Getting naked with a group of strangers is apparently good for humanity’s soul.
I came across an old study recently, from 1968 in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, about a naked marathon. Marathon, in this case, being “twenty-four hours of intimate, intensive, authentic human interaction, uninterrupted…” Basically, this guy, Paul Bindrim, got a bunch of people together to sit around and talk with each other and said, oh, please feel free to take off all your clothes if you like. It seems to have gone very well.
In less than one hour and a half from the beginning of the marathon on Friday evening all participants were bathing nude in the Jacuzzi pool. Although two participants had been referred to the marathon specifically because of anxieties relating to sexuality and nudity, it may be assumed that most of the participants who were willing to attend the marathon were, by and large, ready for the experience.
The entire session was recorded, so Bindrim was drawing on real dialogue for his paper, which in a way is quite interesting. They had the typical concerns that most have in these situations, mostly self-consciousness, but that quickly faded away to self-acceptance. Bindrim concluded that clothes, in some situations, might be a kind of barrier to emotional intimacy.
Nudity apparently facilitates group interaction in a marathon. Seventeen of the twenty participants felt that the factor of nudity increased their ability to open up to each other emotionally and to achieve a greater degree of authenticity and transparency. The group integrated and seemed to become therapeutically functional more rapidly than clothed marathon groups.
Bindrim’s theory is that all that intimacy didn’t necessarily have to do with being naked per se. In the experiment, group members were allowed to touch each other, even in overtly sensual ways like hugging and kissing, as long as it didn’t devolve into an all out orgy. He notes, correctly, that sensual body contact, the kind you might experience when two people are naked, is “generally considered to be an invitation to sexual intimacy.” But since we generally don’t have sex with or even invite the possibility of it with every person we meet, body contact between most people is inhibited. It’s rare, aside from the occasional hand shake or hug, to even touch our close friends, right? “Since body contact is frequently essential to emotional expression, this taboo of touch blocks a vital avenue of communication,” Bindrim says.
This is most clearly observable in relationships between males who are inhibited in their expression of love, since they may not embrace or experience tender body contact without the implication of homosexuality. The nude marathon seems to eliminate this confusion by encouraging sensuality while inhibiting sexuality, thus increasing the range of permissible emotional expression for both sexes.
Anecdotally, I’m not sure touch is necessarily the key here, though I’m sure he’s not wrong about how it helps. When I was in college, I lived in a newer dorm that had bathrooms with shower stalls, instead of the gang-type shower rooms some of the older dorms had. This, apparently, was a tragedy that befell us, and our RAs took it upon themselves to remove the shower curtains from the stalls (they also lowered the dividers between them so we could talk over them).
As a freshman I found this invariably odd and disconcerting, mostly because there was nothing to prevent a draft from making me cold while I toweled off. This was also a private Christian school, and homophobia was (and is) a big problem. Still, in the end, I think they were on to something. The school tried to foster strong life-together bonds on the campus, something akin to the Greek system at other schools, only created by which floor or wing you lived in on. As Bindrim tells us, this kind of semi-public nudity can foster that type of emotional intimacy, to a point. But really, live in a dorm long enough and you’re going to see more naked people than you probably care to.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what we do with this research, and judging by the dearth of follow-ups or scientific curiosity about nudity in general, I gather most experts don’t know either. Still, the next time you’re confronted with a chance for group nakedness — say, at a spa or bathhouse or a Spencer Tunik photo — just think, maybe it’ll do you some good.
Photo by Jamison Wieser, Some rights reserved. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)