It’s a Friday night in Toronto, and Caitlin K. Roberts is getting ready for the evening as if she were getting together with friends. There are bottles of wine — one red, one white — enough for people to have a glass without getting hammered. She slices apples and puts them on plates that she places on the floor alongside spreads of chips and salsa and humus and pita bread. Twelve pillows form a circle around the snacks; on each pillow is a clean, white hand towel and a clipboard of consent forms arranged on top.
“I don’t get chocolate and cheese, because they make people gassy — you don’t want that when people are getting naked,” Roberts says, adding that she covers her bases by going with vegan bites. “But people don’t come here for the food.”
As 7 p.m. approaches, Roberts lights candles that she placed throughout the room. Her tailored Spotify playlist isn’t cooperating. She skips through others she thinks are too weird, until she settles on Drake. She has a quick but necessary conversation with her trainee, Jassie: “If anyone gets overwhelmed and needs a few minutes, can you step aside with them to make sure they’re okay?” Jassie agrees.
Roberts isn’t hosting an orgy or a swingers night; she’s prepping for Body Pride, a four-hour workshop where strangers come together for a facilitated conversation about body image, sexuality and relationships — clothes off and completely exposed, all of which culminates in a naked dance party and (optional) photo shoot.
Roberts, a 27-year-old Canadian cisgender woman and sex educator-in-training, founded Body Pride five years ago. She was inspired by a documentary about Betty Dodson’s women’s-only group masturbation classes called Bodysex Workshops. Dodson, who is now 87 and recently relaunched her classes two years ago, is one of the founders of the 1970s pro-sex feminist movement.
Before becoming a masturbation guru, Dodson was an artist, and painting nude subjects began to change her attitude toward the human body. “When we are all nude and we don’t have on our jewelry or outfits — it’s like the cover to a book,” Dodson told me. “But [when we’re nude], we don’t have a cover. We are just who we are, plain and simple.”
Watching a documentary about Dodson and her workshops was a transformative moment for Roberts. “That was it — I was totally shocked that women could [get naked] without it being sexual,” Roberts, who at the time was in her early 20s, says. “Normalized nudity was huge for me.”
Roberts had been interested in sex since her teens, but the film and the idea of desexualizing the human body empowered her to take a bold step. One night back in December 2011, Roberts sat in her apartment and used her MacBook to take naked photos of herself making silly faces and striking funny poses. She then did the unimaginable and posted the photos to her blog. “Girls reading this: I want to have a page of full on non-sexual pictures of you naked,” she wrote. “Lets be proud of our bodies just as they are.”
The responses — most of them positive — flooded in. But one stood out: Will girls send in their own pics or is there going to be a happy naked girl party with lots of cameras? Roberts had an aha! moment. She envisioned creating a safe environment that normalized nudity for people by disconnecting it from sexiness.
A month later, Body Pride was born. The concept might seem odd or frivolous, but some experts argue that socialized nudity helps people become comfortable with their bodies. “People say, ‘My [breasts] aren’t equal,’ or ‘I have a scar over here,’ ” Dodson says. “But if you look at all these [naked] bodies … you see they are a wonderful thing. How do we ever get to see [that] if we are all shrouded in clothing?”
Research shows that we often equate nudity with sex, even though nudity is not a sexual thing but a natural state of being, says Rosalyn Dischiavo, founder and director of the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment. “To take nudity out of our lives and to make it something unusual and odd and something that only happens when you’re sexual is an enormous mistake,” Dischiavo said.
To understand Body Pride, I had to try it. So one Friday night back in February, I awkwardly stood in a cozy attic space above Toronto’s Good For Her sex shop, where Roberts holds her classes. The atmosphere was charged with that first-day-of-school nervous energy: Though my fellow participants and I knew we’d be getting naked and talking about our bodies, we didn’t know how that would feel. After we signed some paperwork, Roberts made an announcement. “We have ground rules to cover, but before we do that, let’s get naked,” she said nonchalantly, before undressing in front of us.
When she first started Body Pride workshops, Roberts held classes for women only. Soon after, men were asking her if they could also join; she has since made them gender-inclusive. In our group that night, there were four men, seven women and one intersex, gender non-binary person. Most of us were in our 20s, two in their 40s, of varying backgrounds and sexual orientations.
Before the workshop, I imagined standing in a tantrically charged circle with people watching me undress. The actual experience, however, was more perfunctory than sexual.
The thought of being naked almost kept some people from coming. (I, too, thought that I was going to back out.) One woman, Liz, tells me that she felt a tightness in her chest as she got undressed. “You’re becoming vulnerable enough as it is when you’re talking about your insecurities,” she says. “To take it to a whole other level of being naked … in a group of strangers, well, I wasn’t sure how I was going to react.”
We mostly sat cross-legged, or with our knees tucked into our chest. It’s surprising at how little below the hips is revealed when a person sits cross-legged, which is how I sat, hunching my shoulders forward while trying to hide my chest. I caught myself thinking that if I only my A-cup breasts were a little bigger, maybe they wouldn’t sit so awkwardly in the air and I wouldn’t feel so exposed. Other women, too, covered themselves at first, folding their arms across their chests.
Getting naked was just the first step; then came the revealing conversations. (Part of the ground rules of my participating in and writing about Body Pride was that people’s identities would remain confidential.) One woman said she was a cancer survivor struggling with the weight she’s gained from chemo; another came back for her fourth class; one man said he wanted to understand what makes people insecure; another man said he realized he’s still dealing with insecurities he thought were behind him. “This was the first time I ever spoke about my issues with my sensitive complexion, and how my absentee father wasn’t around to teach me to shave without damaging [it],” he told me.
I also shared more than I had intended. Random stories tumbled out: About how the first time a boy asked to feel me up, I told him to “go feel a wall”; how I was teased about my frizzy hair as a kid; about my mother’s absence the past 10 years; about never feeling good enough.
As we opened up more, our body language did, too. People started to stretch out onto their sides while some pulled one knee into their chest instead of two. I eventually laid on my stomach with my butt in the air.
Roberts says that Body Pride is a step for people, not a solution, to confronting their insecurities. “It’s a step in thinking: ‘This is the body I have, and it’s not going to change. … So I may as well put the work into being okay with it, and hopefully one day I will be,’ ” she says.
That rings true for Liz, the woman who thought she might back out. At Body Pride, she fought through tears as she talked about how her ex-boyfriend gave her a complex about her different-size breasts. She told me later that, at one point “it got so bad” she scheduled a consultation with a plastic surgeon.
But being at Body Pride and sitting in a circle with naked strangers, Liz appreciated the beauty of how different we all were. Then, the thought occurred to her: I’m not judging their bodies, so why would they judge mine?
Since attending the workshop that night, she’s seen marked improvement in her confidence. “I used to not like being topless in a well-lit room around my current partner for too long,” Liz says, adding she’d always put on a shirt, even if she didn’t have pants on. “Now, I am just me: I can be naked and not worry about it so much.”