Currently public attitudes towards nudity are not particularly encouraging, but it has been a lot worse in the past. At the beginning of the 20th century in Britain both sexes were expected to cover virtually the whole of their body at all times when in public. This extended to both sea bathing and in swimming pools. There was of course no such pastime as sunbathing during this period. Any person seeking to change this outlook would likely be accused of trying to undermine public 'decency'.
Gradually during the 20th century matters started to loosen up. From the 1920s onwards women could reveal their legs. From the late 1930s men were able to go topless. From the 1950s women could wear bikinis which became more revealing in the 1960s and 1970s. From the 1980s onwards some women went topless on beaches at popular resorts such as Brighton and Bournemouth, although the practice never became widespread. Strangely, this increased permissiveness did not appear to destroy the fabric of society, disproving the fears of those promoting 'modesty'. It also demonstrated that there is no natural or normal level of body exposure, since this is culturally determined according to the prevailing outlook at any given time.
The past thirty years have unfortunately shown no real advance in body acceptance, and there have been some setbacks. During much of the 1980s and 1990s, probably as a response to feminism, the majority of women reverted to one piece swimsuits in swimming pools, although less so on beaches. During the past twenty years the number of men wearing long baggy 'shorts' both in swimming pools and on the beach has continued to increase. This change appears to have been prompted by the fear of being considered homosexual. The current position is that there is still a significant amount of body guilt amongst the general public. Mild exhibitionism of the kind described above is regarded as uncool, particularly for men and especially for younger men. This has not always been the case.
British society seems confused about the human body. The tabloids endlessly display near naked pictures of identikit models, their bodies invariably mutilated to pander to the porn fetish of their more degenerate male readers. Even the supposedly conservative Daily Mail, on its website, publishes each day photos of female celebrities on the beach with 'revealing' bikinis, usually with highly personal comments about their physical attributes. At the same time the tabloids get into hysterics over the 'sexualisation' of children, for instance the absurd furore over padded bras for girls. In truth, we live in a highly sexualised, but mixed up, society where casual fornication is seen as normal, but public nudity is considered disturbing.
Naturism is another topic which brings out the worst in the British media, and the public too. Whilst no longer condemned outright on 'decency' grounds it is often mocked as a strange eccentricity, which no 'normal' person would ever admit to, whilst also being the butt of tired jokes which are at best adolescent. This general immaturity contrasts with the more positive and grown up acceptance in many other European countries, particularly Germany.
Naturism in Britain has for decades been poorly represented by a body known as British Naturism (BN). It has achieved little except a few ghettoised naturist beaches, nearly all of which are virtually inaccessible. The best known are Brighton, which has been hijacked by the sizeable local gay community, and the much better Studland Bay in Dorset which is a model of what British beaches could aspire to. BN has always quite rightly promoted naturism as a healthy family activity. It has also rightly condemned any overt sexual activity at nudist beaches, events or clubs. However, BN's attempt to completely desexualise naturism, stressing instead the undoubted freedom, satisfaction and enjoyment of being without clothes, is both misguided and naive as it does not fully address human nature. It is natural and normal for people to be physically attracted to others and this attraction is enhanced if they are nude. This visual stimulus is usually stronger in men than in women, but is likely to exist to some extent in most people of both sexes. Slightly more controversially it is also normal (or should be) for people to be sensually aroused when nude or nearly nude in the company of others to whom they are attracted. Since the overwhelming majority are heterosexual this means in the company of the opposite sex. This sense of arousal is known as exhibitionism, and since it is normal it must be healthy. Therefore there is no need to apologise for it or for anyone to condemn it. For this reason BN's claim that naturism in not exhibitionist is unrealistic and damaging since it can prompt guilt in people over what is a natural, normal and healthy feeling. Although exhibitionism should be normal for both sexes, women are generally more comfortable with it than men, since they have been less culturally brainwashed against it. However, psychologists define exhibitionism as a sexual disorder. They seem to be particularly concerned about men who expose their genitals in public to unsuspecting females with the intention of shocking them, or to gain sexual satisfaction, or both. Regrettably, this clearly anti social and threatening behaviour has had the effect of branding those men who enjoying being without any, or with little, clothing in public as potentially deviant and possibly dangerous. On this matter a strange double standard exists. If a man catches sight of a naked woman he is a voyeur and thus a 'pervert'. However, if a woman sees a man without clothes he is an exhibitionist and thus also a 'pervert'.
So if it is the case that mild exhibitionism is normal, natural and healthy why is it that most of the public are not exhibitionist and society is generally disapproving? There are a number of reasons for this, the most basic being that most people are highly conformist and do not think too deeply about issues. They accept the prevailing ethos of their peer group with relatively little thought as to why they hold the views they do. Some people may privately not fully accept the prevailing viewpoint, but they keep quiet and do not openly challenge it for fear of being considered different, or even 'weird', by those they socialise with. Since most people in society are sheep-like it takes a brave person to openly defy the prevailing consensus. But because such people do fight for what they believe, often in the face of ridicule, abuse, condemnation and legal harassment, their achievements can benefit society. Two examples relevant to this blog are topless swimming costumes for men, and bikinis for women.
Until the late 1930s all men were expected to cover their chest when on the beach or in swimming pools. The reason for this was to preserve 'public decency', which the majority of people if asked would most likely have supported because it was the established custom for as long as they could remember. In the USA many men were fined for being topless and as a result a now largely forgotten campaign, the 'No Shirt Movement' was created. Through legal challenges, resolute action and persuasive arguments the fines were overturned and as a result men could go topless without fear of harassment from the authorities. Because the USA was a cultural trendsetter the practice spread to Britain. Within a very few years virtually all men started to wear swimming trunks and hardly anyone today considers this to be wrong or 'indecent'.
The bikini was created in 1946 and was named after Bikini atoll in the Pacific where an early atomic bomb had been tested. The French designer considered that his two piece women's swimsuit would be potentially explosive, and he was proved right since it predictably provoked the ire of the 'public decency' brigade. At the time such a costume was considered by the majority of British women to be completely unacceptable in a public place. A version, that was expected to cover the navel, was slowly taken up by women on the continent during the 1950s and gradually this spread to British beaches. By the 1960s, without any fanfare, the bikini had shrunk to expose the navel, and by the 1970s the briefest of bikinis was commonplace both on beaches and in swimming pools. Once again the fears of the 'decency' scaremongers were proved to have been unfounded. These two examples show that a relatively small number of determined individuals can be more in tune with people's real feelings than a submissive public are themselves. Although significant factors causing exhibitionism and naturism to be currently unfashionable are submission to peer pressure and cultural conformity, there are other issues militating against greater acceptance. Traditionally, the most vocal opponents of body acceptance were the Christian churches, which considered the unclad body to be fundamentally indecent and likely to give rise to the sin of lust. This viewpoint was particularly prevalent during the Victorian era which saw the introduction of voluminous swimming costumes. In earlier periods, men at least, were able to swim naked without harassment. The influence of the churches has been significantly reduced in recent decades with the rise of secular values. The notion that the nude human body is inherently 'indecent' is less openly stated these days although it has not gone away completely, and it is disturbing to note that legislation is still on the statute book using this term for which men are currently in jail.
Unfortunately, the gap caused by the loss of influence of the churches has been filled by a new secular religion comprising the cult of the celebrity and its associated idealised notions of bodily perfection. People not living up to this ideal (which includes most of us) become anxious about their perceived bodily imperfections. Because of this many women these days openly declare that they hate the way their bodies look, which previous generations would have accepted as perfectly normal. Thus if they are uncomfortable with their bodies they will be unwilling to reveal them in public.
Another group more openly promoting body guilt are the feminists. The more militant members of this movement are undoubtedly anti men and are keen to ferret out opportunities to exercise control over them. Once such method has been to claim that male admiration for the female body 'objectifies' women. Therefore women should cover themselves up to prevent this happening. This attitude, which reached its peak during the 1980s, may have caused the return to fashion of the one piece swimsuit during this period. With the rise of a more 'in your face' femininity typified by the Spice Girls in the mid 1990s this viewpoint has been in retreat but again has not completely gone away, and may now be undergoing a revival.
Another interest group which provokes trouble and paranoia is the child protection industry as exemplified by the Mumsnet brigade and so called 'charities' such as the NSPCC, which has now become an agent of the state. They are on the lookout for paedophiles around every corner and are happy to assume that nudity equates to a form of sexual deviancy which threatens their little ones. In fact naturism on the continent has demonstrated that children are very comfortable in a nude environment which includes adults. They become acquainted from an early age with the human body and it has no fear for them, unlike many of those who have led a more sheltered existence in this respect. These then are some of the wowsers who promote bodily guilt and paranoia to the detriment of natural, normal and healthy behaviour. Back in the 1970s some naturists predicted that swimwear would gradually fall out of use as it gradually became skimpier and eventually it would be discarded altogether. Sadly, this has not happened, the easy going 1970s have been replaced by the anxious 21st century. On a more positive note once a year hundreds of cyclists are allowed to parade in the nude through London and other towns in support of a liberal approved environmental cause. Hypocritically, they are widely cheered and supported by an amused watching British public, and even photographed in the company of the police. If a single cyclist tried this on there would be a very different outcome. There is clearly safety in numbers and having the right politically approved cause.
In the 1980s many women reverted to one piece swimsuits in swimming pools whilst for men 'speedo' style swimming briefs were still commonplace. Thus during that decade men demonstrated a greater willingness to embrace body freedom whilst swimming than women. This has now changed, many more women are now wearing bikinis, some very skimpy. On the other hand the large majority of men have taken to wearing long baggy shorts often below the knee. So currently, women are more likely than men to enjoy the freedom of wearing as little as currently possible whilst swimming or sunbathing. From a practical viewpoint for swimming there appears to be no particular advantage either way between one piece swimsuits for women and bikinis. From this it can be deduced that many women like to wear more revealing swimwear for its own sake. In other words they are exhibitionist. For men however, swimming in baggy shorts is far less practical than in swimming briefs as the water drag is much greater. For this reason they have never been worn in swimming competitions. From this it could be concluded that many men are suffering from body guilt. However, the real reason is more likely to be their fear of being considered homosexual since it is a commonly held, but false, view that speedos are more popular with the gay community.
On the beach bikinis never went out of fashion. If you are trying to acquire a tan they are more practical than a one piece swimsuit. A small number of women go topless on popular beaches, but the practice has never really taken off as much as it has on some continental beaches. For men long baggy shorts are just as prevalent as in swimming pools. Here the impracticality is compounded since they are less practical for sunbathing and are more uncomfortable when wet. Swimming costumes of whatever type are unnecessary for both swimming and sunbathing. They can more accurately be described as decency costumes since this is the only purpose they serve. Regrettably, in the current climate of conformity and orthodoxy they are here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least. So the public are denied the right to practice an enjoyable and harmless activity in an appropriate setting such as swimming and sunbathing