Credit Lady Godiva as the first naked activist to expose herself in public. As the eleventh-century legend goes, she felt pity for the impoverished people of Coventry and asked her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes. He refused and then, like a lot of married couples, they squabbled over the issue until he offered her a challenge he was sure she would refuse: if she rode naked through the town on a horse, he would lower taxes. We know how the story ends. Author Philip Carr-Gomm observed, ‘The power in the story lies in its alchemical nature, whereby she transforms the potential for humiliation into a moment of dignity and of pride for all the city.’
Two groups that have taken naked protest and turned it into something of an art are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and FEMEN, a revolutionary group whose ideology is ‘Sextremism, Atheism, Feminism.’ PETA has run successful advertising campaigns with actresses like Alicia Silverstone promoting vegetarianism or porn star Jenna Jameson touting the seductive, tactile joys of wearing clothes made from the poromeric fabric called pleather. The group is not afraid to mix sex and its message – boldly claiming that ‘Vegetarians have better sex.’
But what PETA is most famous for is the use of nudity in street actions. PETA members have been naked in cages to illustrate the plight of industrially farmed animals, naked protesting the sale of foie gras, naked en masse to promote veganism, and naked protesting KFC’s treatment of poultry. But PETA is not a nudist organization. Like the World Naked Bike Ride, it uses nudism and nakedness to draw attention to its social and political cause.
FEMEN has a more ambitious agenda. Founded in Ukraine but now based in Paris, it sees society as a male dominated construct: ‘We live in the world of male economic, cultural and ideological occupation. In this world, a woman is a slave, she is stripped of the right to any property but above all she is stripped of ownership of her own body.’ FEMEN has an excellent manifesto on its website where it articulates some of its objectives.
A protestor without clothes is vulnerable; images of topless women tackled to the cobblestones bring out our natural empathy. By taking off their clothes, they appear to be putting it all on the line, putting some skin in the game, transforming ‘the potential for humiliation into a moment of dignity.’
But what about the young naturists who might not have an overt political agenda? The people who like to be naked and outdoors but don’t necessarily want to shout, ‘Fuck you, Putin’. Since they’re not joining nudist clubs or resorts in appreciable numbers, where are they going?
To answer that I have to revisit Austria and the Naked European Walking Tour of 2013.
It was mid-July and we had spent the morning climbing to the summit of an Austrian mountain that overlooked the Obertauern ski resort.
As I walked around a few patches of snow and felt the first drops of cold rain hit me, Karla, a British naturist in her thirties, ran past me. Except for a pair of boots, she was totally naked. She stopped and looked at a small pond on the mountain and turned to me. ‘Is that ice?’
I followed her glance and saw that the water on the small pond had indeed been frozen over by a thin layer of ice. I turned back to her and said, ‘Yes. Yes it is.’
She nodded and said, ‘Thought so.’ And then she scampered down the trail.
Karla and Stuart are the couple behind the website Free Range Naturism. Previously they had a website called Naked Munros, which chronicled their ambitious attempt to climb all 282 Munros in Scotland in the nude. A Munro is what they call a mountain that rises over three thousand feet above sea level in Scotland. It’s a thing among Scottish climbers to try to ‘bag the Munros’ by climbing all of them. It is not a thing among Scottish climbers to bag the Munros in the buff – in fact, it’s illegal. But that didn’t stop Karla and Stuart from bagging more than twenty-five summits and documenting their exploits by taking some genuinely beautiful nude-in-landscape photographs of each other. It doesn’t hurt that they are both attractive and fit.
Stuart and Karla are both politically astute, and I wondered if there was a political component to what they were doing or if it was a kind of art-for-art’s-sake endeavour.
‘I think a lot of my personal rant is about how modern-day society really takes us away from our natural environment,’ says Stuart. ‘We have gyms, we have straight walls and edges and stuff, and people, in different ways, are trying to get back to nature, whether it’s drinking organic beer or sitting in their car watching the sea. Good art always evokes a strong emotional response and this is something that humans are kind of keyed into because it’s where we’ve kind of come from, you know, the natural environment. So that’s the statement from me.’ I looked at him and thought, He should write a manifesto.
As nudist clubs decline in membership, more and more young naturists are adopting Karla and Stuart’s ‘free-range’ ideal. People are starting to get naked in places where they used to not get naked, places where they could potentially be subject to arrest for getting naked.
In New York City, the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society puts a literary spin on urban nudism.
Taking advantage of an enlightened New York City law that explicitly gives equal protection to men and women who desire to go top-free, they gather in public places like Central Park, take off their shirts, and read books, specifically, pulp fiction.
What’s happening is inspiring. As the old nudist clubs begin their slow fade into obscurity, young nudists are finding ways to be active and enjoy themselves without the need to be tucked away safe from public view. It’s the opposite of the closeted nudist resort mentality.
And there’s no telling where this free-range naturism will end. Stuart explained, ‘We did some paragliding in Scotland, but next year we’re going to do some refresher courses for the Alps. We’re going to learn to fly here and then… naked paragliding.’