Is Naturism on the Rise in a Post-COVID World?

Throughout the Western world, the practice of living naked appears to be gaining traction among a newer, younger audience

August 9, 2021 11:34 am
four nude gardeners practicing a lifestyle known as naturism
Research indicates that living naked can have a positive impact on body image and, ultimately, happiness
Marty Melville

Only the truly courageous attempt “the running man.” Among all the dance moves busted in Julien Claude-Penegry’s “Beautiful Skin” club night in Paris, those that cause maximum jiggle are probably best avoided. That’s because everyone is naked — except for shoes. 

“We just wanted to prove that an event like this was possible in a city and not just on some naturist resort, to show that it can feel normal, and even lead the way for other naked events,” says naturist campaigner Claude-Penegry, who, following the opening of Paris’s first naturist park in 2017, is re-launching his club night as a bi-monthly event from September. “The people who come, and they come in their hundreds, typically say they have a completely different experience to anything they’ve done before. They’re free to be themselves entirely.”

This is not an idea lost on many others as well. Naturism — the practice of going without clothes, typically with others similarly unclothed — is on the up. Recent years have seen the flourishing of naked comedy nights, naked dining events and, across 70 cities in 20 countries, naked bike rides, as much a campaign action in favor of naturism as it is the road to saddle soreness. This summer sees the launch of NKD, the first naked music festival, in the U.K., further indicative of how younger people are getting interested and regarding naturism as the natural bedfellow to environmentalism. May, for those who missed it, marked World Naked Gardening Day.

There’s even, some reckon, been a COVID bounce: membership of organizing body British Naturism has reportedly seen membership increased by some 20% over the pandemic period, despite events and travel being curtailed. Why? Because perhaps nothing better encapsulates a sense of personal freedom than getting naked. 

“Attitudes are changing,” suggests Laurent Luft, president of the International Naturist Federation, which will host 38 national organizations at its world congress this October in chilly Slovenia (“not everyone will be going naked then,” he notes). “Five years ago anyone who asked me about naturism assumed it was all something kinky,” says Luft. “These days naturists are seen as just another section of society. We’re doing more to raise our profile, not to hide ourselves.”

Nakedness has been regarded as normal before. In some times and places, stripping off was unexceptional: in Ancient Greece, men exercised naked; in late 19th-century Germany, the home of the naturist movement, full exposure to sunlight and air was re-framed as an entirely healthy thing to do — it’s why many of us will spend the coming weeks sitting almost naked (or fully naked) on beaches, after all. 

But in general, modern society has opposed the notion of public nudity. Recall how the first naturists, Adam and Eve, hid their shame after the fall. It’s been mis-characterized as not just unconventional but as essentially, questionably sexual; as unclean; as a cause of deviancy; as illicit, as offensive, as a nuisance — albeit one deemed worthy of fines and in some instances imprisonment. Self-described “prisoner of conscience” Stephen Gough has now spent, all told, a decade in Scottish prisons for choosing not to wear clothes. Not even to his court appearances.

The sensitivity to public nudity is confounding. Generally, it’s illegal across the U.S. Social media companies censor images of indigenous people if they’re not wearing enough. Hollywood ties itself in knots. This resistance to public nakedness is passed down through generations: children are encouraged to cover up as soon as they’re on the brink of puberty. No wonder, then, that being naked in public is for many the stuff of literal nightmares. Or why taking one’s clothes off in front of the clothed has so often been chosen as an effective form of protest.

None of which stands up to scrutiny, reckons Bouke de Vries, political philosopher at Umea University, Sweden, and the author of The Right to be Publicly Naked: A Defence of Nudism. “I think the most plausible argument against it is the suggestion that it’s not hygienic — but nudism rarely poses any real health hazard. I mean, just sit on a towel,” says de Vries, who reckons the right to go about naked should be protected as part of an individual’s freedom of expression, an idea the European Court of Human Rights reinforced in 2014. “We’re mostly brought up with the idea that people who are publicly naked [outside a naturist area] are perverted in some way, or out to shock, and that still shapes perception. The truth is that society actually struggles to find good arguments against naturism.”

So why are we hesitant to strip off? Luft doesn’t think it’s just prudery. Rather, he puts it down to self-consciousness. Just as the case against naturism appears to be collapsing, advertising and, latterly, social media have made us all incredibly anxious about how our bodies measure up to some ideal standard. Girls suffer from anorexia, boys from the Adonis Complex, men and women alike live with complicated relationships to food, exercise and their less than perfectly Photoshopped parts.

Indeed, Luft argues that, if only it were embraced, naturism could be the antidote to this media-driven obsession with our appearance; a 2017 study by psychologist Keon West of the University of London found that going naked leads to an increase in life satisfaction, body image and self-esteem. In fact, everyone getting naked has a leveling effect, he says. Sure, that the people around you are naked takes a while to get used to — inherent to our humanity there’s an initial sexual frisson, an inevitable momentary sizing up. But the real lesson in nakedness is that you can no longer maintain the fiction of your image, self and public, once denuded of your pricey threads. You’re laid bare.

“You quickly move beyond the superficialities, because there you are, open in front of each other, having honest conversations,” he says. “There are all shapes and sizes in naturism, and absolutely no judgments. There just aren’t that many Greek gods. It becomes much more about your personality.”

This, of course, has been said before, in Heinrich Pudor’s ground-breading 1894 tract Naked People – A Triumph Shout of the Future, through to the wonderfully titled Sunbathing Review of 1933, with its article “The Unpleasantness of Clothes.” The hippies knew how to get their kit off, too. And yet here we still are, done up to the neck. 

“For some, nakedness will remain taboo. But I think we really are seeing the start of a movement towards reviving naturism, especially through its introduction to younger people,” says Claude-Penegry. “There’s a life philosophy at play here, or an ecological mindset maybe. And I think the collective aspect of naturism feels right for post-COVID times. But, you know, it’s just ordinary to be naked. Clothes, all clothes, are just accessories.”

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