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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Naked truths – making a children’s book about bodies

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Who loves the new picture book It Isn’t Rude To Be Nude?

Editors (though most felt their publishers wouldn’t brave taking it on), parents and teachers (who see it as a way to open up conversation) and children (they’re intrigued to see nakedness on the page).

Here illustrator Rosie Haine – who has drawn pictures for clients such as the BBC and Save The Children – talks about slang, older bodies and the ground-breaking images in her first book…

How did It Isn’t Rude To Be Nude come about?

I didn’t wake up one day and decide: “I’m going to write a book about nudity for kids!” But I like mixing skin colours and I doodle naked people when I’m not thinking about anything.

So when I was collaborating on an A to Z book for the Children’s Book Illustration course I did at the Cambridge School of Art and I got the letter “n”, I knew I’d do “Naked” as my page. It got really good feedback from adults, and children loved it – it was their favourite page. They don’t usually see nakedness in books.

I wrote the words as I drew, and in drawing a whole load of naked people I decided that they were on a protest and had a placard saying: “It isn’t rude to be nude!” That became the title.

Lately I have seen a few body-positive books for children pop up, often for older children around puberty. It’s a trend, isn’t it? Hopefully it’s here to stay, and that’s got to be a good thing. It feels quite current.

How old do you imagine readers to be?

The book is sold to ages 3+. So preschool children can understand it. Children are fine about being naked. At age 2 or 3 they prefer it; they naturally strip off. They haven’t yet had a chance to become ashamed of how they look.

This book works for slightly older primary-school children as well. Teachers have said that the book will be useful, when they’re talking about personal and social education, for opening up subjects like puberty and the fact that other people shouldn’t touch your body.

It’s a good way to open up conversation in a light-hearted way. Using humour can make difficult conversations easier.

We put a sticker on the cover that says: “Contains nakedness – and that’s OK!” because, interestingly, older children were worried about opening the book, thinking it was for adults.

It’s amazing to see a line-up of such different bodies – a person of short stature, someone with a prosthetic limb, someone who’s pregnant, plus older people

Usually we get a one-dimensional body type represented. I was conscious of being as diverse as possible. I don’t have access to pictures of non-mainstream people naked, though I would have liked to approach them to life model. I’ve done life drawing and sketched people at the beach, so I know what people look like. The images are all from my imagination, though for a few I used myself to get the pose.

This book comes from lots of things I’ve thought about and studied. Doing an MA in social sciences, I focused on ethnicity and gender. In the late 1990s, when I was in my teens, you’d only see one type of nipple, and there was a permitted body type and colour. It’s better now.

The guy with the six-pack on the back of the book – who bookends a similarly posed woman on the title page – is in the pose of the male gaze you’d traditionally put a woman in. I like doing that with men: I like to draw beautiful men and to play with those traditions, to counter the male gaze. That guy is a bit cheeky. I drew him for fun – I find body builders quite funny.

Also I wanted children to see that you can be older and happy, and to represent older bodies because they’re generally hidden from you as a child.

Friends have told me: “I wasn’t allowed to see my parents naked.” But mine weren’t prudish – they’d often be naked around the house. When I was young I had baths with my brothers.

I wanted to show children normal bodies and that there’s loads of different ways to be and they’re all fine. I don’t want to be prescriptive to readers – I want them to find themselves in the book or relate to it in their own way. The text is purposefully ambiguous about gender: I never use the words girl, boy, man or woman.

Some of your characters have pubic hair, some have no hair on their head – it’s so unusual to see both normalised in a book…

Many men worry about going bald, but there’s also pressure for them to remove their body hair, with young men now shaving their chests. I feel bad for men when they have to suffer all the things we’ve suffered with as women.

One girl I drew with hairy arms. I’m slightly on the furry side and was self-conscious about that. Growing up, my brothers could be as hairy as they liked, but I couldn’t. I remember my grandmother, who was born in 1923, looking back and saying: “I was rather proud of my hairy legs, actually!”

We don’t see women with hair – it’s shocking if they put their arms up and there’s hair there. When I was in my early 20s it was normal to get full Brazilian waxes. I hated that expectation.

In some ways it’s a bit better now. In some ways it’s worse. I’m 37 and I wriggled through just before porn became a big thing, but it did affect people 5 years younger than me. Obviously porn can be fine but it’s an absolute tragedy for young people. It’s a lot of children’s first experience of seeing sex, and that becomes their expectation.

Talk about the language you use. The book features the word vulva and also some slang (“Everyone has a bum”). When you show freckles, tattoos and birth marks, you mention that bodies come in “lots of different colours and markings” – what a great way to put it

The word “marking” is lovely – it’s what animals have, and it’s a positive way to phrase it, as opposed to the negativity of “blemishes” and “imperfections”. I wanted to represent scars, moles, vitiligo skin colouring, teenagers getting spots, someone with a rash. I have urticarial vasculitis: it looks a bit like eczema and can be covered up, but it’s another thing that makes you look “not right”.

At first I wanted to use casual colloquial terms like willies and boobs, but what’s a similar term for female genitalia? A good, light-hearted word for girls to call their bits – a neutral term without too much baggage – doesn’t exist. It’s either kind of cute, like noo noo; or derogatory, like front bottom, which can make you feel squeamish; or anatomical, like vulva. I was going to use fanny, but female friends weren’t comfortable with that because of its negative connotations. I had long conversations with the editor and thought a lot about it. We didn’t want to use euphemisms.

So I started out with the word vagina. But it’s misused to described the whole of women’s bits, when it doesn’t mean that. You can’t see a vagina, but you can see a vulva. Also the etymology of the word vagina is that it means a sheath, a covering for something else. The word vulva felt more neutral – and it’s correct about what you can see in the picture.

The more I talked to people, the more I realised that people don’t know what a vulva is. They don’t use that term. And often young girls don’t even know they have a vagina. I only learned about it when I was pubescent. So parents should have these conversations with their kids.

What can parents do to encourage their child to feel confident about their body?

Have conversations! Point out that the beauty ideals we’re surrounded by are fake. It’s easy not to realise that. You’re so affected by the society you grew up in. As a teen I spent a lot of time thinking I was weird and that parts of my body were wrong, when actually there is no normal – there’s a narrow thing we’re shown.

Also model it yourself, which is difficult. Try to overcome your own body complexes, which many parents end up handing down to their children. Try to seek out pictures of normal people and have conversations about them.

Explain to your child that their self-worth shouldn’t be based on what they look like. With my young niece and nephews, I try to praise them for the things they do, not just for how they look. I do occasionally say: “You look lovely” and “You look so handsome” but I’d rather say: “You’re so creative” and “You’re so clever.”

In stating that your body “belongs to you”, the book ends on a powerful body-safety message

I put that in so parents and teachers can have the conversation about appropriateness – other people shouldn’t ask you take your clothes off, and remember: no one should be touching you – but I don’t want to do all the work for them or be too prescriptive. I’ve gone very subtle with that message on consent.

Really I’m trying to reach the adults as much as the children.

It Isn’t Rude To Be Nude by Rosie Haine is out now (£11.99, Tate)

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