In the last couple of weeks there has been some discussion on Patheos Pagan related to the merits of going skyclad in our rites. For the adherents of other Pagan paths, this whole argument might seem a little silly, but from Gerald Gardner onwards, this is has been a defining aspect of Wiccan practice. From Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess:
“And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.”
Many Wiccan covens maintain the skyclad requirement as a hard-and-fast rule, to the extent of refusing membership to anyone who does not wish to comply. I won’t deny that there’s some sense in this – for a coven that typically practices naked, having a newcomer insist on wearing clothes would create a barrier that runs contrary to the nature of coven life.
I have a lot of sympathy, being a coven leader myself, with someone who is put in the position of having to decide whether to admit a new person who doesn’t wish to go skyclad. We all have a tendency to create our understanding of the world in general relative to our own experiences in it. Nakedness is difficult for most of us, at least at first, so if I can get over it, why can’t you?
Herein lies the rub. If I’m a middle-class cisgendered white woman with no disabilities and no significant body image issues, it will still require a leap of faith to go skyclad. I potentially will have a lot to gain in terms of self-confidence and in closeness with my covenmates.
But what if I’m not a cisgendered middle-class white woman with no disabilities and no significant body issues?
What if I have a body image issue that makes it emotionally extremely painful to even look at my own naked body, let alone have someone else see me naked? I might have spent years being body-shamed for being fat, let’s say. Surely the experience of being skyclad and accepted for who and what I am would be an affirming, healing experience?
What if I have scarring from an old injury? Wouldn’t that be healing too? But what if the scarring is from an attack that left me with substantial post-traumatic stress issues?
What if I’m transgendered, and have genitalia that doesn’t match my gender and the thought of displaying that wrongness, even to myself, is abhorrent to me?
What if I’m a rape survivor in a coven with one or more members that resemble my rapist, where seeing them naked would be terrifying to me, even if I’m otherwise OK with being skyclad myself?
What if I have a partner who is uncomfortable with me being naked around anyone but them?
What if I’m agoraphobic? Agoraphobia is not, as often described, a fear of open spaces, or even a fear of large groups of people, as-such. It is really a fear response consequential to feeling exposed. Many agoraphobes have good days and bad days. What if I’m agoraphobic, and can deal with being naked around other people some of the time, but not if I’m otherwise stressed?
Ultimately, what I’m getting at here is that the barrier to any specific person going skyclad is extremely inconsistent. I can’t extrapolate my experiences to predict how you will respond, nor can you make any kind of guess about how hard it will be for me. And ye shall be free from slavery. People are enslaved primarily by their own fear, only rarely by external coercion. Am I really helping someone be free by forcing them to confront their fear every time they circle with my coven? Sometimes, the answer is yes, sometimes no. I would argue that it’s not my place to make that choice for someone else.
One might argue that it is not unkind to turn someone away who doesn’t wish to go skyclad because there are always other covens without that requirement. But let’s consider a horrible thought experiment – what if a long-term coven member is attacked and left with PTSD that makes it too emotionally painful for them to continue to go skyclad? Do I have the right to inflict yet more pain on them by throwing them out of their own coven family, out of their religious practice? What kind of priest would I be if I failed them so badly in my ministry? Wouldn’t this really just be blaming and shaming the victim, rather than having the guts to confront the unexamined consequences of my own practices? Let’s say I decided to allow them to remain clothed – what would making a special exception for them mean for my own integrity?
In our coven, Circle of Cerridwen, our initiation rites closely follow the Alexandrian/Gardnerian approach, but we don’t require that either an aspirant or anyone else in the circle be naked. I’ve never really asked the question explicitly, but I suspect that at least three of our members wouldn’t be members if we had a skyclad requirement, and I for one wouldn’t wish to miss those people for the world.
There is one, simple, magic word at work here: consent. One might elaborate that a little further and say that informed consent is really what we should strive for. Being naked in the same space as someone else is, at least potentially, a sexual act in and of itself, and all sexual acts require consent. When someone wishes to become involved in a practice that is inherently secretive, consent is only meaningful if the person giving consent is sufficiently well informed to make the choice.
I don’t remember now who coined the term, but we typically jokingly call the alternative going groundclad. It works fine for us. We’re an Earth-based religion – why are we so obsessed with being clad by the sky anyway?