The Simple Things
Who needs a swimming costume. We could all do with embracing the sense of freedom and positivity that comes with a skinny dip, suggests Sian Lewis
What’s more liberating than the feeling of swimming naked? When it’s just you, your body and a body of water it’s as if you could be from any time in history. With no swimsuit fabric or thick wetsuit neoprene on your skin, you’re more aware of the bite of the ocean, of river mud under your feet, of seaweed softly brushing your legs. Swimming in the nude celebrates your body and the wild alike.
Many of my favourite memories are of skinny dips – rushing shrieking into the waves with friends on Cornish beaches, or slipping alone into the cold water of a deserted bay on a Hebridean island. Wild swimming, with or without clothing, has been proven to reduce anxiety and boost our mood and our immune system. So why is skinny dipping still seen as a little rebellious?
Living in Britain, it often feels like the human body (and especially the disrobed female body) is a subject either for shock or for titillation. We haven’t come as far as we might like to think from the days when Victorians covered up table legs in the name of modesty – even modern creative platforms such as Instagram are bent on banning female nipples and nude bodies that don’t fit conventional ideas of beauty. After all, how often do we encounter naked bodies complete with stretch marks, caesarean scars, pubic hair and the other normal markers of being a human that seem to get hidden or smoothed away by marketing and the media?
In many countries, naked swimming is far more mainstream – and sometimes even enforced, such as in Scandinavian swimming lakes and saunas, or Japanese hot springs (or onsen), where wearing a swimsuit is considered downright rude. Many European beaches have nudist-friendly sections, and of all nations, Germans are apparently the most likely to feel comfortable going nude by the sea. In my own travels, swimming in dusky lakes in Finland or stepping into bubbling onsen baths in Japan, I was surprised by how internally shocked I first was when encountering people of all shapes, sizes and ages in the nude. Now, I think it’s wonderful. And whatever country you call home, we can all slough off our ingrown inhibitions surprisingly quickly – in the cold north of Sweden
I once shared a traditional wood sauna with ten women from all corners of the globe after we’d all spent five days camping in the snow. We were all smelly, with matted hair and desperate for some hot water. After five minutes, everyone was naked – and it felt completely normal to run outside and jump into an icy plunge pool, together in the altogether.
Newbie nudey swimmers may be more comfortable sticking to gendered swimming areas or swimming alone, but I’ve also swum and sunbathed naked on many a British nudist beach open to men and women alike. On these often hard-to-reach shingly coves, people of all ages and states of wrinkliness chat, paddle and pour tea from Thermoses, as if being naked was the most normal thing in the world. If you ask me, it should be. And the pleasure of a skinny dip is nothing new. While upper-class English ladies of the 1800s might have worn head-to-toe bathing suits, not everyone was quite so modest. In 1795, ‘lower classes of people of both sexes made an annual pilgrimage to Liverpool where they dabbled in the salt water for hours at each tide in promiscuous numbers and not much embarrassing themselves about appearance,’ notes Stephen Fisher in Recreation and the Sea. Go further back in time, and there are reports that for some early Christian Britons, nude bathing was a spiritual, even sacred act, possibly with links to baptisms today.
Anything that celebrates bodies of all shapes and sizes and their ability to launch themselves into cool water, to swim strongly, to get all goose pimply – in short, to be real bodies – seems to me like something that should be applauded. If you’ve never swum naked before, it can feel a little intimidating to shed your clothes and your inhibitions in one fell swoop, but I think it’s worth taking the ( literal) plunge – you might just find your whole mindset shifting as you stride into a shady river or the rolling ocean, and notice your appreciation for your body and for nature swelling as they are alone together.
After long months of tight restrictions, a naked swim feels like an insubordinate act of self-love, a siren call of freedom. Here’s to the skinny-dipping rebellion – swimsuits may be optional, but joy is guaranteed.