The body is a palimpsest of the events of life. As I lay in bed, wakeful, the night before the Brighton World Naked Bike Ride, I mused on the story my body told. The paleness of my skin was testament not just to my ethnicity, but also to my habit of covering it. My forearms and face are slightly darker, more freckled, more sun damaged, but still I can joke, convincingly, that I don’t burn, I just reflect light.
The groove in my left shin tells of a never-repeated indoor cartwheel, aged fourteen, that ended in a rather painful collision with the edge of my open bedroom door; on the same leg the S-shaped scar behind my knee of an operation to remove extraneous tissue growing there (an arteriovenous malformation that I fondly dubbed ‘little Steve’); the irritability of the skin on my sternum of a reaction to stage make-up in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (never my favourite play); the scar in my eyebrow and the one on the top of my left arm of clashes with lacrosse sticks; the damaged nail of my right thumb of an altercation with the door of our family Vauxhall, I forget when. And not just marks of damage – my left-handedness is visible in my posture and musculature; my thighs and calves tell of the years of sport: hurdling, dodging, twisting, jumping, sprinting; the size of my biceps of the weight of my toddler son; my belly of my motherhood and probably also my fondness for Belgian beer; my shoulders of stress – at work, at home – something I am not good at defusing; my hands of washing up, cooking, gesticulating, with a dent on my wedding finger celebrating the ring I have worn for the past seven years.
It describes who I am, if you know how to read it. But I’ve allowed very few people to do so. Some have said to me, it’s only a short step from a bikini to nudity, but I have only worn a bikini once, aged eighteen on holiday in Italy when my bag went missing at the airport and no other swimming costumes were available. Many friends respond with disbelief that of all people I would be attempting nudity around the world, in public. And I must admit, when I put the proposal together, to examine global naturism, I never thought it would be commissioned – but it was, by the BBC World Service (“great subject for radio!”) who gave me a two part series. From that day to this, I’ve been worrying about getting naked.
So here I am, the weekend of the Brighton World Naked Bike Ride. Well, it was the weekend of other World Naked Bike Rides as well so I was in good company: Thessaloniki, Edinburgh, Cork, London, Helsinki, Toronto, Mexico City, Chicago, New Orleans. They tend to be organised to cluster around various weekends in June for the Northern Hemisphere participants, and March for the Southern Hemisphere. The idea is to use the symbol of the naked cyclist to promote awareness of the vulnerability of cyclists, and at the same time bemoan the world’s dependency on oil.
I was nervous. Of all events to start with, this was by far the most public, and probably the hardest. But my editorial voice won out, as it was this ride, now a few years ago, that began the presenter, Dr Keon West’s personal and public interest in nakedness. The most recent result is some research that he published earlier this year, and as he is the brains behind the whole programme, the symmetry of beginning here was hard to deny. I compromised slightly by wearing bikini bottoms, but then I also had my period. Timing is all indeed.
That I had a job to do actually helped a lot. I got into radio-producer-mode: I had a focus – somewhere to look, something to do with my hands, although admittedly when cycling both hands would have been pretty useful on the handlebars. And I enjoyed the ride. It was very cold at times, especially with the robust sea-breeze, but as it turns out, it’s acceptable to wear a cardigan if hypothermia is threatening. Brighton is a lively and liberal place and the reception of the people lining the route was warm and appreciative and it made a great atmosphere. There is certainly pleasure to be had cycling naked amongst a buzzing group of people (also naked) and fun is infectious.
But if the cycling was good, the stopping was not.
At rest stops and at the end of the ride, clusters of clothed male sexagenarians descended upon us with eyes hidden behind unblinking camera lenses. I certainly wasn’t their only target, but it is fair to say that the younger women in general were.
I was not entirely prepared for the photography or the lasciviousness. Some photographers did ask permission – others, the most part, just snapped and smirked. In all fairness, this was a minority amongst the crowd out to enjoy this spectacle, but they were an obtrusive-enough presence not just to be intimidating to me, but also to be the most lasting impression of the day.
Perhaps it’s sad. Conceivably this naked flesh might be the first they’ve seen for a long while, but I couldn’t feel sorry for them when I had been so violently reminded of the objectification of women and the fundamental imbalance in how the female and male bodies are regarded in British (if not Western or industrialized) culture, something I’m hoping the programmes will explore.
It made me very sad. What is worse, it made me feel shame. Shame for my nakedness, shame for somehow being the target of their interested gaze, shame too (more legitimately) that I did not feel strong enough to challenge them; shame for my shame. Shame implies consciousness of wrong behaviour. It shifted fault to me. And that is to my mind the female experience: to be made to feel responsible for something that has nothing to do with female agency. That is the story of Eve (how could she be blamed for failing to withstand an infinitely more powerful, indeed superhuman being in the guise of a serpent, when by comparison Adam only had to withstand his own kind); that is the story of rape (how often does a rape charge fail or never come to court because a girl was ‘drunk’ or ‘scantily clad’ or ‘asking for it’). It made me angry.
It’s easier to cover up. Then I can ignore the sad, relentless sexism of my society. If I should feel better after this experience, I’m afraid I don’t. I feel the opposite. Except that I have some great recordings. I’d better just cover-up then do my digital back-up…
Next time I will be swimming naked in Scotland, but fear not, it’s an indoor meet. Once more unto the breach(es)…