Shifting what is stuck

To be oneself, simply oneself, is so amazing and utterly unique an experience that it’s hard to convince oneself so singular a thing happens to everybody.

~ Simone de Beauvoir

Discovering nudism and coming out as a nudist resolved a tension in me I hadn’t realised I was carrying but that I had been feeling for my entire adult life.

So many people can relate to the idea that I felt my ‘spacesuit’ was not good enough and something to be ashamed of. But the more I inquired into this, the more I realised something more limiting than the fear of my perceived weaknesses, was the fear of my own strengths. And how this was keeping me stuck.

Freedom exists only as a concept that defines the bounds of the mind with regard to what it perceives as possible.

It is a concept that can only be understood through contrast, from the context of oppression, enslavement, imprisonment or submission.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Viktor Frankl

Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence.” – Simone de Beauvoir

“For me, there is no happiness without freedom, and freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness.” – Carl Jung

My awkward stumbling upon naturism landed me smack centre stage of my own comedic release from something I’d imprisoned myself with my entire life. The shackles of body shame that had been instilled as a means to keep me from flying the coup. A way of clipping my wings, to keep me producing for the farmer, so to speak.

Yet, my adventurous nature eventually led me to the somewhat exhilarating experience of social nudity, and I discovered something more…

When we are nude together the conditions are more conducive to growth:

  • We develop an awareness of what we’d been hiding for so long and realise that we had never consciously chosen to hide those things, we just did as we were told.
  • We start to notice sensations on our skin (all of it), the warm sun, the cool breeze, the damp fog. We experience the world in a new way, more fully.
  • We notice different things about people and set aside things that we usually use as shortcuts for categorising and judging . 
  • We chat to people we wouldn’t otherwise have spoken to and learn new ways of being and seeing the world, insights we couldn’t realise in our own worlds.
  • We develop empathy for being other and experience an awakening to being one.

I was so caught up in these experiences and noticing my response to being seen, that I had only observed in passing that, in my photographic explorations, the expressions on my face were almost exclusively serious and stern. Until I received a very gentle and respectful suggestion about my photos, ‘maybe try smiling a bit more?’.

While I had noticed that I wasn’t smiling in my photos I hadn’t wondered why or even tried to correct it. I was in the midst of a project, I was exploring my feelings and emotions, my sense of self and other, and how I was reconnecting to mission and purpose. But in doing so, I had not yet started smiling for the audience again; I’ll explain…

The suggestion that I smile in the photos was far more confronting than I would ever have guessed; it surfaced a network of memories, experiences, associations and unmet needs.

It is a smile that has hidden so much, led to so much, been used, ‘leveraged’, traded off… I’d somewhat disconnected from it. Somehow, I’d locked myself up in my own smile. It was like a straight jacket for my identity.

It started at a very young age, growing up in small towns, newspapers always looking for a photo opportunity. School events, sports carnivals, community events, I was in the newspaper so many times as a child I lost count. But the last time I smiled for the camera like that, I was 15. I had just finished year 10. Our school leavers’ dinner.  A lot of people in the community knew me from serving behind the counter of my parents’ shop for so many years.

He called my grandmother first. He said he was my friend.
She gave him our number, maybe he could come and see me sometime?
He’d seen me in the paper. Said he liked my smile.

He watched me when I worked, he told me on the phone.
He watched me walk home. My parents still at work.
He wasn’t’ the only one. I’m not the only one.
Moving from that town freed me from that smile. So I had thought.

It wasn’t until many years later when I started teaching, that I really started to smile again, for real. This time it lead to entirely different  outcomes, or were they exactly the same? Patterns of trauma and unprocessed feelings. Was this now of my own volition?

I had thought that I had discovered a form of power, but it was one that could be used so easily against me in a system that had practiced since its inception, to deftly turn a feminine smile into something of value to others. So many times, in so many ways a woman’s smile is harvested by another, rarely left for her to enjoy as her own.

So as I wandered, almost accidentally, into an online nudist community, already naked and exposed, I had thought I was reclaiming my body, my whole self, all the bits I love, all the bits I don’t, but also do, I had thought I was finally freeing myself of the baggage of my body not being good enough. And I was; but buried beneath, something previously unknown to me began to surface, a form of self loathing I hadn’t recognised before.

A fear of my own sexuality, and the smile that advertised it to the world.

I have learnt it is not possible for my smile to be just my own. Like the reader lifts a writers’ words from the page, a smile is often perceived without further explanation, without any sought. And if I place my attention, the focus of my mind, on the place where my smile is taken from me by the other, I am free only up to that point. A restriction that tightens as the pleaser gets to work.

But if I chose my own moment, my own angle, my own reason. If I let the wild woman be seen, her essence, her strength. Her power and intention. I let go and I smile, for me. Beyond what you see in it, beyond what you want it to mean.

For so long I was stuck between smiles, the one that had betrayed me, and the one that truly radiates joy. I couldn’t differentiate, couldn’t use them on purpose. It was like they weren’t really mine.

And so, this self indulgent process, this aesthetic analysis, the sharing, reflecting, and surfacing, the feedback, and the processing….this is experiential learning.  To observe and experience the self, to study the self, is to learn about and understand your self. 

And perhaps one might even develop some level of mastery of one’s self; smile and all.

Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.

~ Simone de Beauvoir

Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself

~ Simone de Beauvoir

…her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly

~ Simone de Beauvoir

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