Nude or Naked or Not

Lois GoodwillEditor’s note: Dr. Lois Goodwill is a retired clinical psychologist and co-author, with the late Don Asher, of Entangled: A Chronicle of Late Love, a memoir in two voices released by Heyday in July. Born in Montreal, Canada, she holds degrees from McGill University in Montreal and the Wright Institute in Berkeley. She enjoys attending theater and symphony performances and volunteer work. She is an enthusiastic hiker and walker. She is the mother of four children and grandmother of eleven. She lives in San Francisco.

Lucian Freud, one of the foremost painters of the twentieth century, died a week ago. He was best known for his life-size portraits and larger than life-size paintings of naked people. Freud eschewed the formal term for these renderings of large, fleshy and lumpy models. He chose not to call them nudes, but naked paintings.

I learned of Freud’s death in a radio announcement. The announcer elaborated on the artist’s choice of the term “naked” as opposed to “nude,” and that dichotomy sent me to my dictionary. The hefty Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1983 edition) soothed my feelings of ignorance by defining both “naked” and “nude” as unclothed. The major distinction seemed to be that “nude” is first defined as “bare, naked, unclothed; specifically in art, not covered with drapery.” “Naked” also is defined by the first three words but carries no reference to art.

I recently visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s expansive and exciting exhibit The Steins Collect. It is so vast and so intriguing that I have been twice. In that collection there are more than one of Matisse’s nudes. One in particular shows a female figure reclining on a divan, with one arm and hand relaxed across her lower belly. The didactic label informs the viewer that the hand rests “where she makes her living.” She is depicted in lovely curving lines and soft tints. She is nude, not naked. As such she causes us no discomfort in her unclothed loveliness.

Freud’s naked people are bold renderings. They stare back at us, their full bodies on display with no coyness of posture, no softening of skin tones. They are ponderous and heavy with abundant flesh rendered in strong peach and blush tones. Not pretty, but very real.

I recently spent a few days at a Northern California coastal retreat, Esalen, famous for over fifty years for its workshops on personal development and spiritual growth. The meals are taken communal-style in a dining hall or on a terrace overlooking the grounds, the swimming pool, and the Pacific Ocean just beyond. The foodstuffs are locally grown and tastily prepared with an emphasis on all things natural. In keeping with this focus, the swimming pool and the famous hot tubs overlooking the ocean are “clothing optional.”

What could be more natural than being naked in the water? But only if one is comfortable with the wrapping of the package where our minds and spirits dwell.

With an awareness of the clothing-optional policy for the pool and hot tubs, I had pretty much decided well in advance of my scheduled weekend workshop that those were locales I would visit either in a bathing suit or not at all. I had frequented nude beaches years ago, but in my mid-seventies, with the forces of gravity, four pregnancies, and the resultant varicosities and stretch marks facing me in my mirror daily, I decided that display would not be on my agenda.

On my second day there, in a short interval between workshop sessions and mealtime, I ambled towards the pool and spied a lone tanned naked man swimming energetically. Within moments a woman appeared and made her way to a poolside chaise, where she placed her book bag in a proprietary manner. She lifted her T-shirt over her head, loosened her long hair from the knot on top of her head, refastened it in a ponytail, stepped out of her yoga pants and bikini panties. She added those removed items to the book bag, strode a few feet in her lovely nakedness to the pool’s edge, and dove in. When she surfaced, she and the other swimmer began a casual conversation that this eavesdropper quickly assessed to be a first-time encounter. There they were, he and she, naked and being sociable without reticence. Adam and Eve in paradise…perhaps!

That evening my friend who was giving the workshop I was attending proposed that he and I go that night to the hot tubs. The very hot tubs I had decided I would not visit, since a quick tour the night before had confirmed that a bathing-suit-clad person would be quite the anomaly, more conspicuous than a naked attendee! Emboldened by my observation of the swimming pool scene, I merrily replied, “Yes. What a lovely idea. I do want to experience the delights of soaking by moonlight overlooking the Pacific.”

We did and I did and many other folk did too. It was splendid. The moon cast a shining path on the waves rolling towards shore a hundred feet below. The baths are filled with water fed by underground natural mineral springs, hot and slightly sulfuric. The effect is lulling. Then, too hot and lightheaded to stay submerged any longer, one retreats naked (not nude) to outdoor showers with the spigots pouring fresh water from stone walls on two sides. The fourth wall, nonexistent, is open to the ocean sounds and breeze. A remarkable and delicious experience, a natural experience, perhaps even more freeing than the interpersonal exchanges of a fine workshop on Learning to Trust.

Naked or nude, there was nothing to fear. I didn’t look closely at the other bathers; they probably didn’t scrutinize me. And it felt so good to feel the ocean air on my unclothed body. No matter whether I would have been subject for Matisse or Freud, I was at home in my skin.