Is nudity the new normal?
On warm days, a topless Kimberly Parrott casually walks her Lab cross, Underdog, in the parks of New Westminster and Burnaby. Sure, she gets stared at. Shocked-looking moms sometimes cover their children’s eyes, she said. But only once has a police officer “harassed” the software engineer and mom. The officer slowed down his patrol car, she recalled, and leaned out the window. “Ma’am, you want to put something on?” he asked. Parrott said, “No, thank you. I’ve got something on,” referring to her shorts. Parrott explained to the officer that she was perfectly free to bare her breasts on the streets of Vancouver’s suburbs. After calling in, she said, the officer conceded that she was right and she continued on her way, naked on top, in the sunshine.
“I think women have big, big hang-ups about exposing any part of their body,” Parrott told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home office, explaining why she’s normally the only topless dog walker around. “I wish I could take their hands and say, ”˜It’s okay. You’re not a slut if you do it.’ ”
Even if you are a slut, there’s no limit to go-nude events this summer. (See this sidebar for details.) Naked is in. Or at least it’s not out. In recent decisions, B.C. courts have stood behind the right of naturists to bare all, virtually anywhere, from the parks of Maple Ridge to Surrey’s Newton Wave Pool. The Lower Mainland is home to Wreck Beach, the lesser-known Crescent Rock Beach in White Rock, and a mind-boggling number of pro-naturist event-organizing groups. One can swim nude in public pools, bowl nude, camp nude, yacht nude, and even dance nude in a barn. Oh, those wacky naturists.
But beyond the aesthetic thrill of bouncing one’s bits in the surf, public nudity in Vancouver is a measure of progress, according to Parrott. First, it’s about physical freedom. Second, she said, it’s a resistance to mainstream-media-driven propaganda about what bodies are supposed to look like.
“I’m very lucky to have in my past a woman who put on one of these newfangled bathing suits at the turn of the century,” Parrott said. “She was marched off and put in jail. How far we’ve come in 100 years. If people continue to say ”˜Look, bodies aren’t shameful!’ and teach their kids that there’s nothing wrong with nudity, then maybe in my lifetime”¦the children will be able to say, ”˜There’s nothing shameful about my body.’ ”
Are we there yet? On June 7, 200 cyclists rode naked through the streets of downtown Vancouver in the World Naked Bike Ride. Parrott, who helped organize the ride through NIFTY (Naked Iconoclasts Fighting the Yoke), said the riders received applause and smiles only.
So, Vancouver may be “there” in spirit, if not in law. Those participating in the WNBR were still committing an offence under Criminal Code Section 174, according to Vancouver lawyer David Butcher. However, the chances of being charged with public nudity in Vancouver are extremely low, he said. That’s because the prosecution would have to prove that the community is not tolerant of public nudity, he explained, and get the consent of the attorney general to proceed with a case.
“It appears that our community is accepting of the naked bike ride,” Butcher, who represented nudist Linda Meyer in a groundbreaking 2000 Maple Ridge case, told the Straight. “Trying to measure that [community tolerance] is very hard.”¦Prince George, for example, has much more conservative traditions than Vancouver. I don’t know if there are any traditions in Vancouver.”
Just because no one is booing doesn’t mean there’s tolerance, says Dave Quist, the executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. Born on the West Coast, the spokesperson for Canada’s conservative family lobby said the Lower Mainland does have a tradition of modesty.
“If we could poll 1,000 people across the Lower Mainland, we would find a smattering who would say, ”˜Yup, I’m all for naturists’ rights,’ but I think you’d still find a considerable number of people who would say, ”˜No, I’d not be comfortable with that,’ ” Quist told the Straight in a phone interview from the highway between Calgary and Red Deer. “I recognize their right to go do that [be naked], but I don’t want their rights to interfere with my rights not to be offended, not to have my children see that, and so that’s where we run into conflict.”
Quist noted that even if naturists believe that public nudity is nonsexual, the rest of the population doesn’t necessarily see it that way. And sexualized flesh is something that’s prevalent in our culture, he argued, and detrimental to it.
“You can’t look at car commercials or a beer commercial, and many other things that are advertised, without a scantily clad man or woman,” he explained. “When we don’t have any modesty left, we characterize sex and sexuality as being just a crass thing without talking about intimacy or love, or the very nature of what intimacy is intended to be. So when we lose modesty, we lose a lot of the other things that go with it.”
Surrey is far from being as nudity-friendly as Vancouver, according to the president of the Surrey United Naturists, Don Pitcairn. He explained that the city has refused to officially recognize Crescent Rock Beach as a clothing-optional zone, which leaves skinny-dippers vulnerable to public complaints and police intimidation. That’s despite the area’s having been used by naked swimmers since at least 1947, he said.
“The City of Surrey has a long history of opposing any form of nude recreation,” he said. Pitcairn noted that in 1972, the GVRD and the District of Surrey used red tape to harass the Sunny Trails Nudist Club almost out of existence. Later that decade, he recalled, officials tried to shut down nude entertainment in the city’s bars. More recently, after just one complaint, city hall ordered Crescent Rock Beach’s clothing-optional signs to be taken down. In May 2007, nude swimmers went to court to defend their right to rent Newton Wave Pool—and won. Now, Pitcairn’s SUN has threatened to take Surrey’s World Oceans Day Festival organizers to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for barring the naturists’ group participation in the June 8 event.
“Surrey is 20 years behind the times,” Pitcairn said, recalling Vancouver alderwoman Bernice Gerard (1977 to 1980), who would conduct walks on Wreck Beach to shame naturists into putting their clothes back on. “Surrey, anything to do with nude recreation, they just stonewall, put up their defences.”
Even Parrott admits that though she does her part in normalizing nudity around the Lower Mainland, it’s far from normal. For the naked bike ride, which sought to raise awareness of fuel consumption and climate change, the shock associated with nudity worked in the cyclists’ favour, she said.
“When you’re doing any kind of protest, you can raise your voice and have signs and everything, but to get exposure, you have to rattle people,” she said. “And, well, unfortunately in this society right now, nothing rattles people more than seeing a lot of people nude.”
For the greater good of society, public nudity is worth pursuing, according to Brian Ferris, a clinical psychologist in private practice in North Vancouver. All this bare skin is a good sign of the city’s mental health, he said. Vancouver has a playfulness drought, Ferris believes, and being naked in a group not only is playful but can break down feelings of social isolation.
“Most recreations for adults are like golf—work hard, try hard,” the psychologist told the Straight from his office. “There’s no silliness. I think it’s time that the world was more silly. And nudity is one of the ways you can be silly.”¦The people having fun are not the ones to worry about. The people you have to worry about are”¦the people who are really serious and feel threatened. When people are frightened, they’re not playful. When people are laughing and having fun, they don’t do harm to others. The world needs more play. The world needs more laughter and fun.”
In North America, public nudity is mainly about pleasure, according to UBC sociology lecturer Chris MacKenzie. However, he said, in the Germany of the 1920s, it was “a bit of a social movement, a panacea to the early urban-industrial social pathologies that were cropping up all over the place”¦a way to get the working and middle classes to connect with nature. Not in an ecological sense but in generating some solidarity in the face of some of the problems that urban living was creating.”
Although the naked bike ride was a consciousness raiser, and various local fundraising efforts regularly rely on titillation to draw attention to themselves, MacKenzie thinks the practice may be getting a little tired.
“It’s losing its novelty,” he said. “Will it stop? Probably not.” As for recreational naturists, “It seems that nudity is not the main attraction. It’s the social aspect of getting together, sunbathing, skinny-dipping.”
In other words, pleasure.
So with all this legal freedom, groovy nude events, 100 years of naturists pushing the limits, and the seemingly limitless tolerance of Vancouverites for naked spectacle, why is topless dog walker Parrott still such a rarity?
“I wish I could identify that,” she said. “There’s so many mores.”¦If women cover their child’s eyes, I think that’s kind of sad. Why not take the opportunity to explain to your kids, ”˜Those are breasts, and just like that guy over there, she’s got her top off.’ Have a discussion about body parts.
“Like, I’m not going to go to an opera house top-free. I’m a clothing-optionalist. We believe that everyone has the right to wear as much or as little clothing as they want without being thrown in jail.”
Well, we’re certainly there in spirit, if not in the dog parks.
See also, No shortage of nude events.