Various manifestations of nudity in society
// Gurpreet Kambo

Though everyone is born nude, showers nude, and exists in the nude underneath our clothing, the naked human body is something that is still extremely taboo in many areas of society. In most every social situation or public place, offense would be taken at the sight of bare breasts or exposed genitals, and in many cases it is illegal to be naked. Despite the stigma, however, public nudity continues to exist in many forms, for a diversity of purposes.


“There are those who so dislike the nude that they find something indecent in the naked truth.”
—F. H. Bradley

Nudity has been used as a form of protest throughout history. The Doukhobours, specifically a more radical sect called the “Freedomites,” are one of the most famous groups to have used nudity as a form of protest. At the close of the 19th century, the Doukhobours were a religious minority fleeing persecution from the Russian government. Many of them came to western Canada looking for a less hostile environment to live in; however, many Doukhobours saw injustices that still needed to be protested. Materialism in particular was one issue they saw with Canadian society, which they protested by attacking targets they saw as being symbolic of materialism. The Doukhobours famously held nude protests against materialism, as they believed that human skin was God’s creation, and thus more sacred than clothing, made by human hands.

More recently, a local nude protest has garnered media attention. Justine Davidson, a UBC student, decided to use her body as a form of protest in front of a display from a group called the “Genocide Awareness Project” (GAP). The display showed graphic photographs of aborted fetuses, and juxtaposed those with images of historical massacres such as the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, and the destruction of the World Trade Centre. According to the GAP website, it is “a traveling photo-mural exhibit which compares the contemporary genocide of abortion to historically recognized forms of genocide.” However Davidson took offense to the notion that a woman exercising her freedom of choice over her body could be equated to genocide.

“My body is where I exercise and appreciate my freedom on a daily basis, and I reject outright the assertion that by supporting the right to free, safe abortions, I am turning it into a tool of mass murder,” said Davidson on her blog Naked at UBC.

“I’m a woman, and they’re telling me that I am basically a genocidal maniac,” says Davidson. “I’m being compared to the Nazis and the Pol Pot regime; they had systematic mandates to wipe out an entire race of people. None of those things relate to my philosophy, or my body.”

“It struck me at that moment, that a very effective way to say that would be to take my clothes off, and to present my body as a counter to what they were presenting my body as,” says Davidson. “I will admit that I didn’t analyze the message of my nakedness for very long before I was stepping out of my clothes, but as I sat there naked in the afternoon sun … I had a chance to ruminate on what the naked female form means in our society, and its effectiveness as a way to expose oppression and shame-based control.”

Inevitably, UBC campus security arrived and told Davidson to put her clothes on. “I asked why, and was told that I was ‘indecent.’ I found this particularly ironic, seeing as I was sitting in front of a six-foot-high image of naked bodies piled in a mass grave.”

As a form of exercising her political views, Davidson found nudity to be empowering. “As soon as I took my clothes off, I realized that a naked person in a crowd of people who are clothed is incredibly powerful,” says Davidson. “No one is going to come near you, because they are going to think you are insane, or the fact of your nakedness is so shocking and surprising to everyone that you have this bubble of protection around you.”

While initially the administration of UBC was pursuing punishment against her for breaking their student code of conduct, after widespread media coverage, and a request from Davidson that her supporters write to the University to oppose any punitive action against her, they relented and said that they would only keep a record of the incident on file.


“We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.”
—George Bernard Shaw

For some, nudity is not only the means of expression, but the cause. NIFTY, which stands for “Naked Iconoclasts Fighting The Yoke”, is one such organization. NIFTY was founded in 1992, and “is an activist political organization dedicated to the cause of clothing-optional right – in Canada and around the world.” They oppose all legal restrictions on non-sexual nudity.

“We believe that nudity is healthful,” says Greg Depaco, secretary of NIFTY. “It is absurd to ask us to compromise our rights as free citizens to promote our own health as we see fit, in order to appease others who don't like to look at genitals.”

NIFTY’s argument also believes that the government should not infringe on the rights of individuals. That this corresponds to a classically right-wing value is perhaps ironic, because it is on the right that people are known to be more conservative about such body issues. “Canada is a free country, and so decisions about what to wear should be left to the individual citizen, with no government coercion,” says Depaco.

While acknowledging that hiding nudity is ingrained into mainstream North American values, Depaco believes that this type of restriction is harmful to society as a whole: “The obsession with concealing our genitals results in poor body image and body self-concept,” explains Depaco. “As the bodies of our friends and neighbours - ‘ordinary’ people – are hidden, all we see is the airbrushed perfection of Playboy/Hollywood; this creates an impossible ideal of beauty which results in people feeling bad about themselves, with more and more even resorting to plastic surgery in an attempt to meet this ideal.”

Depaco feels that society’s aversion to nudity may have some roots in organized religion. “It's because of religious views which hold that nudity is improper, and which have over time been so embedded into our cultural norms, that their religious origins have been obscured. NIFTY tries to help change that by educating the public about the harmful effects of enforced genital concealment,” he says.

He adds, “Nudity is not harmful to children and, as is so often the case with these cultural prejudices, the opposite is true. Nudity is beneficial to all ages, especially children, and it is the obsessive concealment of the natural body which can harm children.”

Nearly all of the major religions have some notion that nudity is improper or harmful – certainly in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. “If we could poll 1,000 people across the Lower Mainland, we would find a smattering who would say, “Yup, I’m all for naturists’ rights,’ but I think you’d still find a considerable number of people who would say, 'No, I’d not be comfortable with that,’ ” said Dave Quist in an interview with the Georgia Straight. Quist is executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a conservative lobby group. “I recognize their right to go do that [be naked], but I don’t want their rights to interfere with my rights not to be offended, not to have my children see that, and so that’s where we run into conflict.”

Quist disputes the notion that public nudity is or can be non-sexual. “You can’t look at car commercials or a beer commercial, and many other things that are advertised, without a scantily-clad man or woman,” he explained. “When we don’t have any modesty left, we characterize sex and sexuality as being just a crass thing without talking about intimacy or love, or the very nature of what intimacy is intended to be. So when we lose modesty, we lose a lot of the other things that go with it.”

However, Depaco doesn’t agree, and feels strongly that this notion that the body should be covered up needs to be changed. “Being offended by the sight of the natural human body is an abnormal and irrational reaction. When society bends over backwards to accommodate those who have this reaction, it merely normalizes, legitimizes, and perpetuates it.”


“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”
—Virginia Woolf

The laws around nudity have evolved over the years, although it is perhaps most important to note that the biggest factor in whether being nude is a criminal act is context. Section 174 of the Criminal Code, the section that pertains to nudity, states:

“(1) Every one who, without lawful excuse, (a) is nude in a public place, or (b) is nude and exposed to public view while on private property, whether or not the property is his own, is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person is nude who is so clad as to offend against public decency or order.

(3) No proceeding shall be commenced under this section without the consent of Attorney General.

Essentially, according to Constable Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver Police Department, “A person will be convicted only if (1) the AG consents, (2) the person is offending public decency, and (3) the person is in public view.”

Due to these restrictions, particularly the unusual one that charges must be approved by the Attorney-General, charges under this code are extremely rare now, and even more so if the nudity is non-sexual in nature. Martin's Criminal Code, a widely used text that compiles and assists in interpreting the code, provides some more clarity as to the purpose of this piece of legislation. "This offense is not aimed at conduct such as swimming nude at an isolated beach, even where the accused misjudges the loneliness of the beach.”

However, there are situations in which public nudity is of a more clearly criminal nature. The preceding section of the Code deals with “Indecent Acts” and it states that anyone who commits an indecent act “in any place, with intent thereby to insult or offend any person, is guilty of an offense punishable on summary conviction.”

While it does not clearly define what things may or may not constitute indecent acts, it does explicitly define one context: “Every person who … for a sexual purpose, exposes his or her genital organs to a person who is under the age of 14 years is guilty of an offense.” According to Houghton, if someone is being charged under this section of Code, it does not require the approval of the Attorney General.


“We seem okay with violence, but nudity we race to criticize and censor.”
—Eva Mendes

“There’s a significant difference between topfreedom and nudity,” says Dr. Paul Rapoport, co-ordinator of “Topfree Equal Rights Association”(TERA). “In the media, oftentimes if a woman is topfree somewhere, a headline often says that ‘so and so was nude’. It bothers me a great deal. In the Criminal Code, nudity is mentioned, but women’s breasts are not. If we look at this as an equality issue, which it really is, then if men without a top are not nude, then certainly women can’t be called the same either.”

TERA’s statement of purpose says, “We do not suggest that women or men should go about with bare breasts. That is every individual's decision. We do believe that since men may choose to do so in many situations, women must also be able to at least in the same situations.”

In B.C., the most prominent case around a woman’s right to be topfree was Linda Meyer of Maple Ridge in 2000. Meyer sought to ensure that women had the same rights as men, in being able to go topless in the city. She did this by showing up topless in the municipal swimming pool, and other areas to challenge any laws that may be interpreted to prohibit that.

However, at that time, the city council did not take kindly to her actions. “Maple Ridge had created a bylaw really just for her, very bad legal policy, that criminalized women for being topfree,” says Rapoport. “The town of Maple Ridge is not allowed to do that because it is a federal matter, and its penalties went beyond anything described in the criminal code. It was thrown out in court … Linda has really set the tone for all of B.C., partly because she has gone to various public swimming pools topfree, and challenged not only the law, but the attitudes that are very demeaning to women that say they can’t do this, and are implying antisocial behaviour. [The Maple Ridge decision] was very clear in that it had a larger meaning socially and politically. There were various rumblings in many levels of government that they weren’t going to prosecute topfree women.”

In 2007, the Vancouver Police Department instructed its officers not to detain or question women for being topless anywhere in Vancouver. Meyer was also involved in this case, as she was accosted by police for walking topless in downtown Vancouver. Meyer sought a ruling from the Vancouver Police Board on the matter, which concluded with the instructions in a letter to Meyer that stated "public female toplessness does not meet the test for criminal indecency.”

While he recognizes that many men will say that they can’t help but ogle a women who is topless, Rapoport believes that this attitude is one that can change, and is based on the individual. “People said that before about women who wore shorts. It was certainly said in the 18th century when women would go outside their own home unaccompanied by a male relative. There is no reason why that has to be the case, it’s certainly not automatic,” says Rapoport. “It’s a bit of a circular problem, in that the more women are seen without a top, the less likely it is that anyone will have a problem with it. It is an incremental advance that we’re looking at here. There’s no reason that that man has to do anything whatsoever other than behave in the accepted manner, and not disturb or provoke the woman in any way.”


“To see you naked is to recall the Earth.”
—Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca

Because the naked human body is such a taboo in modern society, being naked makes most people feel unprotected or vulnerable, particularly in regard to being judged by others. While that vulnerability is usually seen as a negative thing, Tasha Diamant runs a workshop called the “Human Body Project” ( in which she tries to capture this vulnerability,and make it into something positive, to allow people to see and connect with each other in a meaningful way.

“At its most essential, it’s that we all do share this vessel [the human body]. We are vulnerable, our bodies are vulnerable, and the planet is vulnerable,” says Diamant. “I believe that we haven’t evolved in a way that we have to evolve if we’re going to survive. The key to that is experiencing being able to be in vulnerability. When we do that, we can actually find power and connection there. We’re in a culture of domination … [and] in a very deep way we need to understand vulnerability; it’s the only way forward. That’s why I do the project.”

When she facilitates the workshop, Diamant uses her own naked body to set that example of what being vulnerable could look like. She puts herself in that vulnerable place first, and hopes that others will come with her.

Interestingly, Diamant doesn’t consider herself a nudist, and says that being nude makes her extremely uncomfortable. “I’m 50 years old, and I’m getting older and saggier. Every time I do it, it’s difficult. I try to show up as I am, in the moment. Living in this culture, women are judged brutally on their bodies. That hasn’t stopped and it will not stop,” says Diamant. “It took me two years to get the guts up to be naked. I didn’t want to be naked, but I knew that was the only way to be as vulnerable as possible without hurting myself.”

The workshop itself is unscripted, and thus allows whatever is meant to happen with the people present to happen in a natural way. “I felt that [it was important] to show up naked and without a script, an agenda … I have an intention of showing up vulnerable hoping that people will accept me as that and to see what happens with their own vulnerability and their own way of connecting,” says Diamant. “Beyond that intention, to show up without an agenda is also very vulnerable. What I had found was that, especially in a place like Victoria, a lot of people are not that uncomfortable with nudity, but the idea of not having an agenda makes people uncomfortable, like “what the fuck’s gonna happen?”

Diamant’s children were her inspiration for this project. “I had kids late in life. It woke me up in a way that nothing had before,” she explains. “My heart just exploded with love for my first daughter, and now I have two. I was way more connected with the world in a way that I hadn’t been before that.”

Diamant’s own childhood had an enormous effect on the decision to partake in this project as well. “In my adult life, I realized that when I was growing up I literally didn’t know that I had a vagina, and I don’t think I was told that I had a heart. This is really indicative of the culture that we live in. To not even know those things about yourself is … this invisible part of ourselves … I’ve chosen to try to make the invisible visible.”

Though Diamant admits to being quite shocked by humanity and often feeling hopeless, this is her way of giving something back to make change. “I feel, in a very deep way, that we’re in a crucial time in history, and if we don’t change, we are not going to survive. I also realize that I didn’t care that much until I had kids … The culture to me is wrong.”


“Because God created it, the human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve its splendour and its beauty.”
—Pope John Paul II

Perhaps expectedly, Vancouver has connections to notable nude movements. Canada’s oldest nudist organization, The Van Tan Club, was started in Vancouver in 1939, and its founder, Ray Connett, is acknowledged as “The Father of Canadian Nudism.” The World Naked Bike Ride also began in Vancouver, and now occurs in 74 cities around the world. Wreck Beach is one of the oldest and most famous nude beaches in North America, and the patrons have fought many battles to preserve its legacy as a nude beach. Topless women are no longer considered “indecent” and are allowed to go topless in public without fear of arrest. Furthermore, there is a plethora of nude events around the city, from nude barn dances, nude tennis, nude bowling, nude dinners, and even a campsite in Mission specifically for nude camping. Clearly, the naked human body is a phenomenon that unites us all.

//Gurpreet Kambo, news editor
//Graphics by JJ Brewis and Shannon Elliot
//Cover by JJ Brewis

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