Outdoor athlete and contributing editor Gloria Liu very much wanted to be one those people with the confidence and carefree spirit to occasionally hike, bike, or ski in the nude. Unfortunately, the decade-old memory of an uncomfortable event at a backcountry hot spring kept her clinging to her knickers. So, like any good competitor, Liu underwent a three-step training plan designed to get her comfortable playing in her natural state while in the woods—not to mention grant her all the scientifically proven benefits of recreating in the buff.
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Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Maren Larsen (host): From Outside magazine, this is the Outside podcast.
Gloria Liu: like I was talking to, you know, my boyfriend Dan one morning and he was telling me about a time that he had modeled nude for a story in his college newspaper. And I was dying, laughing, and I just thought, like, damn it, you know, like I don't have any stories like this on my own and I just blurted it out.
Wait, what, what if I tried to become one of those naked people?
And he kind of gives me, gives me this look and he just, he just immediately, like, muttered under his breath, like, oh my God. Cause I think he knew I was serious.
Maren: This is Gloria Liu, freelance writer, former editor at Outside magazine, all around outdoors person, and, until recently, definitively NOT one of those naked people.
That was, until she took on an assignment for the May-June print edition of Outside. The resulting feature story about her quest to, as she put it, "become someone who does naked stuff outside," offers an insightful and rather unexpected take on what going au naturale in the outdoors does for us.
You may well already have a sense of the allure here ... maybe you have some experience with night time skinny dipping, or maybe you've been a bit bolder. The truth is, lots of people enjoy disrobing in the open air: a fact Gloria was very aware of when she began her reporting.
Gloria: So for example, my boyfriend Dan has skied Tuckerman's Ravine. That's a famous backcountry ski route in the Northeast. He's done it naked. I have a good girlfriends who have done full moon naked mountain bike rides.I was once on a backcountry skiing trip where some friends of mine got naked and skied off the roof. So, outdoor nudity has kind of always been around me, but it's never been something I have participated in.
And I always had the same feeling, which is that I'm watching something happen from the sidelines and there's this really fun experience that other people are having and I'm not having it.
I always felt like you have to have just so much confidence and this literal comfort in your own skin to take your clothes off in front of other people and do something sporty.
And the fact that I was uncomfortable with that I had always kind of made me wonder if maybe something about me was just wound too tight and I needed to learn to, you know, loosen up and let go a little bit so that I could have these kinds of experiences too.
Maren: And so, like any good journalist-slash-endurance athlete, Gloria, with some help from her boyfriend Dan, came up with a training plan to build her up to stripping down.
Gloria: I obviously have been kind of a prude my entire life, so we're not going to undo that overnight. So he was like, you should kind of, like, ease into it. And I was like, yeah, I should, like, design a training plan, you know, where I progress from something like a beginner exercise and then, you know, something that's intermediate, and then I should have some black diamond graduation exercise that's like the pinnacle of outdoor nudity.
Maren: Before we get into the details of Gloria's plan, you need to hear the naked truth of why she was so afraid to bare it all. Because while she might have been a prude since childhood, there was an especially uncomfortable moment in her past that ever since has made her cling to her knickers.
I think that an important part of the backstory is this, like, super traumatic experience you had in this hot spring. Can you tell me that story?
This is really important context because the truth actually is that it's yeah. It's not entirely true that I had never tried to be naked outdoors. I did try it once.
So about 10 or 12 years ago,some friends and I did a backpacking trip out to some hot Springs outside of Aspen and like many backcountry hot Springs, these are clothing optional, So, we hiked in camped and then the next morning we were going to soak before we walked out. And I don't really know what got into me, but I think I got this wild hair and I tried to convince everybody that we should soak naked, right? I was, like, practical about it. I was like, if we do this, we don't have to pack our wet clothes out and we have an 11 mile hike out.
So I took all my clothes off and I get in and then my friends come up and nobody else gets naked and everyone just gets into the hot spring and their bathing suits. And I'm literally the only person who's naked.
Maren: Oh my God.
Gloria: And these Springs are just pristine. Okay. They're beautiful. They are as clear as glass.
Maren: Oh my God!
Gloria: So I'm just sitting there completely nude under these, these beautiful crystal clear waters. And I'm just folding my arms in front of me trying to stay covered. And it was excruciating.
And I never got naked, uh, in public again, for understandable reasons
Maren: Yeah, that is like such a nightmare scenario.
Gloria: It's literally a common nightmare. I mean, people dream all the time that you're like in the classroom and you stand up and you're naked. Everybody else's clothed and that's exactly what happened to me, except I was above tree line in a beautiful Alpine environment.
Maren: Almost all of Gloria's trepidation around joining her friends on a naked mountain bike ride or a naked backcountry ski tour traces back to this one experience, which is literally the stuff of nightmares. Thinking about it now, she still feels betrayed.
Gloria: It is, looking back on it, fairly inconsiderate, I would say, that the people I was with didn't just see me in this vulnerable situation and strip. Cause I think I would have done that. I think I would've been like, wow, you know what? I'm going to get naked with you so you don't have to be all alone and uncomfortable like this.
Maren: Yeah. It's like, it's like a basic empathy thing.
Gloria: Totally. So I guess PSA to anybody who's listening: if this ever happens to you and you end up in some sort of miscommunication when your friend gets naked and now they're the only one you should probably just get naked with them.
Maren: This brings us to one of the important things Gloria learned about nudity early on in her reporting: feeling naked isn't really about the clothes you're not wearing, but about how the people around you are making you feel. As Gloria dug into research on the benefits of being naked in non-sexual settings, she found that much of it was attributed to a researcher from England.
Gloria: His name's Keon West, and he's an expert in social psychology at the University of Goldsmiths in London. so I called him up and we had a really interesting conversation about what he had learned.
Dr. Keon West: I'm Dr. Keon West. I investigate a lot of things.quite a lot of it is group based interaction, intergroup issues. but recently I've also had an interest in things like body image and nudity and what this does to our sense of ourselves.
How we dress is dependent on where we are and the social setting that we happen to be in. So you wouldn't wear the same clothes to church as to the beach. And if you tried to do that, it wouldn't work in either situation. You would look ridiculous at church, you would look ridiculous on the beach and that's okay. It's fine. And as a culture, we decide what's appropriate when, and if you've carved out a space where naked is sometimes what's appropriate, then that's fine too.
A lot of people go to nude beaches clothed, and then feel uncomfortable because everyone else is naked and they're wearing, they're wearing clothes and they stand out and people look at them a bit funny or are a bit suspicious.
Dr. West: There's not so much an appropriate level of clothing, as much as an appropriate level of clothing for a situation.
Maren: This makes total sense: we are often more comfortable when we feel like we fit in the people around us. Apply that to Gloria's hot springs incident, and we understand that the awkwardness wasn't really about her being naked; it was because all her friends had decided that this was supposed to be a clothes-on situation.
But Dr. West's most compelling ideas come from a series of studies that demonstrated how nudity, in situations where it is safe and acceptable, can actually have huge positive effects on us.
Gloria: Being naked in non-sexual settings, in front of what he calls, quote unquote, non intimate others or people who aren't your intimate partner,has really positive effects on your mental health and wellbeing and your body image.
And a lot of it comes down to this idea that a lot of us aren't happy with our bodies. you know, there's always some things we don't like, right? Like, you know, this part's too round, or I don't like these scars or like these wrinkles.
a lot of that feeling comes from the exposure to what he calls idealized bodies, which are, you know, all the bodies that we see in the media, right? Like models, Instagram influencers, actors on TV. These people have bodies that don't look like most people's bodies and we end up naturally comparing ourselves to these images.
Gloria: And of course we come up short because most of us aren't supermodels and most of us aren't walking around airbrushed. So, what he found was that seeing real bodies really counteracted the effects of seeing all these idealized bodies and the really interesting thing was that it really didn't take a lot. In his studies, people saw like immediate uplift in their body image and thus their mental health and their general sense of wellbeing from just one experience being nude in front of others in a safe space that was not sexual.
Maren: Dr. West clarifies that this doesn't mean we should all just drop trau and get out there. But he does believe that, in the proper social and cultural context, being naked in the outdoors around other people can do wonders for how you think about your body.
Dr. West: I wouldn't say that everyone should, should run around naked in public, I suppose, much in the same way that someone from a relatively conservative Muslim country would not suggest that every woman should experience the freedom of having her hair blowing through the wind out in public. because it doesn't fit with your culture or your morality or your desire. So that's a caveat.
but having said that many people are not restrained by that. If you are restrained by the worry that people will look at your jiggly bits and laugh at you, or that people will think that you're ugly or that you won't feel attractive or that you wont feel interesting, that is a real shame because the research shows that you're not correct about that.
Or at least you're vastly underestimating how good you look and vastly underestimating how nicely people will respond to your body. So if that is your concern, then I would say, I'd encourage everyone to do this.
Maren: Armed with that advice, Gloria was ready to launch her three-step naturist training plan and go full Monty.
Gloria: You guys are here with me walking a trail in february about to be naked.
Maren: That's coming up after the break.
Maren: After a dozen years of sitting on the sidelines while her friends exuberantly reveled in their nakedness outdoors, Gloria Liu was on a mission to join in on the naturist fun. Phase one of her training plan would ease her into nudity in a controlled but welcoming environment, and she planned to record audio diary entries as she went along.
Gloria: My boyfriend, Dan, knew about a clothing-optional hot spring, I guess you could call it a resort. It's called Valley View Hot Springs, and it's in Southern Colorado, outside of a town called Alamosa.
Field Tape: (Gloria) Oh, this is the main pool.
(Dan) Oh, well this is, these are like the trails.
(Gloria) Oh, oh.
(Dan) And then most of them, there's more up there.
(Gloria) Which way should we go?
(Dan) We can go find a place for like, our stuff, and then we can walk down with towels—
Gloria: He was like, okay, that should be kind of where we start out because it's a place where not wearing clothes is sanctioned and it's like a safe, comfortable place. So we decided that my beginner exercise would be to just soak in a hot spring nude, you know, with other people.
Field Tape: (Gloria) Oh, “please no electronic devices.”
Gloria: So we walked a mile long trail up to this pool, which is the highest pool at the hot Springs. And it's really beautiful when we get up. Very natural. And inside the pool are five people, two couples, and another guy, and everybody is naked.
And I thought I was going to feel more fear or trepidation, but I really didn't honestly feel much of anything at all. I just kind of saw that everyone was naked and I thought, okay, well, it honestly would be stranger for me to get in at this point, not naked.
So, I just took my towel off, put it on the bench and got in. And nobody even looked at us or registered that anything had happened, which just made it seem so normal and okay. And we just slipped into the water. And that was it. It was pretty anticlimactic actually.
It was like my first moment where I realized, oh, you know, when you're in a place where everyone has agreed that this is okay, then it's just, it's just normal. It feels normal.
Maren: And did you feel like your experience of, like, being fully naked in a hot spring was, like, in any way better or different or more freeing than, you know, if you had been in the same hot spring and everybody had been wearing swimsuits?
Gloria: Yes. Oh my gosh. It was, it was so much nicer. like I could feel the water coursing over, you know, all of my body, like parts that are usually in a bikini or something, you know, and that was really nice.
And then later when we got out, this is probably the biggest benefit is, you just towel off and you're dry and you're not cold. And I'm so used to getting out of hot tubs and hot Springs with a bathing suit on. So you pretty quickly get very cold and you're wet and you like run inside and you leave water all over the place. And it's just, like, inconvenient, you know? Or you have to like put a white bathing suit into a backpack and figure out how to keep it from getting everything else wet. Like there's just none of that.
Maren: With the beginner phase of her naturist training plan such an immediate and resounding success, Gloria and Dan decided to move on to the next level right away.
Gloria: So we were in the hot spring, we soaked for a while and like I got out and so I have achieved my beginner, green circle, exercise check. Right?
My intermediate exercise would be to graduate, to walking the walkways of this nature sanctuary nude, and apparently they're pretty long walkways. So it was going to be a big jump up. And it's so funny, ‘cause I thought this was going to be something I would do tomorrow, but I was like, wow, the sun is out. I'm dry. I don't want to put my wet towel back around my body. It's cold. So I was like, I'm just going to go ahead and walk this trail right now, naked.
And so I start down the trail and I actually encountered two people on my walk. The first one was a man, and he's probably, I would think in his fifties or so he has gray hair and he's totally naked except for a backpack, and he has hiking boots on and walking sticks and we were both totally naked on this trail in the broad daylight. And we just look at each other and I'm like, hi, you know, and he, he says, hello. And he just like smiles at me and it's, and it's just this momentary interaction, but it was something so gentle and innocent about it.
It just really felt like a moment of real connection between two people.
Field Tape: (Gloria) You know what’s like really crazy?
(Dan) What's that?
(Gloria) We’re like walking butt ass naked …
(Dan) Yeah, say more.
(Gloria) And it feels totally normal.
(Dan) I know.
(Gloria) I feel like I'm wearing clothes. But I guess it makes me realize that like, feeling naked involves being seen.
Gloria: And I keep walking down the trail, a few more minutes and then I see another person coming up the trail. And he's probably in his late twenties, maybe early thirties or so, and he's fully clothed and he's talking on a phone and you're actually not supposed to have phones in this part of the, this part of the sanctuary.
So you know that in and of itself, gave me pause. And then I was like, wow, I'm totally naked. And this guy is wearing all his clothes. Like, should I put my towel around me? You know, like I felt like I suddenly remembered I was naked again. Right. Like the moment when Adam and Eve eat the apple and they realized they were naked, like, I was like, whoa, I'm naked.
And I kind of, I'm nervous, but I'm like, okay, I'm not doing anything wrong. And as I go by him, he, he like puts his phone down and he goes, I'm sorry. You know, I'm still connected to the real world right now.
Without being prompted. Right. Like, and that just kind of restored the balance a little bit. It was just this interaction that like could have really gone another way. Like he could have done something that made me feel uncomfortable, but instead like, if it was a trust fall, like I was caught in the trust fall.
Maren: That moment was the beginning of something for Gloria: the beginning of feeling an effect of being naked in the outdoors that went beyond the body positivity and self confidence that she'd visualized going into this endeavor. That evening, she recorded a conversation with Dan about what she was experiencing.
Field Tape: (Gloria) This like entire day is kind of like renewing my faith in humanity right now. And I just, we're having so many nice interactions with strangers today.
(Dan) Was it that moment?
(Gloria) It was after that. Yeah. That I felt like, huh? Like I'm I feel good about like people from today.
Maren: And it turns out that faith in humanity was something Gloria had been sorely missing.
Gloria: I historically, for almost all of my life have been somebody who I would say is an optimist about human nature and I really think people are fundamentally good. And I love to talk to strangers. But I think in the past couple of years, like many of us, you know, my social circle has gotten smaller.
I just, you know, don't see many people as as many people as I used to. And, also I think something, a lot of people can relate with is, you know, you read really stressful news every day and you read a lot of news that doesn't make you feel good about human nature.
And so, you know, I think I've been discouraged, and a little jaded and kind of misanthropic. And certainly I haven't been talking to strangers, like I used to, And so, yeah, I think I was a little bit in a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy of expecting everyone to annoy me. And so everybody would just annoy me.
So that was kind of the headspace I was in when I arrived at the hot springs. And that was the thing about the entire experience of being nude that really caught me by surprise. Like I thought this was going to be this exercise in overcoming my fear or letting loose or having more fun. And it really ended up being an exercise in faith and it was faith in other people.
There's something about showing up naked and literally as your softest barest self in front of strangers and having them treat you with respect, not sexualizing you or leering at you and, and just having like kind vulnerable interactions with people.
It just really made me feel connected to people and like the conversations we were having were, you know, just so nice, like people were really sincere and we had a lot of interactions like that with people who were like authentic and, and open. It was honestly also the first time in a long time, I just talked to that many strangers and, and having so many nice interactions, it really, yeah, it gave me the sense of having some of my faith restored in humanity.
Maren: Gloria was now ready for the final step in her training—the super advanced black diamond exercise of outdoor nudity. She decided on a naked hike with friends, which she realized early on would be very different than hanging out naked at a clothing-optional hot springs.
Gloria: When we do stuff like naked ski or nade full moon bike ride, it's kind of more like a stunt almost, right. There's something kind of illicit, a thrill about it. You're breaking the rules and that's part of where the fun comes from, I think.
So, my exercise was going to be, uh, a naked hike and as much as some of the fun does come from doing something wrong, my friends and I were pretty clear that we didn't actually want to get caught doing something wrong.So we had a couple of ground rules, one let's not expose ourselves to people who didn't sign up to see us naked.
So we would have to make sure that that didn't happen. And none of us want to get ticketed or arrested by law enforcement for indecent exposure. Because of that, we're like, okay, nighttime hike, for sure.
Field Tape: (Gloria) You guys are here with me walking a trail in february about to be naked.
Maren: So this, this moment, felt so wholesome and full circle to me because you started off basically being betrayed by your friends. And then it ended the whole thing with like your absolute ride or die friends Like they showed up And they were like, yep. If you want to do this, we're going to do this. Did it feel that way to you as well?
Gloria: Oh, my God, honestly, Maren this is literally the first moment that I realized that yes, it did come full circle like that. I honestly hadn't drawn those parallels, but yeah.
Field Tape: (Gloria) Oh my gosh. We're so naked. This is, This is kind of amazing.
(Friend) If you ever need proof that we love you.
Gloria: One thing that I didn't put in the story, but it was true is that along with my general societal, suspicion that I was feeling was, you know, at the time I was feeling kind of alienated from some of my friends too.
I was just kind of having my general doubt about my connection to others at all. And yeah, I ended up having to do this hike because of my deadline. In a pretty short period of time.
And so it was going to have to happen in the winter, in, in Colorado, it's February, it's not going to be warm and it's going to happen at night. Right. So you really, it's not easy to find accomplices first, an activity activity that is this stupid.
Field Tape: (Gloria) How do mountain lions feel about people who already have their clothes removed?
Gloria: And so like finally turned to like this core group of my very close girlfriends, who like me don't really go nude in the outdoors very often. And you know, no questions asked, two of them got back almost right away and were like, I think my, the first message was from one of my friends with just what time and the other one from my other friend was you owe me a Coke, but yeah, I, my friends, Melanie and Kristin were the ones who showed up and. Despite the fact that it made no sense to them at all. They went on a naked night hike with me
Field Tape: (Gloria) Uh, what are the temps right now? Like 40?
Gloria: Melanie and I in particular had been training for this backcountry ski race. So we actually have been spending a lot of time in the cold. And so I think probably inspired by our training. We have came up with a pretty good plan for how we're going to stay warm.
We're like, okay, we're going to wrap ourselves in all of our puffy jackets and we're going to hike uphill really hard, generate a ton of body heat until we're too hot and can't stand it. And then we're going to take off all our clothes then. And our body heat is going to keep us warm if we just keep moving.
And that actually worked. it was shocking, honestly. I mean, we picked a really good night. It was in the low forties, but you know, anybody who has been out at night in the winter in Colorado knows that when the sun has gone low forties is still cold.
Field Tape: (Gloria) All right. Wow. This will also be the first time we see each other naked. Not to be weird about it, but —
Gloria: We're like, okay, uh, should we do this now? We're like, all right. And then we're like, oh, like, do you take your bottoms off first? Or your tops off first?
Field Tape: (Friend) But there's the question, right? Do you go naked up top first or down bottom first?
Gloria: Like, I guess we should do bottoms first because you want to keep your core warm.
Field Tape: (Friend) And gloves hats on still counts, right?
(Gloria) Well you don't want your ears to get cold. I'm keeping my socks on.
(Friend) Just like sex. [laughter]
Gloria: And then as Melanie and I are discussing this and, and then I start trying to take my pants off and I'm like stuck in my pants because my hiking boots are still on and I can't get my pants over it.
And then I look up and my friend Kristen is just butt-naked already. And I was like, oh my gosh, that's going to be me in, you know, a minute. And I better hurry up because I don't want her to stand there naked and get cold all by herself, you know? So, um, so yeah, just did it. Took our clothes off and we're standing there and we're like giggling a lot and it's, it's, it's really silly. Right. And like, we all kind of have that little kid sense of humor where we make vulgar jokes.
Field Tape: (Friend) I forgot I wore the perfect tank top for today.
(Gloria) Oh my God. It reads: Pants? Do you mean leg prisons?
Gloria: And we're just really like dying, laughing and, and yeah, but it was surprisingly, we were, there was very little self-consciousness
Field Tape: (Gloria) I'll go in the front. Don't worry. This is my journey. What does it look like from back there, Mel?
(Friend) It's adorable, Gloria!
Gloria: We were like, wow, we really like, look good.
Field Tape: (Gloria) Not going to lie. We're pretty fucking hot.
(Friend) We are. I know.
(Gloria) You guys, we’re so cute.
Gloria: And then we just started hiking and it was so strange. Like I felt like I was just out for a walk, you know, like I didn't feel naked. And it was the opposite of how I felt at the hot Springs, you know, 10 years ago when I was the only one who was naked, I felt exposed.
I felt seen, I felt like everybody was looking at me. And, and when I was just out there walking with my girlfriends and we were all naked, I just felt like natural.
Field Tape: (Gloria) The breeze feels really nice on my butt.
Gloria) And, and I felt comradery, you know, like the three of us were all out there together experiencing this very surreal moment together.
Field Tape: (Gloria) That was so fun you guys. I love you. Hug! [“aw”s and sounds of hugging]
Gloria: I mean, it's so interesting. I would say that during my experiment I never felt naked.
Maren: That's crazy. The whole thing was about being naked and you're like, I didn't ever feel naked.
Gloria: I never felt naked. Yeah. Because I think that that feeling naked means feeling exposed,vulnerable. And, and I think that happens when you feel singled out, but when you feel like you're doing something with others, whether they're strangers at a nature sanctuary that's clothing optional, or your friends on a naked hike, you don't feel naked because you're all doing it together.
Maren: Are you one of those naked people now?
Gloria: I think I might be one of those naked people now.
Maren: Yeah, In fact, Gloria is such a convert that she's hoping to take her new, vulnerable, naked persona into all areas of her life ... metaphorically, of course.
Gloria: My big takeaway honestly, was that, being naked removes the barriers between people. And I think it does come back to this idea that like we are stripped down of everything that, you know, makes us different. And we're just there in our most essential form and, and like just presenting ourselves to each other like that. and that's a really primal human experience. And my experience with that was that when that happened, I was able to connect with people more, you know, it was to the point where after I left valley view, I found myself wondering like, can I move through the world, talking to people as if we're both naked?
Maren: It seems like you kind of came out of this with this feeling of like, the world is good. My friends are good. And like, they were just, I was, there were so many moments.
I felt like, I felt like I was sort of eavesdropping on these like deeply intimate conversations you were having with your friends and with Dan, where you were like talking about, like, you're like, I'm so glad we had this experience together and I could just hear the like earnest love and affection and intimacy in everybody's voices.
Field Tape: (Gloria) That was really special.
(Dan) I know.
(Gloria) Thanks for coming with me. [kiss]
(Gloria) Cheers. I love you guys.
(Friends) I love you guys.
Maren: And it just was, it was like the most wholesome tape I've ever listened to.
Gloria: Wholesome is a great word to use to describe the experience! Like we just as like a culture, we associate nudity with sex. We just make those two things inextricable from one another and they don't have to be.
And I think that's a good thing. It's good to like look at our bodies and kind of a mundane way you know, to admire their functionality and like remove so much of the anxiety we have around how they look or like how others are going to perceive them or what they mean to other people. and I truly was thinking, wow, I'm finding all of these bodies really beautiful, like not in a sexual way, but in the way that you would find a tree really beautiful or like a sunset beautiful, just like the human body is beautiful. The human body is inherently beautiful. and I'm just, I'm really, really glad to know that.
Maren: You can read Gloria’s story about going nude outdoors in Outside’s May/June issue.
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Gloria Liu interviewed Dr. Keon West.
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