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Gymnophobics are real-life 'never-nudes'


Of the many wonderfully nonsensical things the TV show “Arrested Development” has introduced us to – the mayonegg, hot ham water, each family member’s interpretation of the chicken dance – one of the most notable is the "never-nude".

On the show, which returns May 26 for a much-anticipated fourth season on Netflix, psychotherapist-turned-actor Tobias Funke suffers from the psychological condition and is pathologically afraid of being naked. He wears denim cut-offs at all times, even in the shower.  

But it's not just a made-up quirk played for laughs. There really are people with a crippling fear of nudity, a condition called gymnophobia.

“There are people who are not comfortable being naked in front of other people — and there are other people who are not comfortable looking at themselves naked,” said Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of “The Anti-Anxiety Workbook.”

People can develop phobias – an extreme, irrational fear that negatively impacts a person’s ability to lead a normal life – of just about anything. There are the common phobias like arachnophobia or claustrophobia, but there’s also coulrophobia (fear of clowns), nomophobia (fear of being out of cellphone service) and sesquipedalophobia (fear of long words).

Phobias often develop after a negative experience. A gymnophobic may have been bullied while changing in the middle school locker room, for example. Most people who are afraid of nudity suffer from other anxiety disorders and body image problems.

Some people who are afraid of being naked suffer from eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder, a mental condition where people believe they are ugly or fat or imperfect when there is little truth to it. People with this disorder often obsess over their appearance, hiding their bodies from themselves or others. Others could simply feel they do not measure up to media images of beautiful bodies and feel nervous about showing off their bodies.

“[It’s] more a general anxiety of their own body image as a comparative basis. We are an increasingly obese nation so the comparison could be stressful, anxiety producing, negative for one’s self-concept and could affect one’s own willingness to expose one’s self in privacy in a relationship,” said Frank Farley, a professor psychology at Temple University.

Also, people with extreme forms of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can sometimes feel uncomfortable about being naked in front of other people, due to the intrusive, compulsive thoughts that accompany the condition.

Experts say they would treat a nudity phobia like other phobias, such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia. They encourage exposure to the feared item in a safe, controlled way. If someone were afraid of being naked in front of a partner, Antony would recommend that the patient try wearing only underwear (cut-offs -- Funke's cover-up of choice --  are also acceptable) and work his or her way to full nudity. Antony also says that therapists would work on cognitive modification, changing the way someone thinks about their own nudity. 

“Most people are not ‘never-nudes,’ but they are ‘not-usually-nudes.’ A lot of people would feel somewhat self-conscious about being naked,” Antony said.

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