Good question. If you don’t already know, working skyclad is the concept of working without clothing in ritual. As you’ll see below, it’s not the most common option out there.
People often get very nervous about the idea without realising how it actually works in practice. So, in this article, I talk a little bit about some of the reasons it can be a useful practice (or at least a useful question to ask.
A little quick background:
My tradition does not practice skyclad, but I have been skyclad in specific rituals, and I have been in a number of rituals and other settings where some people were skyclad and some people weren’t, so I feel like I’ve got a reasonably good range of experience on the topic.
I’ll also note here I’m also a woman of size. (250 pounds and 5′, to be specific, which puts me well into the category where some people sneer “*Some* people shouldn’t ever go skyclad”) I describe myself to people I’m meeting for the first time as “I come from a long line of European peasants who were very good at surviving famines”, and I realise that my body’s had a bunch of stuff thrown at it that makes it inclined to hold on to reserves for dear life.
I find it hard to blame my metabolism for that, especially when complicated by some past medication choices, and by the more recently diagnosed hypothyroidism. That said, I do my best to take good care of myself, and I don’t think I’m that amazingly unattractive, either. I like and appreciate my body – and as noted below, don’t think hating on my body for doing what it’s designed to do is a good use of my time and energy. I’m going to come back to this one in a bit.
- Some traditions work skyclad.
- Some work robed.
- Some mostly work robed except for specific rituals.
- Some events may be skyclad optional, but in that case it’s up to you.
If you choose not to work skyclad, you should still have other options open to you – you may need to travel a bit further, or in a different direction, but there are plenty of groups out there that work robed.
Covens that work skyclad: One of the things people worry about is working skyclad with a group of strangers. While this can happen (festivals, which I’ll talk about below), it’s really important to remember that in a coven setting, you’re talking about people you know, and generally know pretty well, and have had a chance to get comfortable with, build trust with, and so on. It’s not “Oh, walk into a random room with total strangers, and drop your clothes.”
Generally, covens that work skyclad have some way to ease into the experience. One common practice is the idea of the outer court: you work for a while (a year’s pretty common, but it varies) with the group in non-oathbound, robed rituals, and when you initiate, you start attending the skyclad tradition rituals. But by then, you’ve had a chance to get to know people, and feel comfortable with them.
Skyclad in a particular ritual: There are times it pops up for specific rituals: for example, I know of groups where being skyclad is part of the initiation ritual, but isn’t generally practiced at other times. In this case, it’s about enhancing a shift in perspective I’ll talk about in a minute.
Skyclad optional: There are some events where skyclad is optional. On one hand, this can be sort of weird. On the other, it turns out to be a good compromise for some events like festivals where some people may want to be skyclad, some people may want to wear some clothing (but less than they would on, say, a public street – a sarong around the waist and a very skin-revealing top, say) and some people prefer more clothing.
Some festivals, and some rituals offer this – others don’t. Generally, it’s really clear in the information. In the ones I’ve been to, there’s never been any pressure to bare more skin. (Though someone wearing lots of clothing who complains about being hot might get gently teased a little – but mostly ’cause they’re complaining about something they could choose to change.)
The actual experience
In my experience – and pretty much everyone I’ve talked to that has worked skyclad at least a few times – the basic description is “For about the first five minutes, maybe fifteen, it was really really really weird, and I felt very aware of everything, and I was sure people were looking at me and judging me. And then .. we got going with the other stuff we were doing, and it was fine. And later, I wasn’t sure why I’d been so nervous.”
(The other thing about skyclad when everyone is: you’re all in the same boat, so while you’re standing there going “Argh! Nervous!” so is everyone else. And everyone else is going “Oh, she looks so gorgeous! I love her hips, and that curve of her shoulder. But I’m sure everyone else is looking at how flabby I am around the middle, and my hair’s a mess, and ack, I missed a patch shaving, and….” We see beauty in others so much more easily than we do in ourselves, sometimes.)
Obviously, pointing and laughing are really bad things.
Ok, here’s the philosophical reasoning. It’s my theory that part of the ‘witch’ part of religious witchcraft traditions is that you need to know yourself thoroughly, including all the places that make you nervous or stressed or afraid.
The things that scare us have power over us. The things we avoid because we’re scared of them limit our choices. The more we know about why something bothers us – and the more we deconstruct so we know *exactly* what the issue is, the more power we have in our own lives, because we have that much more understanding, and that much more choice about how we respond.
Nudity is a big one for a lot of people – whether that’s for reasons of family upbringing around privacy and modesty, whether that’s because they’re not comfortable with the shape or size or whatever of their body, or whether that’s because they’re trying to figure out how nudity and sexuality interconnect (or if they have to.) And then mingled with that are all the choices about “Do I want to feel this vulnerable around this particular collection of people? And if so, why, and if not, why not?”
That makes nudity a powerful tool in the right setting. There aren’t a whole lot of things that can affect us that deeply in multiple areas of our lives. I therefore think it makes a lot of sense for people to spend a fair bit of time with it. Not with the goal of getting comfortable being skyclad, necessarily, but with the goal of being really clear with themselves what the actual issues are for them, and the times those issues do and don’t apply. (And what might change that, if anything.)
It’s a process that takes time: for a lot of students I’ve worked with, (and for me, actually!) skyclad was very nervous-making initially, but as they got closer to initiation (after a bunch of other work excavating other habitual responses, and getting to know people, and getting used to being vulnerable in a bunch of ways that had nothing to do with clothing), suddenly the clothing part got a lot less scary.
It stops being one big thing by itself: it becomes part of a larger pattern of testing yourself and your choices against the edges of the world, and deciding which answers you, yourself, and no one else, are happy with.
I generally wouldn’t pick skyclad as my top choice (for practical reasons, as much as anything: I much prefer sitting on fabric to sitting on bare floor, for example.) but these days, I’m totally comfortable changing clothing in mixed company (as long as I trust the people there: not random strangers, in other words), I’m comfortable wearing skin-bearing clothes, and I decided when I picked up swimming again that anyone at the Y who didn’t want to look at my body didn’t have to: I was going to wear my swim suit and not swath myself in a towel just to save someone else’s delicate sensibilities, and I’d strip off my suit in the showers like most other people do so I could rinse and spin dry it.
One of the weird things about bodies is that a lot of what we find ‘attractive’ began as what was ‘healthy and able to produce kids’. All sorts of things about hip-waist ratios, symmetrical features, even things like clear skin, or non-gray hair, are all about “Can this person have kids and reasonably expect to raise them to independent adulthood?”
Which is a very lovely thing, and good for the species as a whole.
The problem is a) that’s probably not the *only* measure for beauty we should be using and b) our society has skewed a lot of our ideas about what’s beautiful in directions that either aren’t achievable, are actively unhealthy for most people to aim for, or just plain are a tiny proportion of the options out there. And so, as a society, we spend this absurd amount of time trying to meet those ideals, rather than putting our time and energy in other places. Or simply recognising that there’s a larger range of beauty.
I don’t have easy answers for this: no one does. But I did make the decision, a few years ago, to do a few things.
First, I trust that when my friends, my loved ones, said to me “You’re beautiful”, or “I really like your hair” (which is about 1/3 silver or better these days) or “I really like your curves” to say “Thank you”, and not try and hide them. To decide how I wanted to live my life and walk in the world, and do it with confidence, rather than constantly feel like I had to defend myself or how I looked. And to focus on what I like about myself (while being aware of long-term goals around well-being and health). Seems like a better option than being self-conscious or even miserable all the time – and I get to use my brain for other stuff this way.
Who gets an opinion? A lover, a partner, a spouse gets some say in my book – but I tend to presume that if they’re sticking around, they’re at least okay with it, and there’s probably some stuff they like very much.
But anyone else? How much their opinion counts is … not very much. Lots of people have their own hangups about how they look, and because *they’re* insecure about those stretchmarks, or their shape, or their hair, or their skin, or whatever, they pass it on to everyone around them. I decided that I wasn’t interested in playing that game. I do talk body stuff with close friends – but we do it in a way that gets us thinking about new things. Means I pick and choose who I do that conversation with – but really, that’s true of other topics, too, so not a big deal.
My favorite one from this year? A dear friend who commented that for her, the curve from the lower back to the butt is one of the sexiest things in the female body for her, and how much she admired mine. *Never* one I’d thought about, and now I can’t stop from grinning in my head over it every time I get a glimpse of that curve in a mirror or window.
Questions worth thinking about:
What does clothing mean to you? Does it help shape your identity? If you didn’t use clothing to do that (i.e. you were wearing something very generic and basic), what would you do instead to feel like you?
How is your relationship with your body? Discomfort uses up a lot of energy that you might rather use for other things. What would it take to see your body as beautiful, as it is now? (not in some mythical time when you lost weight, gained weight, had better visible muscles, whatever.) What do you like about your body? (One particularly powerful exercise is below.)
If you’re comfortable being naked with some people, and not with others, what’s the difference? For example, what’s the difference between being naked in front of your partner or spouse, and being naked in front of a good friend? What changes if you have the choice in who sees you like that?
How do nakedness and sexuality link for you? For a lot of people, they’re very closely linked, in part because the only time we often see other naked people is when sexual interaction of some kind is in the picture. But what happens if you deliberate stretch that link – wearing a swimsuit in public, showering in a gender-specific shower, at the gym, or changing with friends without worrying about what you show, or being naked with a partner at times when sex isn’t the immediate future?
How does being naked make you feel vulnerable? For some people, it’s because they lose part of their identity (clothing = presentation to the world.) For some people, it’s because all nudity is sexual, and they haven’t or don’t know how to untangle that for themselves. Sometimes it’s because they don’t like their body, and are sure that everyone’s laughing at them.
Times to take things extra slowly:
For some people, concerns about nudity are tied up with past abuse of various kinds, which is an area to approach very gently. That said, I do know quite a few people who’ve worked through these issues given time and reliable support. (It does take time and energy and attention, though, so it’s not always something that makes sense to do at a particular moment in your life.)
For people who are transgender, or for anyone who deeply feels that their body and their internal image of themselves are miles apart, there are also some specific challenges. Again, working through these with someone who can help you sort through the different parts of what’s going on can be helpful. (And, obviously, being thoughtful about whether skyclad situations are a good fit for you at a particular point in your life. Which, really, is true for everyone.)
If you want to try and get more comfortable with your body, you can try this exercise. (Only requires you and ideally a mirror.)
- Stand in front of the mirror if you can. Naked. (You don’t need to do it when anyone else is around if you’d rather not.)
- Look at yourself. Closely.
- Name at least 3 things you like about your body. It’s okay to start small, or to start with something like your eyes or your hair if that’s easier for you.
- Repeat. Every day for a week, if you can, but as often as possible if you can’t. Try not to repeat stuff (though you can repeat a part of your body.) Try going a month if you’ve done a week.
- Don’t just use your eyes: think about how you take in information (Do you love your sense of taste or smell? Do you really appreciate music? Do you love running fingers over velvet or silk?)
As a related exercise – when you’re out in public, look around, and see if you can think of something really beautiful about the people you’re looking at. Just one thing per person. (Just don’t be creepy about it: staring puts people off.)
And if you hear your friends putting themselves down because of what they look like – well, there’s a lot of resources out there about stopping fat talk.
There are a couple of great books out there that get rave reviews for helping people look at body issues. Two Pagan-focused titles are Dianne Sylvan’s The Body Sacred (I’ve known Sylvan online for years) and Yasmine Galenorn’s Crafting the Body Divine. They take some different approaches, but both give some great ideas on getting more in tune with your body.
People trying to get in touch with joyful movement often love Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers, an approach to moving meditation that’s all about finding how your body wants to move.
I’ve also collected some starting resources about the ideas of health at every size and size-acceptance. They’re on a separate page, mostly for length reasons, but also so that people who want to take things slowly can.
[last edited October 28, 2011]