Nude has never been more on-trend – and I’m not talking fashion or lipstick shades. I mean people getting their kit off. In public. Not convinced? Well, British Naturism saw a 10% increase in new members in a single year (from 2017-2018), while 2018’s annual World Naked Bike Ride in London had its biggest ever turnout. And it’s little wonder: according to recent studies, one of the most potent antidotes to negative body image is, yup, getting naked. Because, in a world where we’re constantly exposed to images of idealised bodies, seeing – and being seen by – ‘normal’ people unclothed can be a reassuring wake-up call in the quest to help you make peace with your body.
Like a staggering 96% of British women, I’ve spent my whole life feeling anxious about my figure. I went on my first diet (eating only tinned peaches!) when I was 12 – very bad idea – and I’ve been everything from a size 10 to a size 16. And at no point did I feel as though my body was toned enough, small enough or smooth enough, regardless of the number on the scales. I’m that person who avoids looking at her naked body in the mirror, undresses in the gym toilets, and has perfected the art of kaftan-arranging during beach season.
So when challenged to try a three-week, kit-off experiment, I wouldn’t say I relished it exactly. But I was interested in what I could learn about myself if I tested the boundaries I’d set up back when I was a teenager. Plus, body negativity has been linked to everything from low self-esteem to unhappiness and depression, so after a lifetime of loathing mine, I need to do something drastic. Gulp.
A sense of dread bubbles up from the pit of my stomach as I think about baring all in front of my full-length bedroom mirror. I’m shocked at how stressed I feel about doing this, so I speak to Holli Rubin, a psychotherapist who specialises in body image. ‘While it’s a great first step to becoming more comfortable with your body, it can be very difficult for a lot of people,’ she admits. But I’m alone in my room, not about to pole- dance at Stringfellows! ‘If someone is used to thinking negatively about their body, it can be incredibly confronting to face themselves like this,’ Holli adds. ‘It may dredge up a lot of negative emotion.’ She urges me to ‘prepare your mind first, and spend a few days focusing less on what your body looks like, and more on what it can do’.
Over the next few days, as Holli suggests, I reflect on all the great things my body does, from powering through a hectic HIIT class to cooking a meal for my friend’s toddler. By day four I feel a sprouting of confidence. I tentatively stand in front of my bedroom mirror and, despite immediately lasering-in on my thighs (old habits die hard), I don’t look away or lunge for my bathrobe. I give it a few seconds, and think about what this body I see is capable of. I nod to my naked self, and smile. ‘You’re going to do this,’ I say aloud.
Into my second week, a conversation with psychologist Dr Keon West, who specialises in self-esteem and body image, makes me realise I’ve been a bit too easy on myself. ‘The real body image benefits come from being naked around strangers,’ he tells me. The dread surfaces again. OK, I’ve been confidently striding naked through my flat when my flatmate is out, and I’m starting to feel the fog of body-criticism thinning. But in front of others?
‘If you’re worried, it may be reassuring to learn that one study found life-drawing classes can have similar benefits,’ Dr West adds. It might seem like l’m cheating, but the theory is that it allows you to see a normal, non-airbrushed, un-doctored body. It gives us context: ‘Most of the images we see are of highly stylised bodies,’ he continues. ‘That warps our perception of what a normal body looks like and can make us overly self-critical.’
And, indeed, two hours on a Saturday afternoon spent sketching the elegant curves of the naked model acts like a soothing balm to my worries. She isn’t a size 10, or hyper-toned, but she looks fantastic because she looks like a real woman. The dimples on her thighs and the gently rounded stomach look, well, beautifully feminine and Rubenesque, rather than repulsive, which is how I view those things on myself.
Buoyed by my experience, the next day I decide to take part in a naked swim (British Naturism organises them all over the country). But in the harsh strip lighting of the changing rooms, my life-drawing high quickly dissipates, and I lock myself in the loo. After 20 minutes, what finally lends some perspective is overhearing a conversation between two women. One tells the other about how much a mastectomy knocked her body confidence. ‘It feels really good,’ she says to her friend, ‘to be proud of my body again.’ Immediately, I feel ridiculous. ‘Get a grip,’ I chide myself.
"All around me, naked men and women relax, stomach rolls folding over as they chat by the pool"
Poolside, I turn my back to the swimmers, take a deep breath and let my towel drop. I’m not going to lie – it’s awkward. My inner critic booms, ‘You look gross. Why are you doing this?’ All around me, though, naked men and women swim – bare shoulders and elbow-points bob out of the water – or relax, with stomach rolls folding over as they sit and chat by the pool. No one pays attention to me. I slip into the water and begin to swim. The activity (and being submerged) are excellent distractions from my neurosis and, within an hour, I feel almost – dare I say it – at ease.
But getting out of the pool is a different matter. My heart pounds as I heave myself on to the side and dash for my towel. As I cloister myself in a cubicle to get dressed, I think, ‘I’ve pushed myself enough for one day.’ But I’m still proud I did the naked swim. And on the way home I give myself a mental high five and remember to say a little thank you to my body for swimming all those lengths.
My confidence has taken a decisive upturn. The naked swim was the biggest tipping point, not just because I noticed that my body was much the same as everyone else’s, but because I realised I’ve been allowing my worries and self-criticism to dictate what I can and can’t do for far too long. My boyfriend even remarks on the change, saying that I seem calmer – probably because I’m paying less attention to that inner critic. This new shot of Zen makes me want to set myself one final challenge: naked yoga. I’d seen it on the British Naturism website and immediately discounted it (naked downward dog? No way!). But my new-found fortitude kicks in and I book myself a place.
Which is how I end up, one evening, taking deep breaths to calm myself outside a yoga studio. I pull myself together and enter the room, where low, tinkly, music plays and about 10 nude people sit cross-legged in a semi-circle around the instructor. I realise I can’t take my clothes off in the corner of the room – there’s something too awkwardly intimate about balancing on one foot to shimmy down my trousers. I go to the bathroom to undress, then come back in a towel. I feel so self-conscious, my chest constricts. No one takes much notice of me, especially once the practice starts. But there’s not a single moment when I don’t feel self-conscious. Over and over I think: ‘I’m naked, I’m naked, I’m naked.’
Still, during the 90 minutes, I arch up, then lunge and curl to one side. I thrust an arm up in the air, legs spread. I attempt a headstand, with my knees pressed down onto my elbows and my feet up in the air. It is not dignified. My thigh fat wobbles as I do a downward dog. Afterwards, despite the fact that I didn’t truly relax into the class, I do feel an amazing sense of unshackling myself from my body worries. I realise that if I can do this totally naked, then I can do just about anything. It drives home the fact that, at 30, I may not have the toned body my 13-year-old self was desperate for, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take pride in the one I have got.
This challenge has felt almost like immersion therapy: pushing myself slowly through the fear. Sometimes I really wanted to throw a sheet over myself and curl up in a tight ball. But each time I worked my way through all my inhibitions, I was left with a greater sense that, in the context of all the other ‘normal’ bodies I’ve seen, mine is normal, too. And, more than that, it’s deserving of the same kindness in attitude that I give to others. Obviously, I don’t expect to be suddenly living my life like a #bopo (body positivity) warrior 24/7. But there’s been a profound shift, from feeling self-conscious and using that as an excuse to hide away, to feeling self-conscious and doing it – whatever ‘it’ is – anyway.