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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Grin and bare it
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

It's 25 years since Britain's first major nudist beach got the go ahead, provoking widespread controversy. Is nakedness still a laughing matter?

A short stretch of pebbly foreshore entered the history books on this day in 1979, when it was designated Britain's first major nudist beach.

Sign put up on nudist beach
Brighton was split by the opening of the nudist beach

A vociferous "No" campaign was unable to persuade Brighton councillors that bathing in the altogether was a disgrace, and the town took the bold step of deciding that bathing suits were optional.

A quarter of a century on and the beach is still there, a source of pride to naturists, who say they are increasingly accepted by a British public used to seeing nudity on holiday and in the media.

The group British Naturism estimates that there are now half a million naturists in the UK, and boasts that its own membership is up 20% over the last five years, to 25,000.

But with nudist camps still the source of much Carry On-style tittering, are we really any more accepting of naked bodies?

'Wrong sort'

For Bob (not his real name) naturism is all about the feeling of freedom that comes with shedding clothes.

That's why, once a month, he invites like-minded souls to his West Midlands pub for a drink. In the nude.

Naked man goes shopping
The UK has recently seen nude shopping events

People come from far and wide, but he no longer publicises the occasions, fearful of the "wrong sort" of customer.

"If you advertise in the paper you end up with 30 single blokes," says Bob, who has run the "theme" days for eight years.

The problem is emblematic of the challenge facing naturists. Ask them why they enjoy going naked and the responses are about feeling natural, enjoying the environment and mixing with people of all backgrounds.

But persuading the wider world that naturism is not about sex and gawping has not been easy.

'Horrible lady'

When Eileen Jakes led the campaign for Brighton's nudist beach she was accused of pandering to weirdos and perverts.

"If you perform nudity in public you destroy its value as an erotic action
Desmond Morris

"I was told I should be ashamed of myself and that I was a horrible lady," says Ms Jakes, now 72, who got into naturism during holidays to the south of France and is still a regular visitor to Brighton's beach.

At the time, fellow town councillor John Blackman said the beach was a "flagrant exhibition of mammary glands".

"I personally have no objection to people showing their breasts and bosoms and general genitalia to one another," said Cllr Blackman. "Jolly good luck to them, but for heaven's sake, they should go somewhere more private."

Sun clubs

Despite failing to maintain the popularity of its early years, when young families flocked to its pebbles, Brighton nudist beach survived attempts by a Conservative council to close it, and it remains famous throughout the UK.

Woman sunbathing
Foreign holidays have helped people get used to flesh

British Naturism regards Brighton's beach as a landmark, and a catalyst for changing attitudes to nudity in the UK .

In addition to the opening of other naturist beaches in the UK, there are now close to 100 naturist "sun clubs". There have even been a few naked shopping nights.

Some of the most profound changes have been in society at large, with films, magazines, newspapers and adverts all regularly featuring naked flesh.

Recent episodes of Big Brother, in which housemates frolicked in various states of undress, show that millions of TV viewers are also happy to see more than a glimpse of ankle.

'Intimate act'

But it seems Britons remain uneasy about nudity when seen away from film, or the printed page.

Last summer "Naked rambler" Steve Gough spent almost as much time in the clink as on the trail during his mammoth 900-mile trek from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Steve Gough
Naked rambler Steve Gough faced repeated arrest

And artist Betsy Schneider had her exhibition closed following a visit by police, who were alerted by complaints that it contained naked pictures of her daughter.

Social anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of the Naked Ape, suggests that our unease with nudity has been shaped over thousands of years and is not going to disappear.

He says people started wearing clothes because they needed to keep warm. As a result, the sex organs were covered up and their display took on a definite meaning.

"Removal of clothes is an intimate act to perform with your loved one," says Mr Morris. "If you perform nudity in public you destroy its value as an erotic action."

'The weird family'

The trouble for naturists, he says, is that they want to separate their naked bodies from all erotic thoughts - something which does not come naturally.

"They have to rather stoically and rather stubbornly switch off all sexual feelings and thoughts," he says.

Suggesting people should be nudists is "rather like going to the Nuba tribe (in Africa), who are naked most of the time, and asking if they would like to set up a society for evening dress," adds Mr Morris.

Despite such doubts, British Naturism is adamant that while it hopes to attract new members, its main concern is to be understood.

"We want people to know it's all around you," says Andrew Welsh of British Naturism. "It may not only be the weird family down the street, but your next-door neighbour."

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