“Naturism? That's got to be something to do with nature then?”, my friend asks weakly. I sighed. “Well, kind of”, I replied. “Getting back to nature maybe...”. I feel like I'm on the back foot already.
This slightly exasperating start to a recent conversation down the pub is all too familiar to naturists. It would be far easier if the word or its variant 'nudism' didn't exist. Explaining that it's simply nice not to wear clothes occasionally is fine but 'naturism' seems to open a can of worms. Recalling my conversations with those not accustomed to wearing rather less than the man aboard the Clapham omnibus, most of the time seems to get taken up by explaining the word rather than the action.
Let's have a think for a moment about the word 'naturism'; not what it means, I'll get to that in a while, but the actual word. Nuturism is a label. It's a single word that attempts to describe in a few (slightly baffling) syllables a concept that would otherwise take a paragraph or more to explain. In the modern, ever more digital age it's also a convenient search term, a keyword, and now even a hashtag.
The western world likes labels. The media especially revel in grouping people together with particular characteristics in order to laud its opinion about them to anyone within earshot. In today's fast technology, fast news, fast judgement reality, that means almost everyone...almost immediately. Some people are fine wearing labels. Some people aren't. It very easy and some would say preferable these days to slip into the comfort zone of social convention. Always a part of the majority. A feeling of belonging with the judge rather than the judged. Naturism is not social convention, so who wants to wear the label...?
Well, currently there are near enough ten thousand members of British Naturism in the UK. Ten thousand who are comfortable enough with the label to join and support the national organisation. That's not to say that they are all supportive of the label, but supportive of the goal to 'normalise' nudity i.e. to earn enough respect from society, that the action of wearing nothing cause not a single 'raised eyebrow'.
So there are ten thousands naturists in the UK? Well, no...maybe...sort of. According to a nationwide poll taken in 2011 there are many more than that, a few orders of magnitude more, over 3 million if extrapolation of the result is anywhere near accurate. It's always been odd then that so few are members of the national organisation. Why is that?
Well the first reason is that it obviously costs money, although i don't think that can completely explain the breadth of the difference. The cost of belonging to BN is extremely small compared to other memberships. My union membership at work for example is now £15 a month, seven times the outlay for BN.
A second reason is publicity. Does everyone who wants to know, know about BN?
A third is 'peer anxiety'. Anything not conforming to social convention raises the anxiety of a negative response from others. Living life in the nude can throw up some fairly strong opinions however rarely, but the possibility remains non-negligible and hence many are very wary of disclosing a preference for nudity to others.
A significant reason however is that joining BN bestows the label 'naturist' on the joiner. What difference does that make? Well a good deal I imagine. The thing about labels is that some people are happier wearing them than others. Think for a moment about the goals people have in life and the choices of how we want to live. The older folks get, the more likely it is that they have chosen what they want to do with their life. They are comfortable with their lifestyle and goals. I think this is one of the reasons that older people are more likely to join BN. They have embraced nudity as part of their lifestyle, and hence are happier to wear the label.
On the other hand, younger people in their 20s and 30s are still having a think about their life; still working out how they want to live. Experimenting. Daring. Trying new things. Naturism is a label but it is also a stereotype (whether BN like it or not). Naturism is a lifestyle. Naturism is a choice made. Naturism is not social convention and therefore not 'comfy' in the modern age as described above. Many clubs and societies are struggling for numbers in the 21st Century. I think this is a direct result of a 'swarming towards the centre', a reluctance to break from the mould, a reaction to ever quicker judgements. A reluctance to wear a label. The decrease in union membership is a great example of this effect.
Why do I think this? Because it describes perfectly my own love-hate relationship with 'naturism'. For years I did little more than wear little or nothing around my house/flat. Comfortable and happy but completely cut off from the label 'naturist'. One or two people knew that I didn't wear much indoors, but the vast majority were ignorant. I had no 'naturist' friends, and I had absolutely no motivation to investigate the wider more social aspect to wearing nothing. Suddenly I came across the word and I immediately hated it. I hated the label. I didn't want to pin it on myself. It took a long period of time talking to many people, making friends and attending naturist venues and events before I became close to wanting the badge. Eventually, I took it. I've made my choice. Naturism is part of my life and I want to keep it that way. Many don't want that despite liking the feeling of not wearing anything.
So there are some reasons why there's such a big gap between declared BN naturists and those who admit to practising it; but what is naturism?
“So naturism is like taking your clothes off and stuff?” My conversation down the pub is taking longer than I thought it might! “Well yes”, I said “but....”
But...of course it's never that simple, because labels need definitions. Over to my friend 'www.dictionary.com':
Hmm, so (1) there is the source of much confusion it would seem when the definition we want is (2) which itself is entirely unhelpful. At least it provides the confirmation that in the lexicographical sense the two words are interchangeable. So what about looking up (2):
the practice of going nude, especially in places that allow sexually mixed groups, in the belief that such practice benefits health.'
Right! Now we're getting somewhere. Finally, from our good friends at the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
the practice of going without clothes, generally for reasons of health or comfort. Nudism is a social practice in which the sexes interact freely but commonly without engaging in sexual activities. '
So what do we make of all this? Well naturism certainly involves wearing less than the social norm but there are so many shades of grey around that, that it's difficult to know where naturism starts and ends. Wearing nothing in the bath...social convention...is not thought of as being naturism. What about wearing nothing whilst asleep in bed? Well here it's comes down to state of mind. I personally haven't worn anything in bed since I was 14-ish, yet I wasn't a naturist....was I? One way of putting bounds on naturism is to define it as being 'recreational nudity', but this is also unsatisfactory when we consider those who live life in their homes doing chores, watching TV (occasionally recreation!), putting the washing out etc., without clothing (like me for almost ten years).
As well as the grey areas of what the individual does whilst nude there's other factors to consider. Firstly the stereotype is for the naturist to be completely nude, yet footwear is usually worn...a hat...a sarong...where is the boundary? Some 'bare-footers' call themselves naturist by just removing their footwear! Is a naturist defined by simply uncovering the genitals?
The stereotypical definition also includes an exclusion of any sexual activity whilst nude and in social company. Certainly a clear boundary but even here there are those who call themselves naturists and quite clearly enjoy some kind of sexual connection with it: swingers and such like. Writing that, I recall a conversation with a naturist couple whom I have known for years, telling me about their appearance on a popular TV audience chat show (think similar to Jeremy Kyle) about 'alternative lifestyles' where they were specifically told to sit next to a couple representing swingers.
Notice that the dictionary definitions say nothing about not having a sexual connotation whereas the encyclopaedia definition uses the words 'commonly without'. Yikes!
There's the social aspect. Many conservative naturists whom I have spoken to declare in no uncertain terms that a naturist is only a naturist once they have proven to be comfortable and uncontroversial when nude in a social situation. Some even use the word 'experienced naturist'...like naturism is a hobby that you can gain points at and maybe go 'up a level' once slaying the big boss at the end!
A less person-centred definition concerns respect: a respect in someone's choice to wear as much or as little as they want to. Of course naturism can't be just about that though can it? Else people who stayed dressed all the time but don't mind others getting undressed would be called naturists. So it must be a combination of outward-looking respect and inward-looking choice to dress down.
There's a bottom line here that I'll now come to. At the end of the day, 'naturism' is virtually impossible to define in terms that describe a group of 'naturists' as a discrete set. This brings us all the way back to the start of this article. Naturism is a label. It is a label we used for ourselves before non-naturists used it for us. It is self-imposed. It harks back to a time when the Central Council for British Naturism was originally formed; a time when the definition of a naturist was far more narrow, being a group of people who attended landed naturist clubs and adhered to a strict set of rules. That's not 21st century thinking....in my humble opinion.
So where does that leave us? Well with another opinion, which I know will lead to yet more debate. Naturism is a label and one that does British Naturism no favours. I think therefore it should be abolished. The one thing that everyone reading this will agree on is that it's quite nice to be naked from time-to-time. So why can't we just leave it at that? Well we can't because our media-centred western world needs a hashtag!