BY: JESSICA BEUKER
“Everybody get naked.” I glance around the room as nine women—nine strangers—start to take off their clothes. I apprehensively do the same. Heads are bowed towards the floor as we all silently lift our shirts. I glance up, hoping to see stretch marks and cellulite—anything to make me feel less self-conscious about my own body.
I slip out of my pants and take off my bra while in an uncomfortable hunched position, using my arms to cover as much exposed skin as possible. Before I have time to think, speak or flee, I am fully undressed and sitting on the floor. All eyes in the room are on Caitlin Roberts, a small, energetic twenty-six year old with close-cropped hair. She seems excited. I, on the other hand, feel like vomiting. Why oh why did I sign up for a body pride workshop?
One hour earlier, I was walking down Carlton Street in downtown Toronto, searching for an address. The invitation said to arrive at 7 PM sharp, and not wanting to be late, I get there a half-hour early. The door swings open and a smiling, bubbly Roberts motions me into her apartment and leads me upstairs. The hardwood floors creak as she shows me to the living room, strewn with patterned blankets. Candles flicker gently, casting shadows on the white walls. Laying on the blankets are bowls filled with apple slices, carrots, peppers and raspberries, along with a cluster of black and white photographs of naked bodies from previous events. Roberts offers me white wine in a mason jar. I gulp it down as if it is water.
New women stream into the apartment until ten of us are sitting in a circle. Some speak with each other in low voices. I reach for an apple slice and focus on the pictures. In one, a curvy white woman, hair strewn about and sporting wild, thick pubic hair, thrusts her hands out like claws and roars. In another, a woman is bent over, bum pointed high in the air. I can see part of her face peeking out from between her legs.
Roberts has been holding Bodypride workshops for more than three years. As the name suggests, the goal of the sessions are to teach people how to de-sexualize nudity and learn to accept their bodies. Though they are often trans-inclusive and open to women, men and non-binary people, tonight’s invitation is for cisgender women only. (Roberts, wanting to give everyone an opportunity to feel comfortable and safe, holds certain events for specific groups.)
Our circle is made up of young women, mostly in their twenties. Roberts passes along forms for us to sign. One has us confirm that we will not sue the organizers if we have a negative experience. Another serves as consent to post pictures that are taken throughout the evening online. When that sheet comes around, I can’t help but think of future bosses stumbling across the pictures; my mind replays the stories of young women who have had their lives dramatically worsened thanks to a snapshot of their breasts. A few women, myself included, refuse to sign that form. Roberts is completely understanding of those who do not sign, she realizes that online nudity is still a tricky subject. She also says that since she has been naked online so many times, that any damage that could be done, has likely already been done. After collecting the papers, Roberts introduces the first topic of discussion: childhood -body image, first sexual awakening, early sexual education and parental influences are just a few of things she talks about.
Caitlin Roberts has been interested in sex since she was fifteen years old. But while growing up in Toronto with her mother and sister, she never felt comfortable talking about her desires. Her mother once told her that every time you have sex with someone you don’t love, you lose a part of your soul. The words stuck, causing Roberts to feel guilty about her urges. And so with no one to speak with about sex in a frank manner, Roberts started sneaking around.
As a teenager, Roberts had a basement bedroom with her own separate entrance. One day, when she was seventeen, she slipped in a boy she was dating. Her mother came down the next morning, and, suspicious, started banging on the locked bedroom door. The boy was still naked in Roberts’ bed—there was nowhere to hide and no way to get him out. Roberts yelled that she had her mom’s Christmas presents spread out all over the floor, waiting to be wrapped. Her mom didn’t buy it. Roberts and the boy hid in her room until her mother left for work, but Roberts didn’t avoid the inevitable conversation; later that evening, Roberts’ mother sat her down and told her that she was not allowed to have sex in the house. Roberts, indignant, replied “Should I do it in the park then?”
Roberts says that as a teen, she had no outlets to express her feelings, pose questions or find answers about her sexuality. She decided to take her education into her own hands, reading books and articles about sex, spending hours on the internet and watching documentaries about the topic—anything to help her understand her urges and feel less ashamed about her developing body. As she learned more and more about sexuality, she realized that many of her peers were just as misinformed as she had been. Later, as an arts student at the University of Toronto, she began to write articles on sex for The Underground, a campus newspaper.
But soon, Roberts found that university was not for her. She dropped out in order to pursue her passion. In January 2011, Roberts started To Be a Slut, a website devoted to sharing information and advice about sex. An alternative, sex-positive pornography brand soon followed.
One of the pivotal moments in Roberts’s research came from sexologist Betty Dodson. Dodson, now eighty-six, started her quest for sexual self-discovery after divorcing her first husband in 1965. She became one of the founders of the pro-sex feminist movement, and, in 1968, held the first one-woman erotic art show in New York City. In 2006, Dodson met Carlin Ross, a former corporate lawyer. The two then started the Bodysex workshop series, which offers women an opportunity to come together in small groups to get naked and take part in a discussion about their bodies, followed by guided masturbation sessions. After seeing a documentary about Dodson’s workshop, Roberts was in awe of these women who appeared so comfortable with themselves. “The women never said anything about how they hated their bodies, or even about how they loved them,” Roberts says. “They just were, and it was beautiful.”
On December 14, 2011, Roberts was feeling confident. She spontaneously stacked a pile of books on her desk and carefully balanced her MacBook on top. Looking into the camera, she began taking off her clothes. She pressed record. “I was really, really anxious about it, but also confident in the fact that it was something that needed to happen,” Roberts says. She had been wondering why women directed so much hate towards their bodies, and hoped that if people could see one in a normal, non-sexual way, it would remove some of the pressure women feel to live up to a certain ideal.
Afterwards, Roberts looked over the photos. In one she has her arms spread out, a glass of wine in hand, mouth a gaping smile. Another sees her pointing to her vagina while making a silly face. She posted them to her website with a caption: “Girls reading this: I want to have a page of full on non-sexual pictures of you naked. Lets [sic] be proud of our bodies just as they are.” In just over an hour, she had more than four thousand hits, and young women and men started sending their own pictures. One woman asked, “Can I send you a picture or do you have naked girl parties where we can photograph each other?”
That comment got Roberts thinking. What if she could hold events where people could have healthy, open conversation about their bodies? And what if, as a way of facilitating the conversation, all participants were in the nude? Having in-depth discussions in such a vulnerable state could start to get people thinking about nudity and sexuality as two separate yet complex things. And so, with Dodson and Ross’ Bodysex sessions in mind, Roberts decided to start her own workshop series. In January 2012—one month after her naked internet debut—Roberts hosted her first Bodypride event. The sessions have been ongoing approximately once every month since.
North Americans have conflicted views on nudity, sexuality and body image. Glossy, photoshopped men and women are constantly mobilized for art and advertising, setting unrealistic standards for weight and beauty. At the same time, we have difficulty dealing with actual naked bodies. We judge ourselves and each other harshly—both for not measuring up to picture-perfect ideals and for breaking residual codes of puritanical honour.
Addressing these internal and external conflicts are part of why Roberts started her Bodypride workshops. And so she was better positioned than most when, one day while riding the bus, she received a Facebook message from a casual acquaintance. The messenger told her that naked photos of Roberts had been lifted from her blog and uploaded to a revenge porn thread directed at girls in Ontario. Roberts didn’t know who had posted the photos. She also didn’t know the anonymous man who commented “this girl is super nasty, but really fun in bed” on one of her pictures.
Roberts jumped into the conversation, sarcastically thanking the negative commenters for their support and “free publicity,” and then directed them to her website, where they could check out more of her nude photos. Roberts now dismisses the attempt to weaponize pictures of her is funny, as she has no issue with her own nakedness. However, she knows that this is not the case for everyone. “We don’t teach young women to feel that way. We teach them to feel embarrassed or ashamed, to change in corners and in bathrooms, or look away when other people are changing in the locker room,” she says. “Nudity is this giant, scary, taboo thing that nobody talks about and then all of a sudden it becomes sexualized when it’s on the internet.”
Revenge porn, the nonconsensual posting of nude photos on the internet, can have life-changing consequences for many. In 2008, eighteen year old Jessica Logan committed suicide after nude photos that she had originally sent to her boyfriend were distributed to other high school girls, after the pair broke up. She was harassed mercilessly over the photographs, being called a “slut” and a “whore” just for being naked. In 2009, thirteen-year-old Hope Sitwell took her life following a similar chain of events.
Roberts is aware of her privilege within society; malicious attempts to share her naked photos and attack her online have not had devastating effects. And in fact, she argues that workshops such as Bodypride can help dispel the stigma and shame that is so often attached to the body. Roberts says that de-sexualizing nudity and offering a safe space to talk openly about sexuality can be a first step to reducing both internalized and external harassment.
Back at my first Bodypride session, the candles have been burning for two hours. Roberts stands up and disappears into her bedroom, emerging with a silver object in her outstretched hands: heavy, cold and resembling a small hand weight, it is a Betty Dodson kegel barbell. “Now we have a perfect talking stick,” says a tall, slender white woman who is a sprawled out on her side. She is neatly trimmed, with perky breasts and a large, deep scar running down the side of her leg.
Another woman, sitting cross-legged and revealing a landing strip, laughs at this suggestion. I can’t help but notice that she has stretch marks (similar to mine) tracing patterns down the sides of her large breasts.
None of us are covering our stomachs anymore.
The barbell is passed along from woman to woman. One talks about being sexually assaulted; two others bond over growing up in strict, repressive households. The stories range from funny to sad to completely harrowing. The group listens, offering words and gestures of support for every speaker.
As the makeshift talking stick heads my way, I start to become nervous. No one at the event is forced to open up when it is their turn, and it has been my intention to pass—the thought of sharing personal details with strangers does not sit well. But when the kegel barbell is in my hand, the words flow like water. I open up about what it was like to be bullied in elementary school because of my weight: I tell them about the time my best friend said my crush didn’t like me because I was “kind of fat,”; I open up about how my insecurities deepened thanks to Seventeen magazine and teenage soap operas, eventually following me into adulthood. I feel relieved to say it aloud, which is further bolstered when another woman—one who is much smaller than me—leans over to say that she feels the exact same way. It is liberating to learn, particularly in a position of complete bodily vulnerability, that I’m not alone.
Near the end of the session, the candles have burned down to nubs and all the women are cozy and close. Some lay on the floor with their butts in the air. One has moved to the couch and has her legs slung over the armrest. I put my hand out beside me and accidentally place it on the thigh of the woman next to me—an encounter that would have had me blushing Rudolph red three hours ago. But now it passes without notice.
Once the discussion comes to a lull, Roberts puts on some cheesy nineties pop music and turns the sharing circle into a dance floor. She pins a white sheet to one of the walls, and places a tripod, camera and a large studio light in front of it. Everyone dances, going extra crazy when Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” comes on. Then, individually, each woman takes her turn in front of the lens and flaunts her body, proudly and unapologetically.
Before all of the women head home, we huddle in the middle of the room, hugging each other closely and sharing our favourite moments from the night. We prolong the process of getting dressed as much as possible, putting our clothes on slowly while talking, laughing and dancing.
As the Spice Girls play over the speakers I have a flashback to myself in grade four, slightly chubby, wearing a “Girl Power” T-shirt. In this moment, I feel more powerful than ever. I look around openly and without judgement at all of the bodies, a blend of shapes, sizes, skin tones, stretch marks, moles and scars. Seeing them all helps me realize that while my body may not be perfect, I can accept it as my own.