At a glance:
- Are the opportunities to strip off increasing or diminishing?
- Public nakedness as form of freedom of expression limited by 'advanced' societies as offensive.
- Naturism teaches you that you don’t need to be ‘perfect’, but to be happy with yourself and your own presence.
“You don’t know how you’re going to feel before you try it,” says Nick De Corte. “After all, you’ve never seen so many naked people in one place at a time. You start off thinking that this is all very weird. You start wondering if you’ve let yourself in for some kind of giant orgy. But then you soon forget that you’re naked at all. And then you start connecting with people. You’re relieved of the idea of hiding because, you know, there’s nowhere to hide when you’re naked.”
De Corte is, with his partner Lins Van Wambeke, a Belgian traveller and naturist, recounting his experiences on his blog Naked Wanderings. In his mid-30s, he somewhat cuts against the stereotype of those who choose to spend their leisure time at designated beaches and resorts without a stitch on: the portly 50-something German, bronzed all over, naked bar his Birkenstocks. “And they all seem to play petanque,” laughs De Corte.
But then naturism—also known as nudism, and, for the sake of art fans everywhere, not to be confused with naturalism—has seen a seismic shift over the last decade. Naturist events are popping up both in cultures where it has no real history—in South America, in Asia—and in cities too, where it has also not traditionally been found.
“Acceptance of naturism has a lot to do with the local culture, of course,” says De Corte, “and it’s very new to some parts of the world, but that’s what is allowing it to attract the attention of younger people, that and its association with environmentalism too. We were cautious in the beginning and kept our interest in naturism private. But it turns out that while, for some of our friends, it’s a bit of a joke, most just don’t care. Some have even joined us.”
Indeed, getting younger people into naturism may prove crucial to its survival—or at least that of the many events at which it’s most readily embraced. In Germany, being naked in nature— or ‘FKK’ as it’s called in naturism’s spiritual home, as it was here that the modern movement was pioneered during the late 19th century—has seen official membership numbers halve over the last 40 years as it’s come to be considered as old-fashioned and over-regulated.
Similarly, Nicky Hoffman, of the Naturist Society Foundation in the US—where some states criminalise the promotion of pro-nudist views—notes how the older generations of naturists are, inevitably, dying out, and that bringing younger people into the movement’s leadership roles is proving tough— they like to experience naturism but not necessarily in an organised way. “They understand how naturism is slowly being normalised, but they’re not joiners,” she argues.
All the same, the opportunities to strip off only seem to be growing. As De Corte has found, in person, you can now find nudist resorts on six continents—presumably climate change has some way to go to make Antarctica an appealing location for it just yet. Some 20 years ago, he reckons, naturist events were strictly private ones. Now naked public events are on the rise. The World Naked Bike Ride this year reached 70 cities in 20 countries, in part to protest against car culture and the climate catastrophe, but also in defence of going naked.
In November the artist Spencer Tunick, who has organised some 75 large-scale nude shoots around the world, returns to Australia to shoot his latest on a Queensland beach, this time for the fashion chain The Iconic. May will even see the next World Naked Gardening Day. There’s naked dining, naked weddings, naked volleyball (among other ball sports).
“When we first did a naked event in 2017, it was just to prove that’s it was possible,” says Julien Penegry, of the Parisian arts centre Ponte Ephemere, organiser of the Beautiful Skin shoes-only nudist club night—one that, thanks to its popularity, is set to run every other month—and an art exhibition (not about naturism) that visitors were invited to visit naked. Remarkably, of the hundreds who attended these events, most were first-time naturists.
“Many people assume that it’s impossible to have a naturist life in the city, that it’s something you only do for a week or two a year somewhere under the sun,” Penegry adds. “But naturism for many is a life philosophy that they want to embrace as widely as possible. It’s about encouraging the idea that naturism is, really, very simple. It’s not dangerous. It’s not shameful. The problem is more the other people who find it disturbing. They make assumptions. It’s like seeing someone walk barefoot and assuming they’re homeless rather than just wanting to make contact with the ground. But those that try it tend to conclude that they’ve just had a completely different experience to anything they’ve done before.”
As the ‘free the nipple’ campaign asked, why is it OK for a man to bare his chest but not a woman?
It’s not for everyone. Naturally, the idea of being naked in front of friends or strangers is the stuff of nightmares for some people. Being naked in public is one of the most commonly reported anxiety dreams, psychologists interpreting this as the subject being embarrassed by something people don’t know about them, a response to feelings of guilt or inferiority, or to being deprived of attention.
In other words, they don’t really know. But to call that fear ‘natural’ isn’t right either. After all, while clothes have many uses—protection, identity, display, to make our species distinct from other species—nakedness was the normal attire for early human history; for some cultures it, or part-nakedness, still is.
And yet nakedness in public is, broadly, limited by most ‘advanced’ societies—counted offensive or some kind of public nuisance—and not without often sexist contradictions: as the ‘free the nipple’ campaign asked, why is it OK for a man to bare his chest but not a woman? Parents encourage their children to cover up as soon as they show bodily developmental signs of puberty, passing down the negative assumptions surrounding nakedness and its perceived dangers or anti-social nature.
As argues Bouke de Vries, a political philosopher with Umea University, Sweden, and author of the paper The Right to be Publicly Naked: A Defence of Nudism, nakedness has become a social taboo. It’s one—ever since Adam and Eve clothed themselves in shame, having been ejected from the Garden of Eden—that has been underscored especially by religious belief.
States, he argues, should recognise the right to go naked in public as a distinct right rather than trying to protect it under existing rights; that it should be recognised for the well-being it engenders and recognised as part of an individual’s freedom of expression. He doesn’t buy restricting nudism on the grounds of causing offence because some bodies are unsightly, for example, or that it might lead to deviant behaviour. Nor, as some claim, that it causes a health risk— the facts just don’t suggest as much.
“A lot of this has to do with how we are socialised. The ideas we have about nakedness as a result of decades of exposure to media and advertising, for example, which tend to be a long way off the truth,” he argues. “I’ve swum naked and that’s about it for my nudist career. And that was because I’d forgotten my swimming gear. But it’s odd that on a warm day in so many places I couldn’t walk around naked if I felt like it. As with other practices, unless good reasons for restricting it can be put forward, it should be allowed. And with nudism those reasons seem to be absent.
All the same, it’s not all that surprising that society has such a mixed up, messed up take on nakedness. It’s at once symbolic of degradation and of innocence, even of authenticity. The Internet in particular has meant we have the potential to be bombarded with images of nakedness, and yet we still struggle with the nakedness of children and teens, or indigenous people —such that Facebook feels itself compelled to remove images of the latter if its subjects are insufficiently clothed.
Ridiculously so, to modern mores, in the 16th century loincloths were painted over the nudes in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel and remained there for 200 years. And yet today the idea of a partially exposed breast— in order to do what breasts are designed to do, feed babies—can still throw some into paroxysms of moral panic. Put a rape scene in a movie and it might win an Oscar. Put a ‘full frontal’ scene in one and it won’t even get considered for nomination.
How might the practice of sexting, for example, be shaping future attitudes to our nakedness? How might our interest in pornography be diminished if nakedness was more a matter- of-fact, unremarkable experience? Studies have suggested that children who grow up around nakedness have a greater acceptance of their own bodies later in life. Why is it that nakedness is a guaranteed way for anyone to get media coverage—or, as you might have noticed in yourself, to draw in a reader?
Why is nakedness— and female nakedness especially—an effective form of protest as the feminist group Femen or the anti-war group Breasts Not Bombs has found? Why is it that Stephen Gough—known as The Naked Rambler, described as a prisoner of conscience and a man surely ahead of his time—has spent serial prison terms amounting to some 10 years in Scotland after getting arrested for not wearing any clothes, most conspicuously for his court appearances? Take nakedness out of context and we just don’t know what to do with it.
It’s small wonder then that, while the opportunity to be free of clothes is on the up, legally nakedness is still a quagmire. Most countries have not been encouraged to reassess their relevant laws. Canada’s, for example, prohibit “indecent acts” but its approach to public nakedness is, as in many nations, largely a fuzzy grey area. Likewise in the UK, nakedness isn’t an explicit offence but various offences may apply depending on the circumstances.
New Zealand, similarly, has upheld a conviction for disorderly conduct for nakedness in the street, just because that’s a place where nakedness wasn’t commonplace. Brazil has a crime it calls “public outrage to modesty”. Australia—despite Spencer Tunick—has indecent exposure laws that only refer to the genital area, making naturism challenging. In some countries religious/cultural restrictions come in. The penal code of Qatar, for example, forbids the wearing of revealing clothing, so no clothing at all is out.
And, yes, in Singapore, public nakedness is illegal, even if you’re at home and your neighbours catch an eyeful. If you want to strip off, you’ll have to visit the nearest dedicated resorts in Bali or Thailand. The world is still a long way from being relaxed about public nakedness. Yet those who espouse naturism tend to be really enthusiastic about its benefits.
They speak, as Nicky Hoffman does, of the simple expression of a free choice that society seems reluctant to give entirely: that of whether or not to wear clothing. They speak of the literal and perhaps psychological weight cast off, free at least of clothing’s restrictions. They speak of the levelling effect: stripped, literally, of the clothes and ornaments by which we signal who we are or, more precisely, who we want people to think we are. People are forced to leave their assumptions about others at the changing room door. There’s small opportunity for status; personality is all that counts. And there’s more to naturism too.
“You forget the fact that you’re naked very quickly because everyone else is nude. It provides a different mindset entirely as to what it means to be nude. Naturism isn’t bigger than it is solely because not enough people are getting to experience it,” suggests Pam Fraser, spokesperson for British Naturism, a campaign group for naturists, organiser of Naked Social—a naked comedy night; of NKD—a ‘clothing optional’ festival for naturists, targeting young families and 20-somethings; and of the new Freedom Festival launching in the UK in May.
“Older people tend to be fairly relaxed about being naked, perhaps because they’ve reached a point in their lives when they think ‘screw it, I don’t really care what people think anymore’.
They’re not busy editing their selfies for Instagram,” adds Fraser. “But the fact is negative body image is a huge issue for a lot of people, and a lot of younger people especially. Faced with the pressures imposed by social media, they find that naturism is a corrective. You soon learn that naked people are normal people and they all have their lumps and bumps, that we’re all a long way from the [computer-corrected] images of nakedness we’re fed by the media.
"The fact is that people have their own issues and don’t always want to think about them and naturism too much. But they should.”
“Obviously, getting into it requires either a leap or small steps,” she adds. “One guy I knew came [to NKD] and he really didn’t like his body—he preferred being covered up. And on the first day he was literally shaking at the thought of being naked. But the next day he was naked. And he loved it. Naturism teaches you that you don’t need to be ‘perfect’. You can be happy with yourself, with your own presence.”
And yet naturism, despite its long history, despite the progress it is making towards some kind of normalcy, is not without its complexities and subtleties. Many naturists claim, for example, as Fraser does, that “there’s really no connection between nakedness and sexuality. I’ve never felt assessed sexually at a naturist event as I have wearing a dress out at a club,” she says. But this is a relatively new position, one that, it might be said, brushes human sexuality under the carpet.
Dr Glenn Smith, author of Social Nudity and Sexual Well- Being, has noted that naturism’s early exponents recognised what seems blindingly obvious: that while public nakedness can be a discipline, shared nakedness can sometimes also be sensual, even erotic. Only later, and typically in more sexually conservative countries, was naturism considered acceptable by censoring sexuality: running events in more isolated locations, operating by strict regulations and so on.
Given more modern day, media-exploited concerns about paedophilia and what Smith calls “highly selective” research on nakedness and sexual crimes, it’s hardly surprising that sexuality is an aspect naturists want to downplay. But Glenn has argued for a more progressive management of naturist environments so that the experience of naturism as exotic is not stigmatised, while those who experience it as asexual aren’t exploited either.
Perhaps, he argues, positing naturism as a way to explore sexual feelings in a more real way could in fact be its real and lasting appeal. It might even be what gets younger people into naturism in a lasting way. As Hoffman puts it: “Of course being in a naturist environment doesn’t mean you’re not looking, but what counts is that it’s respectful.”
“Yes, there’s a very special sense of freedom in naturism. You genuinely do feel more a part of nature. And for me and for others that’s become an ideology, a way of life—one that causes you to reflect on those ways of living that society more typically offers,” adds Christoph Muller, assessor for the International Naturist Federation. “Clearly it’s not asexual because we’re all men and women. But the experience of naturism distances you from the sex question pretty fast. The fact is that people have their own issues and don’t always want to think about them and naturism too much. But they should.”
And many are, getting onboard with naturism and getting their clothes off. They’re ready to take their skinny dipping a step further. How long it will take for society to find some indifference and leave them to it is another matter. The battle to go bare goes on.
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