The hairs of his bow started to come undone, waving wildly in the wind at high altitude. Donnelly — who played professionally with the London Symphony Orchestra — kept performing. As his parachute opened, he played, with a few stops and starts, “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
“Why am I doing this,” Donnelly had said earlier, as the skydiving plane ascended high above the ocean and white sands of Coffs Harbour north of Sydney.
Had any casual onlookers been watching the descent, they might have agreed. After all, who plays a violin free falling at 15,000 feet (albeit strapped to his instructor)?
And who does it naked, but for the harness?
Of course, it was a publicity stunt. But it was for a good cause.
By skydiving nude, Donnelly says he sought to raise money and awareness about body image, with which he has long struggled. He says his issues eventually caused a breakdown that forced him to leave the London Symphony Orchestra.
Too few people, he said, are willing to talk about body image issues and eating disorders among men. A naked violin performance given while skydiving, he hoped, would begin to change that.
“It’s all about accepting yourself,” he said in a video, squinting into the sun on the beach after the jump. “It’s okay to feel fear. It’s okay to feel shame. It’s okay to feel anxiety. The first step is just to accept it, then you can heal it.”
With the performance came publicity — including many interviews with local stations and several with the BBC. Not everyone has taken Donnelly’s quest as seriously as he would like.
“Which bit landed first,” Lisa Wilkinson asked on the Australian breakfast television program, “Today.”
“Hey, how well did you know the instructor,” her co-host asked. “It’s a tandem skydive, so you wanted to have a little bit of confidence in your relationship together, didn’t you.”
Then they cut Donnelly off mid-answer, joking about whether he had “his hands on the baguette” as he fell.
Donnelly, who laughed nervously during the interview, said the next time someone treats him rudely, he plans to walk off the set. But he won’t be dissuaded by his detractors. What matters, he says, is translating the publicity into dollars for his cause.
That’s been a little disappointing, too. Despite the vast worldwide publicity generated by his jump, he has only raised $3,500 of his $15,000 goal. He wanted to raise $1 for every foot he fell for the benefit of organizations focused on men’s body image issues.
“Men feel this stigma and shame about speaking out,” he told The Washington Post on Thursday. “This is a cultural problem where we are suffering in silence.”
For Donnelly, that silent suffering began years ago. Raised in a conservative Christian household in Gosford, north of Sydney, he says he grew up with “a dysfunctional relationship with achievement.” At 8, he started playing the violin, determined to be the best in the world.
That desire came with anxiety, and that anxiety worsened when Donnelly turned 16 and noticed he had gained weight after a growth spurt.
“My belly got rounder and rounder, and I was developing emotional eating to deal with social anxieties,” Donnelly says. “Things got worse and worse.”
He constantly sucked in his stomach and was always looking in the mirror, worried about how others viewed him. His violin playing suffered because of the mental and physical anxiety that came with the body image anxiety, which he now believes was a body dysmorphic disorder.
The “breaking point,” he said, came in 2013, when he was playing with London Symphony Orchestra after six years of studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He says he could feel his body locking up during performances because of his “debilitating self-consciousness.”
“The anxiety had snowballed for 10 years, and I realized then that I didn’t want to be a musician anymore,” he said.
He returned home, where he started eating healthier, practicing mindfulness and experimenting with nudism. The first time he got naked in public was at a nude beach. He realized then that he had finally stopped sucking in his stomach.
“Going nude was like chucking myself into the deep end,” he said. “It forced me to confront my anxiety, and I loved it.”
But Donnelly’s personal journey over the last four years, which included coming out as bisexual and starting “The Nude Movement,” a social media campaign to promote nudism, hasn’t been without its challenges. Donnelly’s parents, he says, have struggled to accept the changes.
“I have changed my culture completely, and that’s been very hard for them,” he says. “They love me, and I respect them and try to have a love there. But I knew that when I came back from London it was life or death, and I had to completely change my life.”
Nude skydiving was his admittedly dramatic show of just how much he’s changed, and how far he’s willing to go to break down the stigma for others.
In the process, he also hoped to break a Guinness World Record for “Highest Musical Performance in Free Fall.” That didn’t go so well either. Guinness wouldn’t even consider his application, explaining:
“While we certainly do not underestimate your proposal, we think that it is a little too specialized for a body of reference as general as Guinness World Records,” the company responded to Donnelly in a July 1 email.
But Donnelly, who was eight weeks away from his dive at the time, wasn’t ready to admit defeat. He said given that Guinness has records for “Most Smarties/M & Ms eaten in one minute blindfolded using chopsticks,” he thought he might be able to convince the company to change its mind.
Guinness was unmoved.
“Thanks for providing video examples,” a representative wrote. “Regrettably ‘uniqueness’ is not objectively quantifiable and cannot therefore form the basis of a world record.”
“Guinness World Records” was Donnelly’s favorite book growing up. But the excuses for not accepting his application, he says “are really silly.”
“There seems to be a clear bias against naked people setting world records,” he said.
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