Since Martin Belcher, a 50-year-old customer-services adviser based in the U.K., joined Twitter in 2012, he’s tweeted out thousands of naked photos of himself hiking, gardening, reading, eating, and watering his lawn. His nearly 3,000 followers respond by favoriting, retweeting, and frequently sharing nude photos of their own.
Belcher isn’t a porn star or spam account sharing unsolicited photographs of his penis—he’s part of the thriving community of nudists on Twitter who have flocked to the platform after most others have made a policy of censoring or banning images of naked bodies. Nudists on Facebook have had their profiles suspended after failing to properly crop or censor their photos. On Instagram, they’ve been penalized for showing female nipples or too much pubic hair. Tumblr allows NSFW (Not Safe for Work) content, but nudists say the platform is so overrun with spam that it’s unusable.
Meanwhile, two of the very things that have made Twitter toxic for many people—its maximalist commitment to free speech and its lack of enforcement of real names—have also, strangely, made it the best place to be a nudist on the internet.
“Twitter is the main community for nudists,” Belcher says. “Most nudists use Twitter as their primary social network because we can post our photos and it’s a gathering place to make friends.” Belcher estimates that tens of thousands of nudists are active on Twitter, if not more.
“It seems like every nudist club, resort, or local nudist group all over the world has representation on Twitter,” says Matthew McDermott, a 44-year-old nudist and author from outside of Toronto. “Before Twitter, there were forums and a couple of websites still that were billed as nudist social media, but they get infiltrated quite heavily by spam ... They need to be kept free from bots and people who are just looking for pictures or to steal photos.”
While Twitter’s terms of service bans graphic nudity in your header or avatar, it’s perfectly fine to share images and videos containing “full or partial nudity including close-ups of genitals, buttocks, or breasts,” which many nudists do, along with articles on nudism and body acceptance.
Many use their real names, but most don’t, Belcher said. Unlike Facebook, which takes pains to link users’ profiles with their real-life identities, Twitter is a safe place for people who may not be out to friends and family.
“Nudism historically has a shame element,” Belcher says. “A lot of people are secretive about it. They don’t say to friends and family that they are a nudist because they’re afraid of being judged.”
Belcher and his fellow nudists are frustrated by how frequently online networks lump them in with sexualized content. In fact, the biggest thing they want “textiles”—those who lived in the clothed world—to know is that true nudism is about being comfortable in your own skin and accepting all human bodies.
“Nudism and naturism are about being one with nature. It’s caring for Mother Earth and treating her with respect as well as viewing our bodies positively and viewing our bodies as a gift, a miracle,” says Jonathan Meek, a 35-year-old nudist in Ohio. “There is nothing sexual about naturists and nudists wanting to be nude.” On Twitter, the community self-polices, and if someone is deemed spammy or overly exhibitionist, most nudists will ignore them.
Matt Crawford, a 37-year-old nudist in Iowa, says it took him several years to come out as fully nudist on Twitter. When he initially signed up in 2009 and began posting naked photos of himself, people in his community reacted poorly. “A few years ago I just started posting more openly,” he says. “Twitter is more open to this stuff. The other nudists here are really supportive and open.”
Of course, no corner of the internet is completely free of toxicity. Female nudists, in particular, deal with an outsize portion of spam and harassment. “Although this is my nudist/bodypositive/sexuality account, I will check all my new followers. If it looks like all you do is collect porn, or I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll block,” Sophie Rolstad, a young female nudist in Romania, recently announced on Twitter.
And Twitter has a history of sudden policy changes that make many nudists worried.
Eric, a 50-year-old Floridian who goes by the pseudonym “LegalizeNaked” online, says that he would be extremely disappointed if Twitter were to tighten its restrictions on nudity because nudists would have nowhere to network and make friends. “I’m constantly hearing about people [in the community] putting up an innocuous post and Facebook censors it,” he says, adding that more tech companies should take nonsexual nudity into account when writing their guidelines.
“I’d prefer that sexual and nonsexual nudity could be differentiated,” McDermott says. “I wouldn’t have a problem if they wanted to remove sexual content ... But it’s sort of inevitable that any major platform will eventually block all nudity.”
Until that happens, nudists say that they plan to continue using the platform for as long as they can. Several nudists have launched hashtag campaigns to bring awareness to nudism. Most of all, they hope that they can show fellow Twitter users that they’re just normal people.
“The nudist lifestyle isn’t about showing off,” Crawford says. “It’s about being comfortable in your own skin. When I’m at home I do a lot of things people do with clothes, I just do them without clothes. I wash dishes, do laundry, work on this project or that project. It’s a completely natural thing.”