climb before him and had continued up the potholes, so he swam all the way up and back down looking for me. I estimated this would have given me between one to two hours on that beach; basking in the water, drying out on my rock and staring out across the water like I was gazing at the feet of Vishnu while unobtrusively soaking in the sights and sounds of the enlightened ones moving around me. It was the second happiest moment in my life. I felt totally accepted.
    About a year later, I was back in Nova Scotia, on a day hike with some friends. We were on a trail along the shoreline, walking and jumping over the rocks. We came to a spot where we needed to climb up about 5 feet. I had no idea what was coming. As soon as my feet were off the ground, my whole body froze and a wave of panic washed over me. My boyfriend had to pry my fingers off the rock and lift me down the whole one foot. I was shaking like a leaf. He held my hand as we walked around this new obstacle in my life. I knew it tied in to the incident at Sooke but it made no sense. My life was not in danger but my level of panic was immobilizing. As we walked along, I went to my happy place; the nude beach at Sooke Potholes.

  5. I thought this observation about nudity changing/improving posture and moving freely was really very interesting, i suffer from Chronic Pain in my back with nerve pain down my legs. Clothes can be a challenge depending on the day, the sensation they have on my legs, or how restrictive the clothing is can change the pattern of my wallking. I tend to avoid jeans and any tight clothing as it can result in pain when bending over, walking well or feeling good in my clothes. I have bought all new clothes since suffering from Chronic pain and can either make my day more managable or really challenging. I now prefer to wear loose clothing, so the material does not touch my skin as often, and also the sensitive areas such as my lower back are well hidden and not in the forfront of my mind. It is also about blending in and covering the body that is not working so well. Although when not wearing clothes this can also feel very vulnerable without any barriers to the areas that give pain, although without clothes i can move with a lot more freedom with reduced pain and anxiety over specific actions. After reading your article i am doing a lot of people watching to notice differences in movement patterns and postures.

    1. davidboltononoi

      From another perspective in relation to clothing imagine how the Biomedical world dealt with the patient who insisted that she only suffered her acute low back and left leg pain when she was wearing her brown leather trousers. However initially this only occurred when she wore them In her home City. Over the years the orchestra in her brain established an, ever growing repertoire of pain and suffering tunes. Those trousers began to hurt anywhere. The initial trio became a full blown concert of multiple bands…….If only someone had taken her seriously in the beginning………Cutting a long story short the love of her life, who she was soon to marry showed his true colours the night before their wedding. He beat her up and raped her. What was she wearing at the time…….you’ve guessed it, yes her favourite brown leather trousers…….you might ask why she kept wearing those trousers……..well her psychotherapist was pivotal in her recovery.

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