The naked tourist

Fri, Jun 23, 2006, 01:00

What makes us strip abroad when it's the last thing we'd do here? It must be more than the weather, writes Fionola Meredith

More and more people are choosing to go naked on the beach while on holiday abroad - and it's easy to see why we're tempted to sample the au naturel approach. For a start, on many European beaches, there's sure to be plenty of other carefree sun-worshippers strolling about with all-over body tans.

It's hot, and that tight "tummy control" swimsuit that seemed such a good buy back home starts to feel like a bit of a sweaty encumbrance. You're in relaxed holiday mode, lulled by sun and sangria; you're far removed from all the niggling pressures of daily life, and equally far from the incredulous eyes of people who know you.

Then, before you know it, you've whisked off that sensible one-piece - along with hundreds of years of inherited guilt and repression - and you're standing on a foreign shore in the nip.

It feels wonderfully liberating - so why don't we feel able to let it all hang out at home?

That's a question that Eamonn, of the Irish naturist group Club Aquarius, has asked naked Irish people he's come across on foreign beaches.

He says that the outraged answer is always the same - "what do you think I am?". It seems that many people are happy to do a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping while on holiday, but the thought of embracing a naturist lifestyle back in Ireland horrifies them.

"It's illogical," sighs Eamonn, who attends a weekly naturist swimming session with his wife. (Club members don't reveal their surnames in public, due to the continued suspicion with which naturism is regarded in Ireland.) The family-orientated group uses an indoor swimming pool in Dublin in the colder months, then transfers in the summer to one of the few beaches along the east coast where nude bathing is tacitly accepted.

"Once you've had the experience of going naked, you're usually hooked," says Eamonn.

"But Irish people are held back by the teaching they receive as youngsters. Bodies are still seen as dirty. Parents will let their kids sit in front of a violent movie, but they'll turn it off if there's even a flash of nudity. We think that bare bodies are not necessarily sexual; in fact, partially-clad bodies are more suggestive."

What else stops people from going naked? "There's always the excuse of the weather in Ireland. But that's nonsense - a pair of wet togs won't keep you warm. And some people would be worried about what their neighbours might think.

But you never know, behind that garden wall your neighbour might be equally keen to try a bit of naked sunbathing."

Anke Lueddecke, a German-born television producer, thinks that many people here seem particularly hung up about their bodies. "It appears to be a national attitude, this feeling of shame about being naked."

Writer Rudie Goldsmith agrees: "There's just no culture of nudity here, people are terrified of taking their clothes off. They assume that there's something predatory or sexual about it."

But he's one of the few Irish men who admits that he's a fan of going naked when on foreign beaches.

"Yes, I do it when I'm abroad. I'm sensitive about it, and I only ever go nude in designated areas. I'd never do it at home. At least when you're on holiday, only your nearest and dearest see you. I wouldn't want one of my mates to spot me."

Stephen Mullan (26), a postgraduate at Queen's University Belfast, confesses to being tempted by the idea of skinny-dipping.

"I saw some people swimming naked at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, and I wanted to go in. But I was with a prudish American girl, and she wouldn't let me. I'd do it another time though, it looked so good."

But Paul, a 33-year-old teacher, snorts with laughter at the very idea of baring all on holiday. "No way would I take my shorts off! I'm the archetypal Irish male, I only feel comfortable on the beach when I'm safely covered up from navel to knee."

But doesn't he feel envious of all those easy-going blokes from Germany or Spain who stroll about the shore with nothing on? Isn't there a sense of missing out? "I suppose I envy the ability to be so relaxed about it. But I can't help it, I'd feel horribly exposed if everybody could see me in the buff."

WHILE MANY OF us balk at the idea of public nudity at home or abroad, single mum Grace (42), loves the freedom of shedding her clothes while at her holiday house in Italy.

"The feeling of warm sun on your skin is incomparable, it's so rejuvenating. I don't have a perfect body by any means, but in a way that's why I enjoy it. It sounds paradoxical, but when you put all your flaws and imperfections on show, it's actually a total escape from worrying about how you look."

But Grace's two teenage children are horrified by her devil-may-care attitude. "They groan with embarrassment, to be honest. They're always hissing at me to put my things back on."

Other women find the idea of stripping off, even on an idyllic foreign shore with only strangers around, a step too far. "I've come close to going naked on holiday, but I can't make myself do it," says Áine (31). "I feel too wrinkly. I've had two kids and I don't want to put my saggy stomach on display. The thing is, when I had my first foreign holiday to Greece when I was 19, I was too shy to take my clothes off then, even though all my friends were doing it. But if I had that figure now, I'd whip them off in a flash."

It seems that we can't quite rid ourselves of the sneaking suspicion that bare bodies are bad. While a few of us might allow ourselves a spontaneous bout of skinny-dipping under a foreign sky, once we come home everything stays firmly under wraps.

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