A few weeks ago, I found myself in the classic Zoom outfit: one half undressed, one half dressed. Except this time it was the other way round: tracksuit bottoms while baring my topless chest to a screen of strangers. Unbelievably, I’m not the only one. Over the past year swathes of people have taken advantage of no dress codes and embraced their nude selves. Gwyneth Paltrow posed in her birthday suit as she turned 48, Amanda Holden enjoyed naked trampolining and naked cooking, and Elizabeth Hurley showed us there’s no weather that can keep her clothed when she posted pictures of herself naked on a haystack.
Meanwhile, millennials have been stripping off as a way to reduce lockdown anxiety. “More young people are taking an interest in naturism as a kickback against the unrealistic ‘perfect body’ standards that are proving ever more damaging to mental health,” says Sam Hawcroft, managing editor of H&E Naturist magazine. “Naturism is a great way to improve body image and to learn to love the skin you’re in.” Indeed, British Naturism gained 1,100 new members over the course of 2020, although, as Andrew Welch of the society tells me, this won’t reflect the true number as you don’t need membership to be a nudist. All you need to do is, well, whip off your clothes.
Take It Off!
So why are people feeling the desire to bare all? “During the lockdowns we weren’t having to get up to go to work and put on all the uniforms and signals that show we’re conforming with society,” Welch says. “You strip off the stresses of daily life when you strip off your clothes. As anyone who has ever been skinny-dipping will know, it feels lovely. What we’re doing makes you feel like you’re skinny-dipping more permanently, even when there’s no water around.”
Enticed by the idea of permanent skinny-dipping — I mean, who wouldn’t be? — I decide to challenge myself. How will it feel to be (mainly) naked for a week? I try to get the boyfriend involved but he is firmly against the idea. He is, however, very supportive of me spending a week naked in our home, until he suddenly grows concerned about the impact it will have on our heating bill.
Anyway, I start big with an online nude dance and drumming workout run by British Naturism. Before the session begins I find myself asking a stupid question: “What should I wear?” I wasn’t sure if you should turn up naked or if it is customary to disrobe. The idea of logging on stark naked only to find everyone else covered up is, frankly, horrifying. So I put on underwear and a robe and then think maybe I should put on a dash of make-up, then realize how silly that is, and then … oh God, I’m late for the start!
I join to find 13 naked men eagerly following a naked woman as they dance and bang their wooden spoons together. This disproportionately male to female ratio had been my nightmare scenario, but it seems less aggressive when the video screen is filled with the female instructor, as all the men follow along in smaller side screens. There’s a lot of squatting and stretching to the music, and I can tell my exposed rear will feel the consequences the next day.
“What we’re doing makes you feel like you’re skinny-dipping more permanently, even when there’s no water around.”
After a few minutes I slip off the robe and then in the last stretching moments, as I jealously watch the instructor’s free-flying breasts, I slip off my bra too. The music pauses and there’s a quick check-in — as the instructor comments on “a new face” (meaning me), I realize the class must be mostly regulars. Afterward there are no sweaty clothes to wash. Added bonus.
Day two and it’s naked yoga. I join Doria Gani’s class. The London-based yoga teacher is at present running online sessions only. She embraced naked yoga after feeling let down by her body when cervical cancer had left her infertile. “I started to hate my body and think I wasn’t woman enough,” she says. “Nudity gave me back my confidence and my love for my body” — a belief she hopes to share with others.
Logging on, my first thought is, where do I position the camera? Probably not wise to do it so everyone gets a view up my downward dog, but do you put it face-on, as you would in a yoga class, or from the side to give a view of your posture? In the end I go for the side view, feeling more protected this way. If I’m naked on camera, the less face on show the better. This time I go au naturel. The naked group is more female than the last, with only a couple of men, so my breasts are in good company.
Nudity and yoga feel like a positive match. Maybe it’s because there are no flailing bosoms or bouncing phalluses, but also the more spiritual side of the practice means it makes sense to be completely natural. At the end everyone chats about how they enjoyed the session, and I realize we’re from all over the world: a few from London, a man from Texas, a woman from Italy. Usually I might have picked up some details from their clothes, but in some ways being naked is a great leveler.
You’re a Work of Art!
I spend much of the next day taking nude pictures of myself to send to a stranger. This is not a sex thing; in fact, it’s something I’ve done before. During the first lockdown I commissioned two nude self-portraits, as an antidote to all the fitness challenges (and superfit bodies) that were clogging up my feed. This time I go to the artist Maraid McEwan, who turns nude selfies into works of art and has done more than 200 commissions. She set up Lockdown Ladies last year — women send her naked selfies and she draws them, with their donations ($42) going to charity. “Over lockdown we’ve not had the social pressures to look a certain way or dress a certain part,” McEwan says. “Instead we’ve been forced to confront the relationship we have with our body. For many the lack of other eyes has been empowering.”
There’s nothing like having someone turn you into a work of art to make you appreciate your body. Art transforms you from “naked” to “nude.” I pose in front of a mirror, twisting my body into different positions and taking the photos as if the reflection were someone else. It feels artistic and I forget to be critical. I receive the piece a few days later and put it in my bedroom, partly so my brother doesn’t have a heart attack when he comes over, but mainly because this is the room where I’m most negative about my body and I want to remind myself that I’m a work of art.
The week ends with a naked book club. Having become emboldened by seven days of nudity, this time I don’t hesitate or reach for my robe but join the call breast first … to find a screen of clothed men. It turns out the nudity was optional and given the cold weather most have chosen to keep the layers on. Slowly I angle up the camera, so only my crestfallen face is in view. Each member of the group talks about what they’ve read since the last meeting. The Thursday Murder Club is one of the most popular and Fifty Shades of Grey the least — which I feel perfectly encapsulates the group. You might expect nudists to be reading horny clit-lit, but in reality they’re much more at home with a best seller about octogenarian detectives.
Being naked for a week has been wonderfully freeing, but what surprised me most was how lovely the community was. I’m embarrassed to admit that before I began I’d worried that I was too out of shape to be naked in front of other people. Why did I think my naked body was anything to be ashamed of? But as soon as you’re in a room of naked people, where no one cares about genitals or body shapes, it’s remarkable how quickly any shame you have dissipates. I’d also panicked about someone recording the Zoom calls or creepily watching from the corner, but if anyone had I think they would have been bitterly disappointed. Nudity doesn’t have to be sexual; our bodies are amazing and normal.
There’s still an old-fashioned idea that nudists are perverted exhibitionists — but isn’t it more perverted to see naked bodies only as erotic? That is certainly my view now.
Flora Gill is a London-based writer