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Inside the nudist renaissance Everyone is equal when you're stark naked

'We are bonded by the primal urge to immerse every inch of our skin in wild water.' Scott Heppell/AFP/Getty Images

'We are bonded by the primal urge to immerse every inch of our skin in wild water.' Scott Heppell/AFP/Getty Images


June 24, 2024   6 mins

The gladdest sight of a lacklustre May was Charles Dance emerging naked and magnificent, like Botticelli’s Venus, from the sea on Formentera. The UK press pixelated the actor’s genitals as if that justified the intrusion, but prurient types (me) still got to gawp at his regal House-Lannister physique. A devotee of the Hampstead men’s swimming pond, the 77-year-old actor is a splendid advertisement for both wild swimming and naturism.

We Brits don’t usually lead the globe in terms of unrobing. For dedicated, meticulously organised nudity, the world traditionally looked to Germany’s Freikorperkultur, or “free body culture”, to show the way. This ethos grew out of the mid-19th century Lebensreform movement, which challenged the destruction wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Between 1871 and 1918, half of all Germans left their place of birth and moved to a city, creating a deep nostalgia for the simpler, purer existence left behind.

And yet all is not well in Germany’s Garden of Eden. The German Association for Free Body Culture (DFK) has just cancelled their August centenary celebrations, due to a pronounced falling off in support — membership numbers have slumped from 65,000 to 34,000 over the past 25 years. The President of the DFK, Alfred Sigloch, believes that younger members are put off by older naturists adhering to strict rules “such as specified afternoon nap or quiet times”, while others are anxious about being photographed naked via a smartphone — especially now peeping Toms can use drones to get sneaky shots. Sigloch also blames social media for “the rise of the cult of the perfect body”, engendering anxiety about cellulite, tummies and other imperfections.

I find it depressing that old-style, let-it-all-hang-out nudists have been sent fleeing back to their patios by a plague of influencers using personal trainers, butt implants, absurd poses and photo-shopped images to show how “brave” they are going naked. To this middle-aged voyeur’s eye, the honed results aren’t nearly as pleasing as the bumpy, droopy chestnut-hued nudists of old.

“I find it depressing that old-style, let-it-all-hang-out nudists have been sent fleeing back to their patios by a plague of influencers.”

My appreciation of such aesthetics has been honed as a member of one of the UK’s oldest naturist clubs: the Newnham Riverbank Club, on the edge of Cambridge’s Grantchester Meadows. It’s unique among such establishments for allowing costumed members to swim alongside nudists. This happened organically after the traditional membership of male academics (the land is owned by Cambridge University) fell into decline in the Eighties. In that era, the intrepid wife of one of the club’s groundsmen asked if she could pop down for an occasional dip in her bikini. Where she led others followed until numbers of both sexes were boosted, costumed and naked. I cherish the fnarr-fnarr greeting older, British members habitually utter when they meet outside the basking-bodied lawns: “Excuse me! I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.”

I’ve long said the Riverbank Club is the most democratic place in our rarefied university city, which has one of the largest gaps between the wealthiest and poorest residents in the whole country. When you are stark-bollock naked there’s nothing much to separate a biotech entrepreneur from a postman. Everyone is in equal raptures when they spot the brilliant flash of blue on a diving kingfisher or greet a new batch of cygnets. Like the German clubs, we have our rules, but they are sensible ones such as a prohibition from getting in and out of the Cam naked while punts are going past — although the tourists are invariably disappointed by this. We are also bonded by the primal urge to immerse every inch of our skin in wild water and have our soul cleansed sub-aqueously. Like Tom, the sooty chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, we long to be clean (although this urge has been tempered of late by sewage pollution, as is the case in so many parts of the UK). And no wonder: we humans are 60% water and come into existence floating in amniotic fluid; so the urge to return can feel overwhelming and the requirement to wear a swimming costume nonsensical.

The now deeply unfashionable Kingsley, an Anglican priest and chaplain to Queen Victoria, had close links to Christian socialism, with its underlying tenet that the drivers of mass production and commerce were rooted in greed and immorality. Like Germany’s Lebensreform movement, Kingsley and his brethren channelled the anxiety of their grubby age, with factories belching out smoke and the Thames so filthy that it caused the Great Stink of 1852. The antidote to all this filth was a return to nature and the great outdoors, which — for many — also meant stripping-off unnatural layers of clothes. This idea of nakedness as a form of spiritual good had been pioneered in the previous century by William Blake alongside his wife Catharine. The duo startled the artist’s benefactor Thomas Butts, who once found the pair sitting naked in their garden on a visit to their Lambeth home. “Come in!”, said Blake, “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.”

The story of Blake’s nudity has long been used to indicate his idiosyncrasy and that association gently persists in the UK, where the desire to be naked is often seen as a largely harmless form of eccentricity. We love streakers at sporting fixtures (remember Erica Roe?) and laugh whenever the “naked rambler” Stephen Gough is arrested, while the backbench Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, a member of the 1922 Committee, is rarely mentioned without someone bringing up his enthusiastic embracing of naturism. Even in 2024, we are still locked in a Carry On mentality that tells us few things are as funny as someone’s clothes falling off unexpectedly. I had to shrug off the urge to snigger when I first encountered a nudist beach (the long-established one at Brighton) because the sense that bare bodies were both absurd and embarrassing had been deeply imbued in me. This was not helped by the scene in a Pink Panther film where Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau pursues an investigation through a nudist colony with a guitar place strategically over his groin. Like most middle-class children of the Seventies, I’d been taught to shroud myself in a huge towel every time I wrestled in and out of a swimming costume as if the cosmos would end if anyone glimpsed a nipple.

In Germany, however, they’ve always taken nudity far more seriously. The movement that started in the 1850s, gained momentum from members of the youth movement Wandervogel (wandering bird), formed to hike and commune with nature, like a more anarchic Scouts. By the first two decades of the 20th century there were more than 200 nudist associations and clubs, informed by the idea that nudity was a healthy practice, and it was only social conditioning that made people conflate nakedness with sexual expression. Although in other ideological areas the groups could be at odds: on Motzener Lake (just outside Berlin) in the Twenties, one bank was frequented by bourgeois nudists influenced by ideas of racial purity, while another area was used by a radical working-class club, founded by the reformer and educationalist Adolf Koch. The latter practiced mixed-gender naked gymnastics and hosted the first International Congress on Nudity in Berlin in 1929, with participants from 23 countries. But in 1933, Hermann Goring tried to stop what he saw as decadence by passing laws restricting the practice of naturism, saying nudity “deadens women’s natural feelings of shame and kills men’s respect for women”.

Happily, following the Second World War the practice of naturism was swiftly resurrected in Germany on both sides of the wall (it remained one freedom not lost to East Germans). Anyone who’s been a frequent visitor will know it’s still utterly normal to encounter utterly unselfconscious naked men and women on beaches, in parks, swimming pools and in saunas. In these scenarios, it’s the Brits who look weird if they refuse to drop their towels.

It feels like the UK is seeing a revival of the kind of ideology that first powered Germany’s naturism — a quest for spiritualism and truth in nature that is a reaction to Artificial Intelligence and the Technological Revolution. Once again, many people mistrust the speed of change and feel displaced by it. The feeling of being outside a powerful elite that controls the levers of society has been accentuated by social media platforms such as Twitter, driving many to a Manichaeistic view of the world where wild swimming and forest bathing signify a cleansing of the soul.

The ideas of the painter Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, a key prophet of the Lebensreform, feel extraordinarily familiar.  A devotee of naturopathy, vegetarianism and naturism, Diefenbach rejected monogamy and organised religion, but embraced spirituality under the guise of the new Free Religious Movement after a personal “revelation”. He took to wearing just a white wool robe and sandals — or nothing, if circumstances allowed — and gathered huge followings to his lectures, until the authorities suppressed them. At this point he set up a commune in a remote rural quarry. One of his rather ropey paintings, “You Shall Not Kill” (1903), depicting an agonised naked man, a leaping stag and a bearded deity with hand raised, reminded me of Russell Brand’s baptism in the river Thames, supported by Bear Grylls. Brand shares with Diefenbach a pick-and-mix tub of Christo-Judaic mythology and alternative philosophy, as well as a womanising past and ostracism from polite society.

The fact is, as in Germany in the Twenties, we are seeing a widespread urge for people to cleanse their bodies and souls via acts of nakedness. Four different women writers I know have joined a movement that combines eco-activism with elements of Wicca, Gaia worship, Tantra, naturism, wild swimming and experimenting with drugs including psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and MDMA. In fact, it’s now so normal for me to be told that a friend — usually female — is going on a retreat that combines two or more of these elements, often in Portugal, that I’m beginning to feel grumpy about not being included. In a similar vein, an increasing number of young women activists are carrying out their protests in a state of undress a la Lady Godiva, including the conservationist Hannah Bourne-Taylor and the “naked economist”, Dr Victoria Bateman. If only the Green Party’s Carla Denyer would liven up the deathly general election by campaigning under the banner “the future is female, naked, purposeful and dangerous”.


Rowan Pelling is editor of The Amorist and a comment writer for the Daily Telegraph. She edited The Erotic Review magazine for eight years (1996-2004)

RowanPelling

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
28 days ago

California has surrendered its streets to a**holes
Britain’s weirdest constituency
Inside the nudist renaissance
I’ll let you craft your own jokes from this constellation of headlines.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago

Don’t forget “What nationalists could learn from Quebec”;

“….. “

Saul D
Saul D
28 days ago

Inside the nudist renaissance, Britain’s weirdest constituency, California, has surrendered its streets to a**holes

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
27 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

What? You want California? Great. Come and get it!

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago

“To this middle-aged voyeur’s eye, the honed results aren’t nearly as pleasing as the bumpy, droopy chestnut-hued nudists of old.”

I have never “got” the point of naturism. I know that it’s supposed to be somehow liberating or whatever, but whenever I see these photos of flabby older people letting it all hang out, all I can think of is that this is why we invented clothes.

David Morley
David Morley
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

In France it’s only the 68ards who still insist on sunbathing topless. It’s generally not a pretty sight. Younger women prefer the full bikini.

the human body at its best is a thing of beauty. Sadly it’s rarely at its best.

Point of Information
Point of Information
28 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

After 25 years of summering in the Sud-Ouest, and occasionally the Riviera, this is not the case, plenty of young women do this as well as the middle aged and old.

I have always had the impression it was more to do with Peter Sarstedt’s “even sun-tan” than communing with nature. Tan lines are so British.

Paula Dufort
Paula Dufort
28 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

A very dear work friend of many years ago made a profound and truthful statement about her middle-aged husband’s body: “That’s a body that should always be fully clothed!”

David Morley
David Morley
28 days ago

Not so sure about naturism, but good to see something from Rowan Pelling on Unherd.

Wild swimming has taken off quite remarkably in the last few years, though it’s more Dryrobes than nakedness, and I would like to believe it’s a return to a more grounded attitude to life. Less sure about the Gaia hocus pocus, which just sounds like cod religiosity channelled into consumerism.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

The British seem to have a fascination with social nudity. We are both prurient and terrified about it. Personally I find that having spent time on French beaches sans maillot made me realise that swimming costumes are a dreary inconvenience and should be abandoned whenever possible. Moreover, costumes seem designed to humiliate larger or older women, who have much more dignity bare under the sun.

David Morley
David Morley
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

My experience of France is that it’s the old timers who are keener on stripping off. A bit of a hangover from the 60s.

Simon S
Simon S
28 days ago

What a cheerful summer piece, thank you! I am not sure I can ever disassociate nudity from sex but perhaps full naturalist immersion would change that.

David Morley
David Morley
28 days ago
Reply to  Simon S

Do you want it to change? For me habitual nudity just takes away all the erotic power of undressing.

A G
A G
28 days ago

I can understand wanting to bathe nude in order to enjoy the feeling of water directly on the skin, but not the urge to hang around nude all day surrounded by other nude people.
I enjoy wearing flattering clothes that enhance my better features and express my particular personality, and seeing other people wearing clothes that do the same.

Mark Cornish
Mark Cornish
28 days ago
Reply to  A G

Love not wearing a ‘cossie’ when swimming and sunbathing; it feels so nice. I do it in private though!

Ted Glen
Ted Glen
28 days ago

Amniotic surely, not abiotic?

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
28 days ago

Nice article, but unfortunately, there will be members of both sexes who are more equal than the rest!

Estes Kefauver
Estes Kefauver
27 days ago

It’s so much fun to just be naked.

Tony Price
Tony Price
27 days ago

I know that it’s pedantically petty to point it out, but London’s Great Stink was in 1858, not 1852.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
27 days ago

Fun article… Why though the constant haranguing by naturists to remove non threatening desire / sexuality from adult nudity. I mean why…

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
26 days ago

Put some clothes on, people!

Carol Staines
Carol Staines
25 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

I’m with you! Never met an adult that can’t be improved by well chosen clothes…even Brigit Bardot wore an alluring top and Marilyn Monroe was fabulous in tailored silk.As for men….for heaven’s sake, cover yourself.

William Cameron
William Cameron
22 days ago

Swimming naked is much nicer than swimming with clothes on. And you dont have damp cloth clinging to you when you come out. I have never understood the British fear of nudity.