Skin of Years: Nudism and the Aging Body

Skin of Years is an interdisciplinary project examining the practice of social nudism among senior citizens, conceived and conducted by Texas Tech University faculty members Ghislaine Fremaux (Assistant Professor of Art, Painting) and Jean Pearson Scott, PhD (gerontologist and Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences). Engaging gerontology, social science, critical theory, and visual art, the project will culminate in a body of artwork, traveling exhibition, and scholarly text.

The aging body is largely invisible in American culture, seemingly disqualified from problems of the gaze. Renounced by putative models of beauty so essentially reliant upon trappings of ability and youth, the elderly, post hoc, are presumed asexual and post-body-image. Within this conceit, the aging body can be conscious only of its functionality (e.g., the capacity to see, stand, sleep). Thus, consumer culture's three meters of bodily value — beauty, utility (work and labor), and sexual viability — cannot fathom the elderly body, and dismiss it as immaterial and strangely unreckonable.

Skin of Years: Nudism and the Aging Body will illuminate the aging body and its relationship to beauty, problems of the philosophical subject and object, empowerment, health, and self within nudism. We will sojourn at a social nudism commune/resort in southern Texas in June of 2016. There we will dialogue with ten nudists of age sixty and older, with an interest in diversity along lines of race, class, and gender in the sample group. Employing qualitative methodologies, we will query participants' experience of aging and nudism via semi-structured interviews. Informed by Scott's research on the relationships, spirituality, and quality of life of the elderly, interview questions will address such notions as shame, self-esteem, and health and wellness within the practice of nudism. Recording these interviews via digital technology, Fremaux and Scott will later co-author an essay conflating participants' personal testimony with gerontological research and philosophical and sociological theorizations on nudism, such as Ruth Barcan's 2001 text, The Moral Bath of Unconsciousness: Female Nudism, Bodily Exposure and the Gaze.

The interviews will edify Fremaux in the execution of a series of drawings of participants, taking as their foci bodily carriage, gaze, and physiognomy. Fremaux will dialogue with participants regarding their portrayal, inquiring as to how they 'see' themselves and what they value in their imaged likeness. Participants will be photographed, themselves electing the locality (e.g., a specific outdoor or interior space) and the bodily poses assumed. Starkly distinct from the objectifying convention of "the nude", our interest lies in the phenomenological dimensions of nudism. This dialogic stage in the artwork's development inscribes the resultant portrait with the participant's own 'voice'. The photographs will then be employed only as "reference imagery", from which Fremaux will develop the drawings in her Lubbock studio. The work's materiality — dry chalk upon paper slight as a fingernail, which "sweats" with floods of high-gloss resin — will be redolent of the living body that so yields to age. In amplified color and scale, at heights of seven to ten feet, the invisible body of the aging person will be made patently visible.

In the contemporary sociopolitical milieu, promoting body positivity, intersectionality, and circumspect engagement with disability and identity politics, we believe the aging body to be of immense import — yet, rarely included in these discourses. Skin of Years: Nudism and the Aging Body will be a dignifying and humanist treatise on aging, embodiment, and nakedness.