BY MICHELLE AUSTIN
My son Jason* is a nudist. He has been for a very long time. Jason just prefers to be naked. He is almost always in a state of partial or complete undress at home. He has slept naked since he was about 4 years old. Occasionally his predilection for nudity has caused some challenges.
It’s hard to explain why he can’t be naked at friend’s houses (although the cousin’s or grandparent’s places are fair game). He had a major tantrum last summer because he wanted to be naked at our local outdoor pool. Luckily our discussion about not getting a sunburnt bottom hit the mark. I found this tantrum particularly perplexing because for someone who loves to take his clothes off, Jason is oddly attracted to his swimmers. So getting him into them is never usually a challenge. He frequently asks to wear them just to play in.
Jason has never shown or discussed his body in a negative way. After dinner he will often stand up and pat his tummy, exclaiming happily over its full-of-food roundness. He cheerfully shows me his stiffy, or how clean his bottom is, or the booger he’s dug out of his nose. Boys are so charming sometimes, aren’t they?! There’s often discussion about how strong his muscles are or how bendy his little brother is. There have been a few discussions about gender differences over the years, but not many. There’s never been a discussion about skin colour or hair style or weight. He knows all sorts of people who are very different in appearance but he doesn’t seem to notice, or care.
My beautiful, accepting, gentle son has always been completely unselfconscious about his body and being naked. As he should – he’s 5 years old.
But then last week we went to his swimming lesson and something changed. It’s a bit of a rush to get to swimming after preschool. We often run in together and quickly throw his swimmers on just in time for his lesson. It’s all a bit of fun as we race each other up the path and see how fast he can get his clothes off. He has lessons at a local hydrotherapy pool.
There are only 3 lessons going on – mostly babies. There just isn’t room in the small pool for many people. So last week, as we’ve done so many times in the past, I started to pull his clothes off on the pool deck. But unlike any other time, he stopped me. He told me he didn’t want to take his clothes off there. When I asked him why not he stated, “Because people might laugh at me. They might see my doodle.” (As an aside, he does know that it’s actually called a penis. And that his nuts are called tentacles. Ok, we’re still working on that one…)
I was flummoxed. He had never expressed any kind of awareness of his nakedness in relation to other people before, let alone concern. I told him no-one was looking, that no-one minded, and if he wanted to he could turn around so they could only see his bottom.
He shook his head, looking at me with an expression I couldn’t define. Part petulance, part anxiety, part… something else. By this point I was fighting very hard not to cry. Not with frustration at his lesson starting any second and him not being ready (although we’ve all been there), but with pure sadness. Five is too young to lose your innocence. I told him it was OK, and asked him if he wanted to get changed in private. “What’s private?” he asked. Bless him, he’s still so young. I explained about the change-rooms being private, and he emphatically chose that option.
When we were in there I gently quizzed him about whether anyone had laughed at him or teased him or been mean to him. He didn’t have any tangible examples. I don’t believe he has been teased about anything – although of course it’s possible. He is extremely well liked amongst his peers and doesn’t have any physical attributes that are often associated with teasing amongst kids. We quickly discussed that it wasn’t nice to laugh at people or tease them.
He told me “I know that” with the five year old equivalent of an eye roll. I told him that most grown-ups chose to get changed in private but most kids didn’t need to. Once his swimmers were on he was happy and got on with his lesson. (Proud mother moment – he passed his test to go up to the next , i.e. second-bottom, level. Not that he knew he was being tested. Or cared. )
I had hoped that after the lesson he may have forgotten about the earlier issue. But to my chagrin, he hadn’t. In the change-room he asked to have the curtain pulled around the shower, so the other women and small children wouldn’t see him in there. He had never asked for that before. I agreed, of course. A
nd he didn’t seem to twig that when he emerged from the shower he cheerfully got dressed in front of those same people. Driving home we talked about how he could ask his father or I anything, or tell us anything, and that we would always listen to him and answer his questions. He told me he knew that too.
Since then there hasn’t been an opportunity to assess whether this body consciousness with others has prevailed. He’s certainly been running around without pants on at home happily and obliviously. But I’m watching. And I’m sad. I feel quite heartbroken that he may already have lost his wonderful naiveté and some of his innocence. He’s only five.
Michelle Austin is a Canberra-based Change Manager and mother to two young boys. She has a PhD in psychology but still can’t work people out sometimes. You can follow here on Twitter here.
Do you have a ‘nudist child?’ How do you deal with the transition when your child starts being body-conscious?