I’d already written this piece on Skinny Dipping when artist and OSS member Natasha Brooks posted her film Blue Hue on the OSS Facebook page. In the film Natasha swims and floats naked in a wintery Llyn in Snowdonia while discussing her love of swimming wild, free from boundaries between her body and the environment. Natasha’s film is undoubtedly Art, a canon in which nudity is acceptable. But everyday nudity does not always receive the same welcome.
A while ago I blogged about a trip up the river Dart on a sweltering summer’s day, during which we encountered male nudity in the form of two opportunistic skinny dippers and a yogi in the tree pose. I jokingly entitled the post Hot Naked Men and Cool Dartmoor Water. Adverts for Russian Brides suddenly appeared on my blog, which my iPhone blocked owing to ‘unsuitable content’. On checking the stats I discovered the most frequent search terms are ‘naked swimming’ and ‘skinny dipping’. An interesting comment on the schism between those who strip, leap in and enjoy the feeling of cool water on their bodies, and those who misread their purpose.
Last summer in Northern Ireland a couple of men were threatened with arrest for skinny dipping:
“There are young children in these areas too…You could end up with a criminal record and placed on the sex offender register (sic)” said a police spokesperson (The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 14).
Meanwhile a couple were arrested for skinny dipping, in East Lothian. Nudists can be prosecuted under the Public Order Act for ‘outraging public decency’, although rules vary by country in the UK, and in England skinny dipping is specifically excluded from this offence. Clearly there’s little room for objectivity here.
In Scandinavia, there is a space in society for non-sexualised nudity; there naked adults routinely share saunas with naked children. Perhaps swimmers are in a position to create a similar space in our confused country, where pop culture reveals an overtly sexualised aesthetic made officially decent by the addition of a bikini or some hot pants.
Once you’ve plunged yourself into a moorland brook on a stormy day and sensed that surging energy through your wetsuit, you develop a desire to feel it more directly. It’s a matter of time before even a swimsuit dulls the senses and skinny dipping becomes inevitable. What does this represent but the exposure of one’s body and soul to nature, a baptism, a metaphorical sloughing of the skin? It’s this that Natasha’s film (and the numerous positive reactions to it) shows so beautifully. Yet it goes still deeper.
Skinny dipping is often seen as cheeky and rebellious in that peculiarly British saucy seaside-postcard way. But it’s also seditious in that you can’t sell kit to people who aren’t wearing anything, and we live in such a commercialised environment that a product-free activity becomes subversive in itself. Meanwhile, the routine media shaming of imperfect celebrity bodies regulates our behaviour and our views of what’s shocking (cellulite!)
As a wild swimmer I know that a friendly covering of blubber helps me to withstand the nip of cold water. I can forget to shave my legs (or shave one and lose interest as a friend did recently). I can strip and leap in with alacrity, knowing that the men and women I’m with are too busy enjoying themselves to judge my physique. The experience can be bracing, exciting, sometimes painfully cold, and sensual in the literal meaning of that word, where each nerve ending responds and the movements of our bodies echo the paths of the currents.
Perhaps the careless exposure of un-photoshopped flesh and unstyled wet hair conspire to engender horror both at the thought of one’s own mortality and at the lack of concomitant marketing opportunities. While confusion reigns over nudity, what our culture finds truly shocking is the display of bodies in all their diversity, freed from the triumvirate of religion, advertising and the gym. The beauty in skinny dipping comes from how it makes us feel, whether we’re young or old, fat or thin, or anything in between. We plunge together into waves and lakes and waterfalls and gorge on life and cake while our minds float away. That’s liberation.