-Bare with us: why naturism in Britain is booming
One of the unexpected results of the pandemic has been the rise of nudism – so much so that British Naturism is experiencing the fastest growth in new members in 100 years It was summer 2021 and Nick Mayhew-Smith pressed into the bosky depths of ancient woodland outside Hastings. When he got to the centre, he undressed and perched on an accommodating mossy log. Slowly, he recalls, nature started to quicken around him. It was like a romantic tableau of a nude in the woods, he says – except the naked human subject was carrying a packet of nuts and a sensible backpack. The pandemic had left the 53-year-old London-based guidebook writer run ragged with work and homeschooling, and a naked stroll in a quiet woodland seemed just the ticket to restore his shattered nerves. “If you sit somewhere remote, fully naked and perfectly still, wildlife starts to get used to you,” Mayhew-Smith, a naturist for three decades, explains. “Birds hop closer, squirrels and badgers emerge: you become, and this is the best way to put it, part of nature. It’s a magical experience, and it really comes into its own in times of stress.” Mayhew-Smith is one of an estimated 1.3 million Britons who embrace the life-affirming joys of going publicly unclothed (roughly on a par with the membership of the Church of England). During the first pandemic lockdown in 2020, British Naturism saw the fastest growth in new members since it was founded in 1964, and Google searches for the term “naked sunbathing” surged by 384% during the spring 2020 mini-heatwave. Now there are naked virtual yoga and book groups and pastimes such as #buffbaking, as well as a nude WFH subculture (the Reddit/r/Nudism chews over hacks to avoid Zoom-flashing one’s boss, from canny camera tilts to white lies about malfunctioning webcams). This summer, as the mercury rose, British businesses, from lidos to pubs with nice gardens, realised it made good financial sense to “cater to the buff pound”. There were regular clothes-optional events at holiday resorts, from Croatia to Sardinia, as companies sought to tap into the burgeoning market for naked getaways by advertising designated naturist-friendly trails, hotels and resorts. Our current moment, says academic Annebella Pollen, author of Nudism in a Cold Climate, echoes the era when naturism first emerged. “After the First World War and flu pandemic, there was this huge appetite to find new ways of living, explore new social structures and to feel free,” she says. Naturism has its roots in Germany in the 1890s, when freikörperkultur, or “free body culture”, emerged alongside rambling, as a reaction to rapid urbanisation. Freikörperkultur emphasised being naked in the outdoors, and communalism, as the health-giving antidotes to dirty industrial towns. The movement, then better known as nudism or “gymnosophy”, arrived in Britain in the roaring 1920s. “It was strongly associated with health and vegetarianism, and was centred around small naked gatherings, or camps,” Pollen says. This early scene attracted middle-class intellectuals engaged in a then-fashionable enquiry into the nature of bodily shame. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were an estimated 40,000 practitioners in Britain. After the war, freikörperkultur’s association with Nazism prompted an effort to rebrand naturism as a parochially British pursuit. Pollen’s book depicts early postwar naturists putting up tents, taking afternoon tea in sandals and planting vegetables. “Naturism” also came into common usage after the war, partly in an effort, Pollen notes, to set the tradition apart from pornographic nudity and the 60s free-love movement (a fault-line that still runs through naturism today, adherents being quick to emphasise that sexual arousal has no place in the naturist scene). Today, the traditional naturist scene is anchored around long-standing “sun clubs”, such as Spielplatz in St Albans (established in the 1920s); naturist-friendly beaches such as Studland in Dorset and Pedn Vounder in Cornwall; and an informal roster of clothes-free pub nights. Helen Berriman, 46, from Bromley, describes herself as “a pandemic nudism convert”. When she met her husband, Simon, a naturist for the past 15 years, he made it clear that he was into a “clothing-optional lifestyle”, but Berriman was nonplussed.
“I thought it was a bit weird. I’d come home from work and find him at home naked at his desk and we’d have a robust conversation about it and he’d pull something on and that was that.” This changed in July 2020 when Berriman, on furlough from her job as a retail manager at an opticians, agreed to take part in an event organised by nudity campaigners Normalising Nudity. “It was a kind of reverse life-drawing class where all the artists were naked and I was the fully dressed model,” she explains. As she posed, sitting primly in her shin-length yellow sundress, Berriman began to feel “really a bit silly” being covered up. Ten minutes later, she drew a deep breath and stripped off. “To my great surprise the world had not stopped and I was naked and felt really quite wonderful.” In March 2021, Berriman handed in her notice at the opticians and now works for British Naturism. Today, she credits her passion for social nakedness with a wholesale improvement in her physical and mental health. “I have an all-over tan, I’ve come off antidepressants after a decade and I’m really accepting of other people,” she says. “Looking back I think I was quite judgmental.” When it comes to the claims around naturism and wellbeing, it seems the Germans were on to something. “There’s a growing body of literature showing naturism has physiological and psychological benefits,” says academic and queer naturist Dr Helen Bowes-Catton. “From lowered blood pressure to improved self-esteem and lowered stress levels. People think naturism is about exhibitionism, but it’s not. It’s about how amazing it feels to have the sun and breeze on your skin.” But even committed fans admit that naturism has suffered something of an image problem, titteringly elided with suburban swinging, or worse, conceived of as fuddy-duddy. Also, it’s overwhelmingly heterosexual and male. Although that is changing. Rick Stacey, British Naturism’s LGBTQ+ and diversity officer, estimates that, historically, LGBTQ+ attendance at social events was, at around 2% of the naturist corps, far from representative of broader British society. “Happily this is changing quite quickly,” he says. “We’ve recently been approached by prospective gay Muslim members.” Population ageing is another worry, says Paul Rouse, 63, who also runs Naturist Travel, a travel review website. “There’s this abiding fear that the older naturists will die off and all of the cherished social clubs would ‘go textile’,” he says, employing the naturist lingo for going over to the (fully-clothed) dark side.