Naturism and its devotees have been the butt of many a Carry-On gag, saucy seaside postcard and sniggering tabloid headline. But as Emma Bowler finds out, there’s not a single nudge or wink as she asks what life in the raw has to offer for disabled people.
The British are well known for their obsession with the weather but naturists are one group of people in particular who keep a close eye on the forecasts and are more likely to be reaching for their Winter Sun brochures at this time of the year.
In these image obsessed times there are probably a fair few of us who would adamantly refuse to get our kit off even in a heat wave. But there are also quite a few who have chosen to bare all and become naturists.
Naturism is the practice of going without clothes, often in a social setting. Many naturists just enjoy relaxing in the sun and getting an all over tan. For the more active there is swimming, walking, camping, boules and mini-ten – a version of tennis that you won’t be spotting at Wimbledon any time soon.
Micaela Stafford, a wheelchair user with scoliosis, has been a naturist for 15 years. She still clearly remembers her first experience. “I used to go swimming because of the pain in my back and when I’m in the water it eases all the pain. There was no attendant at the pool we went to and very often we were the only people there. One day I just took my cozzie off, I said to my husband oh you’ve got to feel this, it’s lovely. We swam outside, the moon was bright, the stars were twinkling and I was free of pain. I went home ecstatic.”
Micaela and her husband found a pool that held naturist swims and never looked back. She says she finds it easier when her disability is “on show”. “I’ve got lumber scoliosis, my left leg is wasted and one foot is smaller than the other. I don’t want people to make allowances for me but I feel when people can see my disability they don’t put pressure on me like they do when I’m dressed.”
One thing that a disabled person might worry about when thinking about venturing into naturism is how people will view their “naked” disability. Andrew Welch, Commercial Manager for British Naturism, which has 11,000 members and 130 sun clubs and swim groups all over the UK, says: “Body image is such a big thing in the 21st century. Most people feel there is something about themselves that is not so wonderful but people find when they get into naturism that no one is bothered about it. It’s the media and fashion industries that makes you feel you should hide yourself in a room if you don’t have the perfect body, which doesn’t exist anyway.”
Blind naturist Linda Gaitskell, agrees: “I’m not the best proportioned person but when people are naked shape and size don’t matter. It takes away inhibitions when people don’t have their designer clothes to cover up their bodies. Naturists are very friendly because they don’t have those inhibitions.”
One of the advantages for some disabled naturists is not having to get dressed and undressed. Micaela says: “If we are on a textile campsite it’s such a performance – I’d have to get dressed to go to the shower block, get undressed, have a shower, get dressed again, trying not to drop things on a wet floor! When we go to a naturist site I don’t have to do any of that.”
Anthony John, who has ME, agrees: “With my condition energy is severely rationed, so not having to waste it getting dressed/undressed is a big plus.”
Anthony got into naturism after being diagnosed with ME. “All of my pre-illness hobbies involved physical or mental activity – running, walking, cycling, reading and complex cooking, all of these things were incompatible with my ME.” So when he gave up work he started to think about new things he could get into.
“It was summer when I retired and one of the joys of my illness is it is often impossible to regulate my body temperature, so to keep myself cool I started sitting out on the patio naked; it was quite enjoyable but we had teenagers in the house and the young are so repressed!”
Anthony decided to resurrect a previous love of swimming. “I cannot cope with noise, another joy of my illness, and going to my local public pool left me so exhausted I could barely get out and get dressed again. So I put two and two together and joined a naturist club where I could swim when I felt like it. It was perfect.”
The message that comes over time and time again from disabled naturists is that naturists are a very accepting, friendly bunch. Linda says: “When I go swimming there are some people that think you might bite because you have a disability but we’re all equal without clothes and I find people are more willing to accept you. It’s like any club, once people realise you can manage it’s OK.”
Micaela adds: “Naturism is liberation from the attitude that you have to have the perfect body. What you’ve got doesn’t matter because naturists see people for their spirit, for what they are.”
Naturists say that naturism can even help people deal with a negative body image. “I’ve never had a particularly good self body image. I’ve had to work hard at weight control for most of my life and I was conscious of my ‘man boobs’ as they are called nowadays,” says Anthony, who found naturism has given him new self-belief.
“But now as an experienced naturist I will happily take everything off in front of anyone if the situation is appropriate. I lost a lot of independence and confidence during my illness and naturism is one of the few things in my new life that affirms me.”
Exposure to the sun and fresh air can also be beneficial to those with various skin conditions as Robin Stott, who has psoriasis, found. “Because of where my psoriasis is on my body I took to going to naturist beaches. I’ve found the sun is very beneficial for my psoriasis, certainly more effective than a lot of the creams or ointments available.”
Like many people trying naturism for the first time Robin was initially worried about people’s potential reactions. “I was worried how people would react because it’s a skin condition, but once my clothes were off no one was bothered.” He also found, “by getting your clothes off you get the chance to observe that other people are just as imperfect as you, a perfect body is a very rare thing so you shouldn’t feel inferior because of your body.”
If the idea of going the “full monty” still doesn’t appeal to you then it’s worth bearing in mind the benefits of getting out in the sun. The National Osteoporosis Society [NOS] launched their Sunlight Campaign earlier this year to raise awareness of the importance of vitamin D – which is essential for healthy bones because it enables our bodies to process calcium effectively.
In a survey they found 94 per cent of people didn’t realise they had to get out in the sunshine without sunscreen to get vitamin D. NOS recommends that between May and September people in the UK should get out in the sun for ten minutes, once or twice a day, without sunscreen.
Making sure you have good levels of vitamin D is especially important for certain groups of disabled people as their spokeswoman explains: “We know that long periods of immobility are a known risk factor for osteoporosis and that long term use of corticosteroids are also a risk factor, so if someone is disabled and uses a wheelchair, they are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis.”
If you fancy getting into naturism Andrew suggests you could start by trying it out in the privacy of your garden. Then you might like to try a local club and see where that takes you. Andrew says: “People worry about going to naturist clubs or events but if you are the only one with clothes on people will stare at you because you’ve got clothes on. Men will stare at a woman in a bikini on a beach full of naked women because they look different, because the mystery is still there.”
In terms of access, naturist beaches, like most beaches, can be hard to get to but many naturist clubs and resorts have facilities for disabled people ranging from ramps and swimming pool hoists to accessible self-catering cottages.
Finally, if you are thinking about getting into naturism because you think it is about kinky sex parties and wife swapping you’ll probably be disappointed. Naturism isn’t sexual per se, it is about enjoying being naked, which for disabled naturists seems to come with a range of other benefits. Of course, there’s only one way to find out what it can do for you.