I am open-minded, but there is one group of people I do not understand and cannot accept — and that is nudists. But that's ok — science says it is nature's way of keeping me alive (sort of)
By NOO SARO-WIWA
I WAS horrified to learn that London’s first naked restaurant, The Bunyadi, will open permanently this year after a trial run last summer. I like to think I’m an open-minded person. Tolerant and curious in the face of novelty, I have friends of all kinds – teetotal, alcoholic, Muslim, Jewish, vegetarian and vegan. I have sipped drinks with trans people and broken gluten-free bread with coeliac sufferers. Such is my flexibility I even endured an episode of Game of Thrones once. But there is one group of people I do not understand and cannot accept — and that is nudists. Something about this sub-group brings out the pitchfork peasant in me.
I’ve only ever seen one nudist in the flesh. It was on the chalky cliffs of Sussex one sunny afternoon in 1987. I was eleven years old, standing at the top with my all-female classmates. Looking over the edge, we saw a man on the empty beach below, cowering against the rock face, his back pressed against it. Clearly, he hadn’t expected company. Unfortunately for him his nose and dick and were the only things we could see from that angle. Being a kid with a high gross-out threshold, I giggled at his shame and vulnerability. These days, however, I would have been thoroughly disgusted.
But at least that Sussex man felt some shame. Compare and contrast him to Stephen Gough, Britain’s most famous nudist. Known as The Naked Rambler, Gough believes that Britain’s anti-nudity laws are an infringement of his human rights. In 2003, this former Royal Marine walked the length of the UK in his birthday suit (all 6’4’’ of it) with wanton abandon. Television cameras showed him entering hair salons and all sorts of wrong places. When the following year he went roaming in the raw yet again, Gough was arrested and thrown in jail, where he was left to jangle his jewels at a more restricted audience. It’s a shame he was incarcerated for only three months. I would’ve locked him up and hidden the key somewhere where no-one could find it (i.e. his trousers).
The roots of my anti-nude sentiments can be traced back to my childhood. I grew up in a strictly non-naked family. In the eyes of my mother, who was raised a Catholic, anything nude was rude. I’ll never forget the look on her face when my father came home one day with a Picasso print. The painting was choc full of boobs and bushes (of the non-biblical kind) and it took pride of place in our living room, above the sofa. You’d think my father had flung excrement on the wall the way my mother glared at it. His liberalism was relative, however. While he had no truck with artful depictions of nakedness, he would be damned if any of his children saw him in the buff. When the day finally came — I accidentally walked in on him after his morning shower — he yelled even louder than I did.
But for all my fear and disdain for nudism, I’m worryingly unable to build a moral or philosophical case against it. I find myself grappling for the same specious bullshit that homophobes deploy:
It’s not natural!
If one starts doing it, everyone will follow!
If God intended us to go around naked we would be covered in fur!
Will no-one think of the children???
None of those arguments wash. Taking personal disgust and elevating it to a crisis of morality is never a good idea. Yet it happens so frequently around the world that some researchers decided to examine the link between revulsion and morality.
Their findings were discussed in an excellent article in New Scientist magazine. Here is an excerpt: “… the more ‘disgustable’ you are, the more likely you are to be politically conservative, says David Pizarro of Cornell University, who has studied this correlation. Similarly, the more conservative that people are, the harsher their moral judgements become in the presence of disgust stimuli.”
If, like me, you’re worried that this makes you a conservative then fear not: our disgust has a more practical basis. “Before we had developed any theory of disease,” Pizarro says, “disgust prevented us from contagion … The sense of revulsion makes us shy away from biologically harmful things like vomit, faeces, rotting meat and, to a certain extent, insects.”
In an increasingly crowded planet where disease can spread more easily, we have to be careful about our contact with other people. Hence our disgust. But while revulsion is an attempted safeguard against contamination, our ideas about what counts as ‘contamination’ can be dictated by politics, ideology and prejudice. Bigots have always manipulated it as a weapon against “outsiders” or minority groups: the ‘Filthy Jew’, the AIDS-stricken homosexual, the Tutsi cockroach.
Of course, for me the case against nudism is strictly about disease-prevention. I can hear you saying, ‘But naked people aren’t serious vectors of disease’. That’s very true. So like any good sophist, I will take the argument to its logical extreme: stripping off in the countryside is one thing, but mass nudity a crowded urban setting would be utterly gross and insanitary. Who wants loose pubes and leaking orifices on London underground train seats? Imagine a packed Central Line morning train filled with naked commuters. Just imagine it: your face buried in someone’s armpit hair…… someone’s hand accidentally brushing against your ‘lady triangle’…… a man’s meat and two veg warming your thigh…… visible tampon strings… and if you’re lucky enough to get a seat, some guy will be standing in front of you, his dongle dangling just above your newspaper.
NOT IN A THOUSAND LIFETIMES.
Stephen “Naked Rambler” Gough reckons we have created a psycho-cultural barrier against nudity. He’s absolutely right. But these walls aren’t easy to dismantle, no matter how much exposure therapy we inflict on ourselves. The “non-sexualised public nudity” Gough and his ilk dream of sounds fine in theory but we all know that ‘sexual’ is in the eye of the beholder. We have all attended non-naked buses, non-naked restaurants and non-naked football matches and still encountered people with impure agendas.
The Bunyadi restaurant has a waiting list of 45,000. That’s a lot of pubic hairs someone’s going to be sweeping from the floors in one year. Each to his own. While the Bunyadi clientele dine like savages you’ll find me fully clothed in a proper restaurant where the only meat and veg I’ll be seeing is the stuff on my plate, and the only rugs will be the ones laid out on the floor. Some may call me a prude, but the science says I’m being prudent.
In the meantime I’ll leave you with this brilliant Danish Bacon TV advert from 1992. It’s the only kind of public nudity I approve of.