Why would anyone want to dine in the nude with other nude diners? Yes, I get being nude on a sunny beach. Swimming nude. Walking nude. But eating nude in public? What’s the appeal? Why leave your comfort zone for the Twilight Zone?
Yet nude dining is making a comeback — or at least it’s trying to. The food-in-the-nude movement was just taking off in Bristol — and various secret places in London — when Covid first struck. Now that things are going back to normal, the normal are going nude.
Ever curious, I went to an event billed as the ‘first in a new series of nude supper clubs’ to find out. It offered canapés, cocktails and a three-course dinner in a ‘safe’ sex-free zone that would leave me with a ‘positive, life-affirming experience’.
This ‘secret event’ — organised by ‘Emma and James’ in collaboration with the British Nudism Club — was held in a small village in West Sussex. It’s the sort of quiet place where you’d expect to find Miss Marples peeping through the net curtains. Little did I know that I’d find my very own Miss Marples in the nude, munching canapés and peeping at me.
The dinner was held in the local church hall. I watched as my fellow diners — men (it was mostly men) and women in their late fifties and sixties — arrived fully clothed. We non-nudists tend to think of nudists as a bit eccentric at best and a bit dodgy at worst. I confess I played the mental game of spot-the-perv and find-the-exhibitionist. Alas, they were all terribly normal and nice. Too normal. Too nice. Where’s a good old nutty nudist when you need one?
We sipped prosecco and made small talk. The room — warm and with drawn curtains — was divided between veteran nudists (the vast majority) and the nervous wrecks who had never done this sort of thing before.
Some came out of curiosity, some did it as a dare. But for veteran nudists, it was simply a chance to get nude. Nudists, I discovered, will take any opportunity to go nude. One nudist told me about going to the Royal Academy to see a special exhibition of nude paintings, in the nude.
Suddenly it was the moment I’d been dreading all week: show time. Going nude in public is like wild swimming. You can’t think about it. You just have to strip and leap straight in. I went off to a corner of the hall, took my clothes off, puffed out my chest, threw back my shoulders, sucked in my stomach and strolled towards the naked crowd with as much dignity as an older geezer with droopy genitals can manage.
Nobody was looking at me — but I was looking at them. We don’t see naked mature bodies in films or art or life — so I must confess that when I first looked at the crowd of naked diners I was shocked. On display were breasts that sagged, bottoms that flapped, stomachs that bulged, man boobs from outer space, teeny-weeny-penies, elephant thighs encrusted with cellulite and varicose veins that bulged out like telephone cables — and nobody gave a damn! That was the great thing. Here were real people with real bodies in all their saggy, flabby, wobbly, hairy and scary magnificence. It was a wonderful sight.
Back in the 1930s, nudism used to be all about health and getting back to nature; now it speaks the language of personal growth and social liberation. I spoke to a former aeroplane pilot, a former police super-intendant, a nurse, a mum, a university lecturer, a business analyst — and they all said pretty much the same thing about the appeal of the nudist way of life: you felt ‘freer’, ‘liberated’ and ‘empowered’.
As one man said: ‘When everyone is nude at an event like this, everyone is equal. You can’t judge people by their clothes or make assumptions about their class. Nudity is a great leveller.’
Actually, that’s not quite true. You could tell a lot about the person next to you by their accent, comment, occupation. But it was interesting hearing people who when dressed looked like Conservative voters — but when naked talked like communists.
Some of the women said that going nude boosted their self-confidence. A woman who had four children and had been ‘humiliated’ by her husband about her body for years had been left with crippling body issues. ‘I’m so glad I came here tonight,’ she told me. ‘I feel liberated. I’ve got more of a confidence boost in this one night than in years of therapy.’
You would think that with all these naked bodies there would be a little frisson of eroticism. But everyone played strictly by the rules: no staring, no glaring, no touching, no flirtation — which for me meant not much fun. Dinner without a bit of flirtation is like food without salt or pepper.
There’s a contradiction inherent in nude dining. After the first 20 minutes or so, you forget that everyone is in the nude. And that’s great. But take away the novelty of being nude, and you’re just having dinner with a bunch of strangers you’d normally not have dinner with.
I don’t think I’ll be having dinner naked again, but I’m glad I went. You do feel a sense of liberation. All that endless anxiety and self-flagellation about the imagined horrors and inadequacies of your body just stops. In place of that critical voice inside your head comes a new voice, calm and stoical, that says: ‘Yes, this is me, my body, so what? Get over it, world!’
Plus, you don’t have to worry about what to wear to dinner.