The nudist life laid bare

Dame Helen Mirren has won countless awards for her contributions to film and theatre. Yet her talents do not end there: she was also crowned the ‘Naturist of the Year’ in 2004 by the USA Naturist Society. It seems that nudism is, somewhat covertly, in vogue: the actor Matthew McConaughey, of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days fame, earned sixth spot in the celebrity naturist rankings when he was allegedly caught by the police playing the bongos naked in his own home. McConaughey expressed no remorse; indeed, in an interview with the Daily Mail he admitted “my nude-bongo-playing days are far from over. I did it 500 times before the cops showed up and I still do it now.” Irresistible comedy aside, McConaughey embraces naturism for what it is: complete and unabashed self-acceptance, bongos or no. 
 
What about those of us with less famous bums, tums and thighs? Nudism’s philosophy has always been one of innocence. The idea of nudism as sexualised or erotic goes against the fundamental point that nudists make. Nudism isn’t showing off your body, it is showing off your acceptance of yourself. 
 
Now, I would class myself as a relatively naked person. I walk around my room naked; much to the chagrin of my family, I walk around the house naked. Apparently, it can be “woefully unpredictable.” However, while my nudity is an indication of comfort in my own home, I wouldn’t take it to a picnic, or a beach, or anywhere else for that matter.
 
To me the idea of going on a picnic with a bunch of other naked people seems a little out of the ordinary, and not only because I don’t like the idea of eating naked. The closest I’ve come to a nudist experience was on a family holiday in Spain, when the nearest beach to the hotel also turned out to be an over–fifties nudist beach. Needless to say, no one in my family took their top off.
It did make me wonder, though: there lay hundreds of wrinkly old Spaniards, sprawled out on this nudist beach, and not one of them was interested in anyone else’s body. They played beach ball, ate their picnics, and sunbathed totally nude, and it didn’t seem to make any difference that there was not a scrap of bikini in sight. They were utterly at ease.
 
I spoke to Daryl Jones, a leading member of the British Naturism Society’s youth sector, who wholeheartedly agrees that self-acceptance is the fundamental philosophy behind nudism. In a recent BBC documentary, My Daughter the Teenage Nudist, he was unembarrassed and encouraging in his celebration of nudism, saying, “It is the best thing I’ve ever done… it’s opened my eyes up, to see people for what they are, to see the human body for what it is, to see how our clothed society restricts so much of everyday life.” He makes the point that nudism is by no means sexy or pornographic. It is liberating for him and many others, and is a form of release, he believes, that lets people access their basic selves. 
 
It’s a funny thing, though, the ‘Teenage Nudist.’ I had always imagined nudism to be the preserve of liberal-minded friends of people’s grandparents, much like my wrinkly Spaniards. Yet Jones is upbeat about the future of young British nudists. “I’ve just done a national convention for British naturism. I’m busy with it nearly every weekend. There is so much going on…I think I’ll always be a naturist.”
 
As far as his personal life is concerned, he has encountered little hostility. “It’s definitely enhanced my life and relationships and has helped me become more proud of who I am. A lot of people’s hostility is because of a lack of understanding.”
 
Surprisingly, though, we seem almost prudish in an age where it’s generally acceptable for a teenage boy to watch porn and a teenage girl to shop at Ann Summers. Sex sells. Nudism does not. When you remove the sexual element from nudity, all that tends to remain is embarrassment. The biggest problem for nudism in Britain is this prudery, maintains Jones. “Nakedness is not in our culture. One of the main reasons people say they can’t do it is their own lack of confidence in the way they look or their body shape. It’s just not about that.”
 
So what are we doing today to ensure that people who are lucky enough to feel comfortable in their own skin get some air-time? Globally, it seems, very little. The USA has no federal law that either allows or prohibits nudity, so it is left up to the discretion of individual states. Alabama, for instance, is a bastion of conservative prudishness, banning any lobbying on behalf of nudism altogether.
 
The UK seems somewhat more relaxed: although public nudity is a criminal offence, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to nip to Tesco in their birthday suit, specific nudist areas such as parks and beaches throughout the UK show that there is a certain degree of tolerance. 
 
Prudish thought is, however, mystifying in a European context. So much of European art, past and present, depicts mankind at his most naked. This is for all sorts of reasons: to show the power of the human body, innocence, or perhaps a connection with nature. Or is it simply because the ancients were utterly comfortable and unquestioning about the naturalness of being au naturel? It is wrong to assume that ancient Athenians simply strode about their daily business in the nude, but it is significant that many of their institutions were unquestioningly performed without a second thought about baring all. Exercise, for instance, was practiced oiled up in the gymnasium, a word which itself derives from the Greek for naked, gymnos. Perhaps we overstate the importance of nudity in ancient civilizations, since we are only left with a few ruined and nude fragments of them. What is for certain, however, is that there seems to be some sort of limiting influence on our acceptance and ease with public nudity in the West today.
 
More recently, nudity has been used to shock. The play Equus, in which Daniel Radcliffe appeared naked on stage, was ample evidence of this. Audiences were partly horrified and partly thrilled. I saw it myself; front row, middle seat, to my great embarrassment. I was conscious that there was an element of the daring, both in the production and in those who went to see it. The middle classes were proud of themselves for being quite so brave. Radcliffe told the New York Times in an interview at the time “it never really was an issue. I don’t know why, it probably should have been. I am terribly self-conscious.” Nudity in the play was supposed to, and indeed succeeded in, shocking audiences. Although admittedly it was the sexual violence of the scene that was disturbing, there is no doubt that the hype around on-stage nudity gained the play both fame and infamy. 
 
Historically, it seems that the Victorians are principally culpable for English prudishness: nudity was considered obscene, to the extent that even male nipple exposure at public beaches was indecent. Victorian attitudes limited the progression of nudity well into the twentieth century. In 1925 Captain Harold Hubert Vincent founded the Sun Ray Club and publicly preached nudism. He proposed a march through Hyde Park by some two hundred naked men and women. The response? Outrage. He acquired several convictions for soliciting donations as well as for using insulting language. 
 
Nudism and ideology were closely associated throughout Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1925 an organization in the Soviet Union called ‘Down with Shame’ held mass nude marches to dispel former ‘bourgeois’ mentality. Nazi Germany revered and even idealized body culture as a symbol of the natural strength of mankind and incorporated the idea of nudism into health and fitness ideals.
 
It seems that this mass ideology and exposure has been most successful in gaining national acceptance. Germany has taken the lead, perhaps as a lasting impact of Nazi nudist philosophy. The Freie Körper Kultur organizations were ahead of the naturist game, setting up mass events like nudist bike rides well before the World Naked Bike Ride was established in 2004. This event is themed ‘dare as you bare’, which suggests that there is still as sense of danger or controversy about being naked in public, even in a crowd and on a bike. 
 
The American photographer Spencer Tunick has tried to counter this idea in his work, while simultaneously appealing to the mass impact aspect of the nudism campaign. Among his first major installations, Tunick shot pictures of a crowd of 500, all naked, in London’s Selfridges. Art has always had something of a penchant for the nude. Life models, for instance, are an accepted and necessary part of artistic study. However, it is the vast scale of nudity and the familiar public setting that provide some of Tunick’s most effective shock tactics. 
 
But they still remain shock tactics, it seems. It is, then, a sad fact of modern culture that as long as nudity has connotations of indecency, and any displays of the naked human body have to be ‘organized’ by marches and confined to specific spaces, we remain confused and embarrassed about being ourselves. Daryl Jones has undoubtedly been persuasive, and his efforts to ‘convert’ me have made some impact, but really, will I ever take it further than my bedroom door? I somewhat doubt it.