With cyclists stripping off to ride through the streets and mass skinny dips hitting the headlines, Harry Wallop of the Daily Telegraph wonders if the British are losing their natural reserve.
It is an image that immediately makes you smile, and then prompts you to ask: ''Why?’’
One hundred people, as naked as the day they were born (bar the odd pair of glasses), are trotting down Oxwich Bay beach, on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, at low tide. It is a mass skinny dip in broad daylight. Shrieks of delight ring out, with a few baffled giggles from assembled dog walkers and kayakers.
Catrin Brooks, a mother of two from Cardiff, was one of the skinny dippers. “It was the most amazing experience. It was just so exhilarating,” she says.
She, like most of the people involved, had never taken her clothes off in public. Her 14-year-old daughter was “mortified” and begged her not to tell any of her friends of her adventure. But Brooks is part of a growing movement of British people who have learnt the liberating joy of stripping off in public - either to raise money for charity, to create an art work, or to make a political point.
The World Naked Bike Ride is another case in point, and this summer has seen thousands of naked cyclists riding through the streets of the UK. Most are environmentalists, protesting against the car-dependent culture in Britain. Some just like the idea of two-wheeling through their local city or town without a scrap on their body nor a care in the world.
As in previous years (this is its 10th), the group of modern-day Lady Godivas will almost certainly be met with cheers, hollers of delight and only the very occasional look of disapproval.
How has Britain, traditionally seen as the most repressed nation in Europe, learnt to strip off? And why does the simple act of unfastening your bra and pulling down your Y-fronts retain the power to stop the traffic, especially when many of our streets’ billboards feature models wearing barely anything at all?
Dominic Abrams, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, says: “It is very unBritish. For starters, we don’t live in a Mediterranean climate. It is very unusual to see nakedness in public, especially in a street. It is uncommon and takes you aback.”
Many of the mass skinny dips are undertaken to raise money for charity, and are the logical conclusion for a generation of charity fund-raisers who have run marathons, trekked up Kilimanjaro, cycled to Paris and jumped out of planes.
Alison Powell, in her thirties, was the person who came up with the idea of skinny dipping last year while she worked in a publishing company in Bath. “I originally thought of it because I was bored at work and thought it might be an entertaining idea. I tried to persuade my colleagues. But it was November and the nearest beach was Weston-super-Mare, which is more of a mudflat really.”
But persuading your friends to take their clothes off? Powell insists she is not an incorrigible exhibitionist. “But I am quite an adrenalin junkie. I used to be a skydiver. And skinny dipping is cheap, easy and you don’t need to train for it.” Only when a friend said they needed a good excuse to join in did it become a charity event as well as an attempt to set a record - which happened when 413 people gathered at Rhossili Bay on the Gower. “It was amazing - the sight of 400 bums wobbling away as they ran into the sea. It was brilliant and really life-affirming.”
Powell’s efforts have inspired a host of naked swims around the country. And the overriding reaction of everyone who did it was that it was exhilarating.
The phenomenon, being so public, is different from naturism, which usually takes place on private property, and certainly in terms of naturist clubs, has struggled to shake off its naughty postcard image.
It is easy to understand why skinny dippers, many of them no longer in the first flush of youth, find the experience a liberating one. But what about young people - a generation brought up with overtly sexual adverts and pre-watershed nudity? Do they feel similarly?
Jack Bootle, 35, works in television and is one of the many thousands of Britons who have volunteered for Spencer Tunick, the New York artist whose speciality is arranging naked bodies in patterns in public spaces. All are happy to be snapped in their birthday suits: in 2003, 200 at his London County Hall installation, and 500 people in Selfridges; in 2008, in the grounds of Blarney Castle, Co Cork, more than 1,000 people; in the summer of 2010, at the Big Chill Festival in a Herefordshire field, some 700 revellers.
Bootle admits he used to find the idea of public nudity “horrendous, absolutely horrendous” to such an extent he used to struggle to take his top off on a beach and hated going to public swimming pools. “I’m just really inhibited,” he says.
But a drunken bet a few years ago led him to volunteer to strip off at 4am in a Newcastle car park before standing in various awkward poses outside the Sage, a wobbly-looking arts centre in Gateshead, along with hundreds of other even more wobbly-looking humans, for yet another Tunick installation.
“This probably sounds overly profound, but the moment we took off our clothes all the tribal divisions just melted away. All the naturists and hipsters just became like everyone else.” Even the potentially mortifying situation of bumping into an old university friend - who was also completely starkers - presented no problems. “It was strangely a rather lovely moment. We embraced on the Tyne Bridge.”
Bootle says that the entire event, from the minute he took his clothes off (an act he practised in the Travelodge hotel room the night before to ensure he could do it quickly without getting into a tangle), was the most therapeutic lesson in becoming unembarrassed.
This chimes with Tunick’s own view of his work: “For me, the nude represents culture coming into the city and how culture makes the city a more open and accepting place,” he says. One of the reasons Tunick is so prolific in Britain is because he has run into trouble with New York’s authorities. In the UK, “indecent exposure” stopped being an offence in 2003, to be replaced by the Sexual Offences Act, which allows for public nudity as long as it is not intended to cause alarm or distress. This explains why flashing - a phenomenon almost killed off by the internet - is still illegal; skinny dipping is not.
But there is a difference between nakedness and nudity. Kenneth Clark, the art historian, famously distinguished between nudes and naked people. In his eyes, the naked human body was exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing. “The word 'nude’, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone,” he wrote.
But things have changed, according to the art critic Jonathan Jones, whose The Loves of the Artists, a study of Renaissance eroticism, has just been published. There is so much flesh on show in magazines, on television, on the internet that we - as viewers - have a tricky job to work out what is “beautiful” nudity and what is not. Jones jokes that the American comedy programme Seinfeld had it pretty spot-on: “The thing you don’t realise is that there’s good naked and bad naked. Naked hair brushing - good. Naked crouching - bad.”
For Jones, the skinny dipping, the Tunicks and the cycle riding is about as innocent and unsexy as it gets. “If there are lots of naked people together - as long as it’s not an orgy - it becomes something completely different.”
The new outbreak of mass nudity that Britain is enjoying can be seen as a reaction against the culture of increasing sexualisation, a reclaiming of the naked body as something utterly innocent. Which is why the natural reaction is for so many people to laugh or smile, not to tut or shield their children’s eyes.
As Jesse Schust, who helped set up the naked bike ride in London, says: “When you are on a bike, it is not possible to be sexual in that context. It looks goofy more than anything else.”
I won’t be joining them, but I shall certainly be cheering them on.