Maud Styles is having a good morning. Fresh from a win at bingo, the 90-year-old is en route to catching up with her daughter. You’d be forgiven for thinking the rest of her day would be low-key, punctuated by nothing more strenuous than lunch, a nap and afternoon telly. But this nonagenarian has other plans. Today, she’s indulging in her favourite pastime – nudism.
Both regular visitors to a nudist club in NSW’s Watagan Mountains, Maud and her daughter, Beth, 60, like nothing better than to strip off and enjoy their own piece of paradise.
“It’s so beautiful there,” Maud reflects. “Being naked is natural. The world would be a better place if we didn’t have to wear clothes.”
“Honestly, what’s the matter with people?” she said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s because I’m old.”
As a society, we’ve bought the message that sexuality is only for the young, says Professor Rhonda Nay, an ageing specialist at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “There are many myths surrounding sexuality and older people,” she explains. “Those who appear sexual face labels such as ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ or ‘dirty old man’.”
Just ask Cher. At the MTV Video Music Awards held in LA in September, she reprised the look she made famous in her 1989 video for ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ – sheer, high-cut and bejewelled all over. She was making a point in good humour, but rather than being applauded for her toned physique, the general consensus was that, at 64, the rock goddess had passed her sell-by date.
Sharon Stone seems similarly reluctant to act her age. The actor posed topless for French magazine Paris Match earlier this year, with the coverline: “J’ai 50 ans, et alors!” – “I’m 50 years old, so what!”
According to Nay, it’s time we faced the facts and stopped perpetuating the myth that old age and sexuality should be mutually exclusive. After all, a study of women aged 80-102 has shown that 25 per cent have regular sexual partners, while nearly three quarters admitted to having sexual fantasies.
Describing herself as happy in her own skin, lifelong nudist Beth Styles is proud of the way she looks and is in no hurry to cover up. “I’m lucky I have no memory of ever feeling that my body was something I had to hide away with shame,” she says.
Her mother is similarly confident. The only hint of a hang-up comes with a joke that she still has her “baby belly” from Beth’s 1950 arrival. Her looks belie her age, as does her attitude to the lifestyle she credits with keeping her healthy. “It’s the nudist club and my garlic tablets that keep me alive,” she laughs.
Of course, the Styles’ outlook isn’t typical.
As the years pass, many women find themselves increasingly at conflict with their bodies. We linger that bit longer in front of the mirror, debating whether or not we can pull off the LBD for this year’s Christmas party. Do we have the legs to do shorts this summer? Is it time to cover up our arms now they’re a little less taut and a bit more tuckshop?
It’s not something that worries Gayle Blackmore. A civil celebrant from Croydon, Victoria, she remembers being caught by the police after skinny-dipping with her teenage mates in the ’70s. “We were called ‘silly little girls’ and told not to do it again,” she laughs.
Now 56, Blackmore continues to defy that police warning, still spending lazy summer days on a nudist beach with nothing more than a good book and SPF 30 for cover.
“I embraced everything about women’s lib and had great respect for Germaine Greer.
I remember going down to Sandringham Beach in the early ’70s. Lots of people were topless, and I was one of them. It was a liberating time for women in Australia. I went without a bra for many years – in fact, I married my second husband, in 1980, bra-less.”
Four decades on, Blackmore says she feels just as sexy now as she did as a teenager, but believes we’ve become more conservative as a nation. “But age isn’t an issue for me and nothing is going to stop me from baring all.”
Sydney’s Bondi Beach has seen its fair share of fleshy flash-points over the years. According to a newspaper report in 1945, an unnamed bikini-clad woman “caused a near riot” after parading along the promenade. She was charged with offensive behaviour and for being in breach of a local government Act that forbade two-piece swimwear.
That was one incident of many in the following decades. “Over a long weekend in 1961, more than 50 women were ordered from the beach because their swimsuits didn’t conform to regulations,” says Waverley Council historian Kimberly O’Sullivan.
Throughout the spring and summer of that year, there were so many similar ‘disruptions’, including arrests for indecency, the media dubbed it ‘The Bikini War’.
Even today, the controversy continues.
In 2008, Christian Democratic Party leader Reverend Fred Nile campaigned to have topless bathing banned on NSW beaches.
Despite his claims that people were offended by the practice and it was “a matter of having community standards”, Nile’s campaign was unsuccessful. Two years on, he’s even more committed to his boob ban, which he says will be part of his pledges in the NSW state elections next March.
“I feel stronger about it now than I did then,” says Nile. “It goes against our Christian values and is disrespectful of the families who use that beach. As far as older women are concerned, they should have more sense and be more discreet for the obvious reason that their bodies aren’t in as good shape.”
Nile has a point, says Sally Hall, a 55-year-old mothercraft nurse from Arncliffe, NSW. “Through my business, Cradle2kindy.com.au, I’ve seen thousands of bare boobs and, quite frankly, it’s the last thing I want to see when I’m relaxing on the beach.”
As a teenage hippie, Hall wore the least clothing possible herself, and was a topless bather on Cottesloe Beach in her native Perth.
But a religious epiphany at 22 changed her views and heralded a more modest way of life.
“I think ladies of a certain age have a responsibility to cover up in public. People are still shocked to see women breast-feeding, so I think older women ought to be more thoughtful of others before stripping off.”
For Maud and Beth, and their fellow nudist Blackmore, the idea of staying permanently clothed as they age rankles.
“Is there an age we should cover up?
God, no!” says Blackmore. “Why should any woman, at any age, cover up? You still feel the same inside as you did in your 20s.”
SHOULD WOMEN COVER UP?
Maud: “No, you shouldn’t have to. I think the world would be a better place if people didn’t have to wear clothes. Being naked is natural.”
Sally: “In public places, yes, women should cover up. Blatantly putting your sexuality out there is dangerous. If you guard the eyes, you guard the soul.”
Beth: “Absolutely not. In an ideal world, I’d like to go to the supermarket and do my grocery shopping with nothing on.”
Australian Nudist Federation spokesperson: “If a lady of any age decides to go topless or nude, good on them. It’s her choice, her body and no one should be able to tell her what she can or can’t do with the way she presents herself.”
Rev Fred Nile: “Yes, keep your nudity for the bathroom, ladies.”