"EVERYBODY GET NAKED.” I glance around the room as nine women—nine strangers—start to take off their clothes. Hesitantly, I do the same. Heads bow towards the floor as we all silently lift our shirts. I glance up, hoping to see stretch marks or cellulite—anything to make me feel less self-conscious about my own body.
I slip out of my pants and take off my bra, uncomfortably hunched, 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 on 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 arrived a half-hour early. The door swung open and a smiling, bubbly Roberts motioned me into her apartment and led me upstairs. The hardwood floors creaked as she showed me to the living room, which was strewn with patterned blankets. Candles flickered gently, casting shadows on the white walls. Lying on the ground were 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 offered me white wine in a mason jar. I gulped it down as if it was water.
New women streamed into the apartment until ten of us were sitting in a circle. Some spoke with each other in low voices. I reached for an apple slice and focused on the pictures. In one, a curvy white woman, hair strewn about and sporting wild, thick pubic hair, thrust her hands out like claws and roared. In another, a woman was bent over, bum pointed high in the air. I could see part of her face peeking out from between her legs.
Roberts has been holding Body Pride workshops for more than three years. As the name suggests, the goals 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 was for cisgender women only. (Roberts, wanting to give everyone an opportunity to feel comfortable and safe, occasionally holds closed events for specific groups.)
Our circle is made up of young women, mostly in their twenties. Roberts passed along forms for us to sign. One had us confirm that we would not sue the organizers if we had a negative experience. Another served as consent to post pictures that were taken throughout the evening online. When that sheet reached me, I couldn’t help but think of future bosses stumbling across the images; my mind replayed the stories of young women who have had their lives upended thanks to a snapshot of their breasts. A few women, myself included, declined to sign that form.
After collecting the papers, Roberts introduced the first topic of discussion: childhood and early sexual education.
CAITLIN ROBERTS has been interested in sex since she was fifteen years old. While growing up in Toronto with her mother and sister, though, 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. With no one to speak with about sex in a frank manner, Roberts started sneaking around.
As a teenager, she 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—an excuse her mom didn’t buy. 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 decided to take her education into her own hands, using books, articles, the internet and documentaries to learn more about sexuality—anything that could help her understand her urges and feel less ashamed about her developing body. As Roberts 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.
Soon, though, 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’ research came from sexologist Betty Dodson. Dodson, now eighty-six, started her quest for 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. But, most importantly for Roberts, Dodson started the Bodysex Workshop in the 1980s. The ongoing series 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, in a moment of spontaneity and cofidence, Roberts stacked a pile of books on her desk and balanced her MacBook carefully on top. Looking into its camera, she began taking off her clothes. She pressed record. “I was really, really anxious about it, but also con dent 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 relieve 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, her website 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 held events where people could have healthy, open conversations about their bodies? And what if, as a way of facilitating the conversations, all participants were in the nude? Having in-depth discussions in such an exposed state could start to get people thinking of nudity and sexuality as two separate yet complex things. And so, with Dodson’s Bodysex Workshops in mind, Roberts decided to start her own series. In January 2012—one month after her naked internet debut—Roberts hosted her first Body Pride event. The sessions have been ongoing at a pace of about one every month ever 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 is part of why Roberts started her Body Pride 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 uploaded to an online revenge porn thread directed at women 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 the pictures.
Roberts jumped into the online conversation, sarcastically thanking the negative commenters for their support and “free publicity.” Roberts now dismisses the attempt to weaponize pictures of her as funny, because she has no issue with her own nakedness and is well-position to withstand the judgements of others. 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.”
The nonconsensual posting of nude photos can have life-changing consequences for many. In 2008, eighteen-year-old Jessica Logan committed suicide after pictures she had originally sent to her boyfriend were distributed to other high school girls. She was harassed mercilessly, called a “slut” and a “whore” just for being naked. In 2009, thirteen-year-old Hope Witsell 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. She argues that her work with Body Pride can help dispel the stigma and shame that are 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 the internalized and outside harassment that people face every day.
BACK AT MY FIRST BODY PRIDE 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 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 the suggestion. I can’t help but notice that, like me, she has stretch marks 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, my semi-comfort bleeds back into nervousness. No one at Roberts’ session 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 appear. 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 confess that my insecurities deepened thanks to Seventeen magazine and teenage soap operas, eventually following me into adulthood. Saying all this aloud is a relief, a feeling that is bolstered when another woman—one who is much smaller than me—leans over to tell me 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.
BY THE END OF THE SESSION, we are all cozy and close. Some women 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 stretch out my arm, accidentally placing my hand on the thigh of the woman next to me—an encounter that would have had me blushing Rudolph red three hours ago. 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 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 judgment 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.