Alannah is a UTS journalism graduate, freelance writer, and volunteer at FBi radio. Her aspirations lie in cross-cultural, travel and war journalism on an international scale. Twitter: @alannahskinner_
From art installations to charity swims and gallery tours, Australians are increasingly getting naked in public.
Cobblers beach is home to the Sydney Skinny Swim, an annual charity event that sees over 2000 swimmers of all shapes and sizes getting nude for the cause.
Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art allows spectators to engage in the liberating effects of enjoying art in the nude in their biannual naked gallery tours.
Photographer Bill Henson is now exhibiting his work at the National Gallery of Victoria in his first large, publicly funded exhibition to include adolescent nudes since 2008.
Public nudity and its acceptance in mainstream society is changing within the contexts of art and charity and through social media.
It was nine years ago that Henson’s works were seized from Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in a NSW police raid.
The photographs in question were those of unclothed young adolescents, most infamously a 13-year-old girl with a bare chest that had critics and politicians decrying the pornographic nature of the photographs.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Nine Network at the time, “I find them absolutely revolting”.
In response to the public outcry, NSW changed its child pornography laws in 2010, removing the defence of artistic purpose, and the Australia Council put protocols in place for working with children.
The Classification Board rated the images PG, safe for children, and no charges were ever laid against Henson.
In NSW, the law tackles nudity as an “act of indecency” or “obscene exposure”. The NSW Crimes Act declares that any person who commits an act of indecency is liable to imprisonment for up to two years.
Under the NSW Summary Offences Act, “a person shall not, in or within view from a public place or a school, wilfully and obscenely expose his or her person” or a maximum imprisonment term of six months can be handed down by the court.
The amount of arrests made by NSW police on these grounds are minimal although citizens of NSW are only entirely free to be naked in the privacy of their homes.
If neighbours can get a view of the backyard, although it is not a criminal offence they can get an order from the court that prevents people being nude outside their own home.
But over the past three decades, this has largely changed as nudism loses some of its social stigma.
Sydney University’s Associate Professor Ruth Barcan says the answer could be in the way we engage with bare bodies within the framework of the art world specifically.
Professor Barcan is the author of ‘Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy’, a book that explores the contradictions of our society in relation to nakedness.
In her opinion, there are very specific, and very hypocritical cultural traditions that underpin Australia’s inconsistent tolerance of nudity, and they’re traditions that have remained engrained in our society for centuries.
We see nakedness as a sign of sin and degradation, or as a sign of innocence, authenticity and truth
“There’s always been a duality in the Western tradition, and in that duality we see nakedness as a sign of sin and degradation, or as a sign of innocence, authenticity and truth”, she said, echoing the words of philosopher Mario Perniola.
“What I see with Henson’s work is proof of the potential of nudity to arouse very strong emotion. His work is involved in marking a naked body that is on the cusp of adulthood, and in the process of doing so, it goes against the public’s view of nudity that we understand today which is often reduced in consumer culture as sexualised.”
But Henson isn’t the only member of the art world fascinated with the presentation of nudity in Australia’s artistic landscape.
Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art promotes themes of fear and embarrassment in their naked gallery tours with artist Stuart Ringholt.
Gill Nicol, one of the MCA’s directors, said that naturist tours allowed the audience to see nudity as something that they support.
On International Women’s Day, Ms Nicol herself ran the guided tour, and said it enabled many women to take part who would have never come otherwise.
“They came with friends and were of all ages, usually the naturist movement is always really eager to take part in the tour but increasingly we are seeing more people being curious about participating,” she said.
“It is exhilarating, liberating and uplifting”.
Even Sydney’s most high-profile gallery is embracing nakedness. Earlier this year, the NSW Art Gallery exhibited Auguste Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’ in Australia for the first time alongside other renowned nude works including Picasso’s ‘Nude woman in a red armchair’ and Bonnard’s ‘The Bath’.
The collection was part of an exhibition of over 100 artworks from London’s Tate Gallery, spanning more than 200 years. At the same time, the gallery played host to nightly nude experiences ranging from philosophy sessions to nude drawing workshops, most notably selling-out the Sydney Dance Company’s live performance that required spectators and dancers alike to put their clothes aside in the name of art.
The event has nothing to do with promoting nudism and it’s not about tits and arses. It’s obviously about acceptance
“The nude is one of art’s most universal subjects,” according to Art Gallery of NSW director Dr Michael Brand.
“From idealised representations of the human form through to the confrontational naked bodies of recent art, the nude has expressed a vast range of human aspirations, emotions and ideas,” Dr Brand said.
In the 1950s, Lord Kenneth Clark drew the divide between the concepts of nude and naked in ‘The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form’. He said that to be naked was to be "deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition".
The word 'nude,’ on the other hand, carries no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a “huddled, defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body”.
It’s this difference between the idealised human body and the one we see in the mirror that is the basis for our selective acceptance of nudity in the public sphere.
Outside the gallery walls and the reach of artistic flair, if the human form doesn’t conform to society’s perfect ideals, there is a tendency to reject it without question.
This is especially the case when dealing with body image on social media.
Earlier this year an oil on canvas titled ‘Women Lovers’ by esteemed Australian artist Charles Blackman was deemed too inappropriate by Facebook’s social media guidelines.
The abstract painting depicts two naked women in rest with a black cat next to them. The majority of the work features one of the women’s backs, with the nipple of the woman lying next to her partially exposed.
Similarly, Evelyne Axell’s ‘Ice Cream’, a 60s critique of mainstream pop art, was removed by Facebook for “containing excessive amounts of skin or suggestive content”.
Paul Summer, the chief executive of Melbourne’s art auction house Mossgreen, said the two incidents came amidst a string of cases in the social media landscape that saw surveillance taking a conservative turn.
“I feel I’m not living in the 21st century. It’s like Facebook is living in the 1950s. There is nothing sexual about this image and my question is, why does Facebook assume people look at naked figures and see sexual things?” he says.
He noted that artwork featuring naked men had not attracted censorship by Facebook.
The desexualisation of the naked body is at the forefront of the current discursive landscape on social media.
Since online media such as Instagram has managed to define itself as a crucial avenue of advertising for businesses, it can be directly linked to the portfolio and networking of many freelancers in creative industries.
It is common for creatives to have to censor their work for display on social media but in the wake of the Free the Nipple Campaign hype, many are making the decision not to censor their work and take the risks that come with challenging, or at least testing community guidelines.
As social media becomes more vitally important as a method of communication there should be less ability for social media to limit people’s freedom
Kahli McCredie is a Sydney based stylist, and one of many creatives who rely on Instagram in their professional life. In fact, McCredie attributes 90% of her creative employment to Instagram.
Working in the fashion industry, the majority of her professional works involve the human body, and often involve elements of nudity. However it is not uncommon for her posts to be reported and taken down, even if they aren’t directly in breach of the user agreements.
“Honestly not all of what has been deleted by Instagram falls under their definition of ‘inappropriate’,” she said. Although photographs of women models with exposed breasts have been taken down, McCredie says it’s more common to have less idyllic representations of the human body removed from her page.
“What annoys me greatly is that we’re still working within a traditional, male-dominated framework."
"What’s incredibly interesting and what many of my colleagues have experienced too, especially Imogen Murray and women in the body image side of things, is that it’s more often the average bodies that are deleted by Instagram, whether they’re exposed or not. I had a photo just of fat rolls on a stomach and it was removed. If this is ‘suggestive’ then we’re in trouble.”
A large problem with these guidelines is that there is no legal framework for social media organisations to operate under in Australia, allowing for large inconsistencies in guidelines and self-policing.
However, Australia has not yet reached a situation where regulatory framework can overtake the self regulation of social media companies. Stephen Blanks is the president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. He says that this push by users for greater freedoms on social media for legitimate expression is warranted.
“Most of the social media facilitators have very conservative guidelines, much more conservative that Australia’s classification guidelines that would otherwise apply. This rejection of the right of the social media organisation to impose its own censorship standards is definitely permitted and expected,” Mr Blanks said.
He added that although government should not be the sole regulator of social media, “as it becomes more vitally important as a method of communication there should be less ability of social media to limit people’s freedom”.
In response to these strict, and often non-consistent community guidelines imposed by social media organisations, accounts are being created all over the world by people trying to exercise this freedom of expression and break the stigma around naked bodies. That is, the stigma around the unglorified bare bodies of everyday people.
“Nudity isn’t just reserved for people with the perfect body,” according to Brendan, the founder of Get Naked Australia, a social media account that began as a joke between a group of young friends, and has grown to a national hallmark that celebrates positive self-image.
“The only naked bodies we are allowed to be exposed to on social media, and even in advertising are those of celebrities and models, and it makes people feel like shit and it creates a body image problem that’s really consuming,” he said.
Since its creation last year the account has gained almost 200,000 followers on Instagram and is riddled with photographs of people’s behinds enjoying scenic landscapes. Although Brendan ensures that every photo adheres to community guidelines, Brendan says Instagram and Facebook both delete posts at random. But that hasn’t deterred the young man from his mission to break the stigma around the naked body, who has received messages of thanks from a variety of people.
“We were contacted by people saying I’ve been involved with domestic violence and my body was once objectified, but your page has helped me see it in a healthier way.”
Last century, it became less restrictive as topless beaches became popular and the organised nudist movement made strides in erasing the negative perception of nudity on Australian beaches, forcing local governments to recognise and legislate Sydney’s nudist beaches under the Local Government Act of 1993.
It’s far more simple than that, people are getting naked simply because they bloody enjoy it
Obelisk and Cobblers beaches fall under the jurisdiction of Mosman Council in Sydney’s North Shore.
In 2010, the mayor of Mosman, Anne Connon, pushed for legislation to outlaw nude bathing in the area on the premise that “somewhat inappropriate and offensive behaviour” was taking place at the local nudist beaches.
In 2016, Councillor Simon Menzies declared although he didn’t have any objection to the nudist beach “and I’m not being homophobic”, he feared that rumours of a “gay beat” were concerning to local residents.
However, a phone call to Mosman council has staff member Steve Wall laughing down the telephone, “at the moment I’m getting ten calls per month about our nudist beaches, and people are just asking for directions to get there. They love it”.
The popularity of the Sydney Skinny Swim raises money for Foundation for Parks and Wildlife and Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.
“The event has nothing to do with promoting nudism and it’s not about tits and arses. It’s obviously about acceptance,” said Nigel Marsh, Sydney Skinny founder.
He is on a mission to remove negative stigma around body image, but says mainstream society’s conservative views on the bare body aren’t changing anytime soon, even though participation in the nude swim increases by 30% each year.
“I do hope there are people who feel better about themselves as a result of the swim but I haven’t touched the bloody surface as far as changing people’s views about nudity are concerned. It’s far more simple than that, people are getting naked simply because they bloody enjoy it,” Mr Marsh said.
Prof Barcan sees the Sydney Skinny Swim as the epitome of societal simplicity, as a “delight of joyful collective public nudity”.
She said group nudity was a kind of safety net, that allowed participants to break traditional boundaries and stigmas by reducing the simple act of stripping bare away from any complex, erotic meaning.
"Instead, by associating the practice with liberty and freedom, the nude body becomes less of an artistic weapon of oppression and consumerism. In its place, the naked body is given a body-positive platform that allows people to love and appreciate the honest human form."
“You can find any kind of images, cultural or religious texts that can bolster any kind of view, but nudity allows us to see what is changing, and the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is murky,” she said.