The best adventures bring us beyond our comfort zones, ask us to be vulnerable, and allow us to grow into a new, more expansive normality by rising to the challenge. Which, as Meleasha Carbado explores, makes social nudity one hell of an adventure.
What is more adventurous than diving into an activity you have never done before, at arguably your most vulnerable and exposed? We're talking about embracing the world of social nudity. More specifically, riding your bike through London, naked. Fear not, you won't be alone! There will be a thousand others riding alongside you, painted with slogans and flowers.
It’s June 2022. The sun is out and Tower Hill, London is alive with people – most of whom are about to get a shock. For this is the meeting point for the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), which has been taking place around the world since 2004.
'The sun is out and Tower Hill, London is alive with people – most of whom are about to get a shock.'
The aims and motivations behind the WNBR have evolved. They started as a combination of protest against oil dependency and celebration of the power and individuality of the human body. In 2006, this shifted to primarily focus on cycling advocacy, encouraging the curbing of car culture and demonstrating the vulnerability of cyclists. More recently, however, the focus has re-broadened to encompass the celebration of body freedom, increased body confidence, and a general care for our surroundings, both locally and globally.
"Our message to the world is one of simplification, human harmony and love,” says Conrad Schmidt, founder of Canada’s Work Less Party and Artists for Peace, and organiser of WNBR Vancouver. “For a future to exist for tomorrow's generations, we have to stop wasting the lifeblood energy of the earth, stop fighting and killing in the name of consumerist wealth accumulation, and learn to love and respect all life on this planet."
In the words of the WNBR Global wiki, "We face automatic traffic with our naked bodies as the best way of defending our dignity and exposing the vulnerability faced by cyclists and pedestrians on our streets, as well as the negative consequences we all face due to dependence on oil, and other forms of non-renewable energy."
'We face automatic traffic with our naked bodies as the best way of defending our dignity and exposing the vulnerability faced by cyclists and pedestrians on our streets, as well as the negative consequences we all face due to dependence on oil, and other forms of non-renewable energy.'
As I begin to get ready – taking clothes off, not putting them on as in the usual get-ready scenario – I think back to what had brought me here, to this park, stripping off among a bunch of strangers to ride around the great city of London. You see, this event is not completely out of the ordinary for me; in fact, social nudity has been fairly commonplace for the last four or five years. But while the ride isn’t the beginning of my naked-in-public journey, it was the catalyst for it.
During my teenage years, I watched a TV programme titled My Daughter, the Teenage Naturist with my mum. The show followed a girl, who I believe was around eighteen or nineteen, as she prepared to take part in the WNBR. As I watched, I thought it looked like so much fun, and made a mental note to perhaps attend myself one day. Six years later I mentioned it to a previous partner, who arranged a surprise trip to a naturist spa. The reception staff and the lovely owner were all fully clothed. They explained the rules of the spa, mainly that there was a strict zero-tolerence policy against any ‘funny business’. This is a huge part of keeping naturist spaces safe, and is a policy present at any organised naturist event.
Even entering the changing rooms felt a little strange. In Britain at least, we are so used to attempting to change as quickly as possible while showing as little skin as possible. I felt how deeply this cultural norm was ingrained. It was just us two, but I found myself instinctively covering bits of my body. This is pointless in a naturist spa, as people are going to see everything very soon anyway. But while this realisation was freeing, it would take a few years of naturist events for me to truly get used to changing at less-than-break-neck speed. When it was time to head into the spa, I did so with a towel draped over my shoulder, so as to have what I see now as an element of cover. I tentatively stepped over the naked threshold and … from then on I was hooked. I instantly felt normal. I felt free, I felt comfortable and importantly, I felt safe.
I’ve since been to countless naturist events, festivals and gatherings, and can honestly say that the naturist community is one of the most welcoming I have ever been a part of. There is something about all being in a somewhat vulnerable and exposed position together that makes for deep conversations and the development of strong friendships. I attend a lot of festivals through my work, and I see this to a degree at many smaller events. Some attendees return year after year, bringing the whole family along, children becoming used to seeing their parents let loose a little, groups reuniting once a year. This sense of community is something I think we crave on a deep level, and there is something about festivals and gatherings that enable, for just a weekend, to live in a way that we are perhaps supposed to all the time. Interestingly, in my experience, this sense of community can easily be built over a very short period of time. Though seemingly short-lived, this connection is important. I believe this effect takes root more deeply when you add naturism to the equation. This, for me, is the biggest positive outcome of attending naturist events: becoming part of a community.
Not that this fully prepared me for the event I'd wanted to take part in for almost a decade. Being naked in such a public place is a whole new experience, and slightly daunting. Being naked alongside others forces you to be vulnerable alongside others – which, like lots of life's most adventurous activities, can be scary but also highly rewarding.
Going from clothed to unclothed represents a transition: from everything you externally present to the outside world, to the uncensored physical essence of who you are as a person.
Being naked is the biggest social leveller. Without clothes and accessories it is impossible to know much about a person, like what job they do, how much money they make, their style, or their taste in music. This means pre-judgements are kept to a minimum, and that to learn anything about someone, you must ask them. A strange thing happens when faced with this kind of conversation between two individuals without clothes. Being more vulnerable and exposed than usual, the topics that come up vary from the norm. While 'How did you first get into naturism?' is a common conversation starter, in my experience this often expands to much deeper themes: other passions in life, the benefits of belonging to a community, the yearning to spend more time in nature.
This sense of openness and vulnerability and safety to be yourself around others seeking the same is what naturism is all about.
'Being naked is the biggest social leveller. Without clothes and accessories it is impossible to know much about a person, like what job they do, how much money they make, their style, or their taste in music. This means pre-judgements are kept to a minimum, and that to learn anything about someone, you must ask them.'
This sentiment is evident instantly as we wait for the start, painting random things on our bodies and readying for take off. A young guy approaches us to say that this is his first time being naked socially, except skinny dipping on holiday, and that he is a bit nervous. Could he hang out with us? Of course we say yes. Then, within minutes, another guy approaches with his bike. He has been walking through the park completely unaware that the event is taking place, and stops to ask us what is going on. We explain, and he thinks ‘What the heck, I’ll join in!’ and gets his kit off. And then off we go, our little group, my band of merry men.
From this, you might be wondering where all the women are. Worry not! My fellow naked females are out in force, with a surprisingly even split. I say surprising, as this hasn’t always been the case in naturist circles. From what I’ve seen though, the makeup of UK naturists is changing rapidly, becoming more diverse and inclusive.
Naturism is also on the rise. A 2022 Ipsos poll found that people of all ages are increasingly turning to healthy, body-positive, clothes-free recreation, estimating that 14% of the UK population would describe themselves as naturists, compared to 6% in a 2011 poll. Participation also appears to be higher among young adults than older people, with 47% of 16-24 year-old respondents having been naked socially at least once in the past year compared with 6% of respondents aged 45–75.
“Attitudes to nudity are changing, with taboos and stigma being eroded,” says Dr. Mark Bass, President of British Naturism. “Modern society is weighed down by a body-confidence crisis, and more and more people are discovering the benefits that nudity brings to mental, emotional and physical health by allowing us to reclaim ownership of our identities. When we spend time naked with others we realise that we all have scars and flaws, and that we don’t need to compare ourselves with an airbrushed model. Naturism gives us the freedom to be ourselves and have a lot of fun.”
'Modern society is weighed down by a body-confidence crisis, and more and more people are discovering the benefits that nudity brings to mental, emotional and physical health by allowing us to reclaim ownership of our identities. When we spend time naked with others we realise that we all have scars and flaws, and that we don’t need to compare ourselves with an airbrushed model. Naturism gives us the freedom to be ourselves and have a lot of fun.'
Whilst not strictly a naturist event, the WNBR provides an opportunity for people to dip their toe into social nudity. The slogan for the rides is 'As bare as you dare', giving attendees the option of wearing as little or as much as they want, adding fun accessories if they wish.
As we set off, there is much excitement in the air and not a frown in sight. Outfits encompass completely bare skin, fun slogans and beautiful patterns painted all over, wigs of every colour, body harnesses, decorative headdresses, see-through outfits and even one lady covered completely in sunflowers. There is one thing everybody has in common: we are smiling and laughing and thoroughly enjoying what is surely one of the most unusual days we’ve experienced.
That said, the fact that the ride is not a naturist-organised event does present some important downsides. As we leave the park we encounter the only one negative of the day: cameras. Lots and lots of cameras.
All the naturist events I’ve ever been to have had a strict no camera/phone policy. This is of course for the safety and comfort of those at the event. It’s never questioned, and thankfully very rarely has to be enforced, as everyone just gets it. I hadn’t realised what a big impact this rule had until experiencing its absence at the WNBR. Because the WNBR isn’t held to the same rules, and because it takes place in the city, there isn't much anyone can do about the cameras – something to keep in mind if you plan on attending, because they are quite literally everywhere.
The WNBR is an amazing event to be a part of. It’s a totally exhilarating experience that makes every inch of your body feel alive (the breeze helps!). I’ll be forever glad I took part. I even did the Brighton ride the very next day (yes, our butts were very sore by the end), and I definitely plan to do more in the future. But I don’t know if I’d do the London ride again. While riding past famous landmarks like Buckingham Palace with your bum out is an experience I can only recommend, the many people with cameras did spoil it somewhat.
Rather than put me off naked events though, this has only strengthened my love of truly naturist events. At a naturist event, I feel safe, I feel welcome and I feel a sense of community – all of which, in my opinion, are more important than the simple act of being naked. This is what it really boils down to, the thing that drives my desire to get naked with strangers and friends alike: connection.
During the ride I happen to notice a man called Keon West, and go over and introduce myself. West is both a naturist and a professor, and wrote research a few years ago that inspired my whole dissertation at university.
West’s work has delved into nudity and its effect on body image and self esteem, finding that “spending just 45 minutes in a nude social setting increases appreciation for one’s own body and reduces social anxiety, while adult participation in clothes-free activities over a number of years increases long-term positive body image, self-esteem and life satisfaction.” In West’s study, 849 members of the British public, recruited via word-of-mouth and advertisements posted on various internet forums, were asked to indicate their agreement with statements such as: “I respect my body,” “I do not feel good about my body,” “I focus a lot energy being concerned with my body shape or weight” and “My self worth is independent of my body shape or weight.” As well as body-focused statements, participants were also asked about statements relating to self esteem and life satisfaction. The study found that “participants who engaged in more naturist activities also reported greater life satisfaction, and that this relationship was mediated by more positive body image and higher self-esteem.”
Thinking about dipping your toe into social nudity? Try it! What have you got to lose? There are naturist clubs up and down the country, as well abroad, but the best way to try it, in my opinion, is at one of British Naturism’s festivals. There is NKD in May, Nudefest in June, and EveryBody in August. Festivals bring people together and there’s no festival like a naked festival.
'At a naturist event, I feel safe, I feel welcome and I feel a sense of community – all of which, in my opinion, are more important than the simple act of being naked.'
As we finish our cycle in Hyde Park, high off the energy of everyone around us, our little group gets dressed, marvelling at the outfits of those around us. Some are dressed super formally, others in athletic gear. Back to the external world. As people continue to hang around in groups chatting animatedly, delaying their departure, there is an air of everyone wanting to stay connected in this strange excited bubble we have co-created for the day. It is clear that we’ve just taken part in something special, and quite rightly people want to hang on to that feeling.
This, I believe, is evidence of the urge we all have to create community and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is why we are always striving to connect, to share, to be around people and be loved. Whilst the WNBR lacks some of the safety and privacy of organised naturist events, it doesn’t lack community spirit. Some attendees likely saw the day as a break from reality, others as a return to what should be normal. One thing is for sure: it was a big adventure.