On the Sauna page, I said:
"... in the sauna you learn to become comfortable with your body, and also with other people and their bodies. You would not wear a swimming costume in the bath or shower, and you certainly don't want to wear one in the sauna. Not only is it unhygenic, but it feels dreadful. The last thing you want in a sauna is a piece of damp cloth wrapped round you. God gave you a wonderful body, and it is a great gift to discover how to accept it - how to be comfortable in and with your own body."
While I fully believe this, and increasingly feel it to be important, it would be wrong to give the impression that this has always been the case.
A number of people have asked how I have arrived at this point, and I keep on telling parts of the story, so I will try to summarise the main aspects here. It is a bit long, so I have divided the story into manageable sections:
Probably the most important part of the story is the hardest to explain or describe. Since I was a few months old, I have suffered from eczema. My skin has been scabbed, scarred, weeping, crusted and bleeding, in various degrees, in various places, for as long as I can remember.
I have described something of the experience on the Eczema page. Apart from my faith, it is probably the one thing that has had the most impact on my life. People would regularly react badly when they saw my skin, and sometimes they would not want to touch me in case they caught it. So I tended to keep my skin covered up when possible. I tended to wear long sleeve shirts, even in the middle of Summer. When friends went swimming, I did something else.
So I kept myself covered up as much as possible. I never encountered nudity in others, and, usually, only took off my own clothes to have a bath - an experience that was always painful, which led to my skin being even more irritated than usual, and was always followed by a particularly bad night's sleep.
At school, I was intensely 'modest'. As well as generally trying to avoid letting people seeing my skin, I would always try to ensure that my genitals were covered up - even in the changing room of the school's swimming pool. It became slightly easier when we got older and used the local public swimming baths, as everyone had their own individual changing cubicle. But the deep 'need' to avoid nudity in front of anyone else remained.
As a brief illustration: somewhere around the age of eight or nine, I started to wonder what I would do when I grew up. I wanted to be an astronaut, and it came as a terrible blow to discover that the UK had no programme of space exploration. As a second best, I thought I would like to be a policeman. But one day, there was a programme on the television about people training to be in the police. There was a fleeting reference to physical fitness, and a brief shot of communal showers. That finished the police as a career for me: if you had to use communal showers to be a policeman, I would do something else with my life.
Even as that door closed, I was aware that, for other people, communal showers were clearly not something they found impossible to contemplate. After all, people did become policemen. Even if my reaction was normal - as I strongly hoped it was - some other, seemingly 'normal' people did not react in the same way.
But alongside this obsessive modesty was something else. Because it was so important, I could not help spending time thinking about questions to do with clothing, modesty, culture and ethics.
At an early age, I became aware that there were people called nudists, who somehow lived in 'nudist colonies' - in those days, they were always called 'nudists' and not 'naturists'. I couldn't imagine what life was like for them, or why they lived like that. But they existed, so, clearly, some people did not approach life the way I did in this area. And, because the thought of nudity troubled me, this was much more than a superficial difference of habit or taste: these people were different in some significant way I could not understand.
At the age of ten, one day in the school playground, I was struck by what appeared to be a deep revelation. Everyone I could see - everyone in the world! - was completely naked underneath their clothes.
At the time, this felt like a deep revelation. I could not work out if this was really the case, or just a statement of the blindingly obvious. Because I was so embarrassed by the subject of nudity, I couldn't ask anyone else what they thought. Perhaps I was the only one who saw things that way?
It seemed important, but I could not work out what difference this made. The question niggled away in my brain for years.
At secondary school, things got more difficult: group changing rooms for both Gym and Games, communal showers. I would do anything to avoid using the showers, and would put my shirt on before taking off my football or gym shorts. I was deeply uncomfortable with the thought of anyone else 'seeing me'.
I knew there were people do did not mind being seen naked. It slowly dawned on me that these strange, semi-mythical people called 'nudists' were not the only ones who responded to nudity very differently to me: somehow, many ordinary people I knew and liked did not always respond as I did. In fact, very few 'ordinary' people responded to nudity like me.
We don't always see the obvious, even when it stares us in the face. I was always careful to remain covered up in the school changing rooms, but I slowly became aware that other boys were not so careful. Most were happy to use the showers, and some would casually wander around naked while they dried themselves. Most people did not react to nudity in the same way that I did.
So nudity was a question that I kept coming back to, with unresolved questions and an increasing awareness that other people did not share my fear of being seen naked. Of course, this was complicated by an increasing interest in sex, and the inevitable way in which nudity and sex seemed to be linked.
Two brief scenes still stick out in my memory from this time.
We went as a family to a different swimming pool. I think maybe it was in Harlow or Malden, while we visited some of my mother's relations. Horror of horrors, there were no cubicles. After the swim, my father took off his wet swimming trunks and proceeded to towel himself dry. I was with my father, and my father was naked! A deep embarrasment was mixed with a worrying suspicion that this reaction was simply not normal.
The second event was even worse. For some forgotten reason, in one RE class the teacher played part of a comedy record by Morcombe and Wise. In one sketch, they visited a nudist colony. I was totally mortified, horrified by these casual references to nudity and trying not to imagine their naked bodies in the open air, even though I knew that they would have recorded the sketch fully clothed in the studio. I did my very best not to laugh, but didn't entirely succeed. Of course, all the rest of the class were laughing, but that didn't make it any easier. I just wanted to sink into the floor and disappear.
I have two other memories from this period, both connected with camping as a Scout.
On one camp, we built a raft, and I 'volunteered' to try it out. The raft capsized spectacularly, and I ended up both wet and covered in mud. I was sent back to have a shower and get into dry clothes. I found myself alone in the shower block for the first time ever, and discovered that I liked peeling off the wet, muddy clothes, standing naked in the cool shade, and being naked alone in the shower room. With nobody else around, being naked felt good.
On another occasion, we were camping by a river. The rest of the camp went out and I stayed behind for some reason I can no longer recall. They were possibly doing some sporting thing I had no interest in. I remained behind because it was not a good idea to leave the whole camp site completely unattended for too long. I was confident that I would be completely alone for several hours, and this gave me the confidence to go skinny dipping. With hindsight, it was not the brightest thing to do; but at the time, swimming naked in the river felt wonderful.
Not much changed, at least on this subject, during my time at university.
My Bible reading turned up some examples of casual nudity which was not condemned, so it was clear that not all public nudity was wrong. At least, in my head it was clear.
I was increasingly aware of the gap between my head and my emotions - and also the gap between my extreme reaction to nudity and the reaction of most other people - but there didn't seem to be anything I could do about either area. I certainly couldn't talk about it or ask anyone what they thought.
Things started to change when I went to Finland, although I didn't appreciate it at the time. I was there for three months, and the only way to get clean was to join in the weekly sauna. I have described this time in more details on the sauna page.
Initially, I shared the sauna with a Swedish chap about my age who lived close by. Later, I sometimes shared with Graham, sometimes with one or other of the folk we met up with, and sometimes I was on my own. As I was staying with good, moral Christians, I only ever shared with other chaps. But I did start to become familiar with being naked in front of other people, and really started to believe - at the emotional level - that these other chaps really were comfortable being naked with other people in and around the sauna.
Some time after returning back to Guildford, I discovered the local Sports Centre had a sauna suite, and (as part of the "we must do something about Paul's skin" project) started to use that on a Saturday night. Friends started to join me, and for several years we had a regular social event in the sauna suite each week. It was tremendous fun, and great for my skin.
Then the sauna suite closed for a complete refurbishment, and people found other things to do on a Saturday evening. When it re-opened, a few folk still came, but it was nowhere near the same event. The management also decided that the sauna would be clothes-optional. A couple of the girls sometimes went topless, and one chap decided to go without a costume completely.
This development caused a few relationship problems, which I was asked to help with. A couple of the Christian girls wanted me to tell the chap that it was wrong to sauna without a swimming costume. They were horrified when I explained that I couldn't see that it was wrong in an absolute sense but, if it caused a problem between them and this chap, they ought to talk with him about it.
They then argued that I wouldn't behave in such a way, and he ought to follow my example (flattery will get you almost everywhere!) - and I horrified them even more by explaining that I certainly would sauna without a swimming costume if I got the chance, that it was much better to sauna naked than wearing a costume, and that my reason for not doing so was partly because I didn't want to upset them, and partly because I was not used to mixed nude saunas and was afraid I would have an erection if I tried.
(In passing, this is both a common fear and a common mistake. When they think about it, most men seem to be concerned about the likelihood of having an erection in a mixed nude sauna. It hardly ever happens: the context is not a sexual one, so there is rarely any sexual arousal; and when it happens, you simply lie down or cover up with a towel until it goes away.)
This was clearly not the response they were looking for. I could possibly have been more sensitive and not mentioned my fear of an erection. But I had not thought about what to say (they did spring the subject on me without warning), and when placed on the spot I did what I usually do and simply told the truth. Anyway, as far as I know, they simply decided to drop the subject.
However, one of the other chaps in our group also had a problem with the one who was going naked. He tried to sort it out personally, did not get the response he wanted, and the pair of them called me in as a referee. They each presented their position.
The offended chap offered a lengthy and exhaustive written Bible study he had prepared on the subject of nudity. It had taken him weeks of work, and was intended to prove that the Bible condemns nudity. I found this both interesting and enlightening.
I had worked out by this point that the Bible does not prohibit or condemn nudity as such. But I still had a cultural assumption that mixed nudity was probably not wise, mainly because of the possibility of offending people. So it was interesting to work through each passage in turn, and to see clearly for the first time that God really does have nothing against nudity - mixed, or otherwise.
The other chap's position had probably been firmed up under this opposition. He claimed that a willingness to be nude with another person was evidence of an open and honest relationship. In fact, he maintained, it was an essential aspect of such a relationship: if you could not be nude with a fellow Christian, this proved you had a problem in your relationship with them.
Sadly, and much to their joint dismay, I had to say I thought they were both wrong. I tried to talk to each of them about their beliefs, their reasoning, and their use of Scripture, but neither really wanted to discuss the subject. I failed to provide any reconciliation, and as far as I know the two never learned to see eye to eye on this matter.
It soon became an academic issue. Some people moved on, and the management of the sauna suite decided that people ought to wear costumes all the time in mixed sessions. The Saturday night social group in the sauna had completely broken up, so I started to sauna in the men-only sessions, and rediscovered how much nicer it is to be able to sauna without a piece of damp, clammy cloth wrapped round your middle.
After a while, a new Leisure Centre replaced the old Sports Centre, and the new gym changing rooms had sauna cabins in them. This had the advantage that I never needed to wear a costume, whatever time I used the facilities, but Sue and I couldn't sauna together any more. There was a mixed steam room, but it wasn't the same - we used it a few times, but after a while I continued to use the sauna for the sake of my skin, and Sue just stopped completely.
The issue of nudity never went away. I had now been using the sauna for nearly ten years, and was very used to seeing other blokes naked. But somehow nudity still embarassed me - both my own and that of other people. Over time, I became convinced that this was simply not healthy, and decided to do something about it.
The first strategy was a total failure. I tried to talk with a couple of the men in our church about my problem with nudity. I said that I believed my reaction to nudity was not right, and the strength of it was not normal. With hindsight, they were completely unprepared and probably embarassed by the subject. They quickly decided it was not a real problem: I was normal, so go away and forget about it.
The second strategy worked much better. I slowly trained myself to cope with being naked in the changing room of a swimming pool or sauna. I would take all my clothes off, and then put my swimming costume on. In the sauna suite, I would not take my towel into the shower area with me. Eventually, I managed to leave the towel on the rail outside the sauna cabin, and walk naked across to the showers, a couple of yards away. I know this sounds pathetic, but at the time it was a major achievement.
Somewhere around 1987, I started to swim regularly: I had turned 30, and was starting to put on a bit of weight. For many years, a normal week would see me swimming twice (usually first thing in the morning) and taking one sauna. This pattern lasted until 1999 when we moved to Bristol and discovered there were no suitable early morning swims - a dreadful shock!
By 1987, I was familiar with a large number of saunas in different places. In general, I would go naked in the single-sex sessions, and wear a swimming costume in the mixed sessions. In some of the mixed sessions, people would sometimes wear a towel instead of a swimming costume, and this brought back the 'naked beneath your clothes' question.
I found that I responded emotionally when there was a lady present, clad only in a towel. I was embarassed to be with her, even though the towel would always cover up more of her body than a swimming costume would have done. This reaction was not very strong - it did not prevent me from engaging in a normal conversation when appropriate - but it was strong enough to worry me. It was illogical, and I knew it. I both disliked and resented this reaction.
Of course, many weeks were not 'normal' for a variety of reasons. One problem was that I had to travel as part of my job, and this often got in the way. One regular journey was to Gloucester, and I would frequently find myself driving home at the end of a long day feeling tired from the journey and with my skin feeling very uncomfortable.
Then I discovered in the local paper an advert for a naturist sauna in Lightwater - a small town just a minute or two off my route home from Gloucester.
This discovery caused me a fair degree of emotional difficulty. At the end of a long drive, my skin is generally very uncomfortable for a number of reasons, and this is especially true when the journey has caused me to miss one of my early morning swims. A sauna always makes my skin feel better, and is the perfect end to a long journey. But could I use a naturist sauna?
The arguments from a few years earlier suddenly came back, and were a lot less abstract: I believed there was nothing wrong with nudity, and knew that a sauna would do me good. My hesitation was mainly about a fear of the unknown (who were these strange people I might meet?) and uncertainty about whether I could cope emotionally with naked females. In my head, I knew that both of these concerns were daft, but it took a while for my feelings to catch up.
After a while, I reached the point where I could talk about this, so I talked it over with Sue. She couldn't see any good reason why I should not use the sauna, so a few days before my next journey to Gloucester I gave them a ring - as the advert said I should. Then, one evening in the Spring of 1995, I took the plunge and stopped at the house on my way home.
That phone call beforehand proved to be a good idea: they knew I was coming, they were expecting me, so I was already committed. Even so, walking up to that door was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. I knew, in my head, that even if the experience turned out to be a total disaster, it would not matter: I didn't ever have to meet those people or go back again. I'm not sure if that knowledge helped; I was simply petrified.
Possibly the worst aspect of it was that I was finally going to meet some of these mythic creatures - naturists - who I knew to be different to me "in some significant way" I did not understand. Perhaps it tapped into some primaeval fear, or perhaps I was just getting myself worked up for no good reason.
The experience turned out to be a total anticlimax. The people were friendly, and as normal as the bunch in the Council sauna. The sauna was great, and there was a small swimming pool that worked as a plunge pool to cool off in, which was wonderful. And, on that first visit, all the people using the place were male, so it was just like many saunas I had used in other places.
On subsequent visits there were often ladies present, but the only difference this made was to improve the quality of the conversations. Non-naturists always find this a bit hard to believe, but it really is true. In my case, it does make very little difference: I am fairly short-sighted, and (especially in the dim and steamy atmosphere of the sauna!) I often can't tell whether people are male or female until they speak, so whether they are wearing a costume or not is completely academic.
Actually, that last bit is not entirely true. Swimming costumes tend to be darker than flesh, so most of the time - if people are wearing a costume - I can tell male from female quite easily. It's when people are naked that I often can't tell the difference until they speak or walk past me.
Through the people at Lightwater, I discovered there were naturist saunas all over the place, including a regular sauna and swim at Alton. Actually, I was told of a regular sauna and swim at 'Alton Towers'. It took a while before I discovered it was really at Alton Leisure Centre, which I first visited in the Spring of 1996. Sue sometimes joined me there, although she never made it to Lightwater for some reason.
In 1997, we were planning to go to France for the family holiday. The people at Alton said that it would be easier to use a French naturist site if we were members of British Naturism, so we joined in the Spring of 1997. Through BN, we found out about the swim and sauna at Bracknell, visited and then joined the club.
At some point, the 'naked beneath your clothes' question seems to have resolved itself. It is, as I suspected, blindingly obvious. But it is also an important truth: if we are all naked beneath our clothes all the time, then nudity is nothing special - it is simply a continuation of our normal state. Why get worked up about it?
Somewhere along the way, I have lost the deep 'modesty' of my childhood. Naturists stopped being those strange, incomprehensible people, and they started to be familiar faces; at some point, it changed again from 'they' to 'we', although I am still reluctant to describe myself as a naturist.
I rarely say "I am a naturist." To my ears, these words make it sound like I have changed - like I have joined something, or become something. But I am still me - the same me, just with fewer hangups.
The words, on their own, feel misleading. Having thought about it for some time, I have come to the conclusion that the words 'I am a naturist' are, for me, not an affirmation of some belief or practice. They are, instead, the renunciation of a harmful and illogical feeling that I need to wear clothes when clothes are not needed. They are a letting go of absurdity (we all know what people look like) and paranoia (help! what if someone sees me?!?).
When changing on the beach, I still try to stay covered: it is a social convention, and shows respect to the people around me. But it is no longer desperately important that nobody 'sees' me. I have accepted that I am me, that this body, this skin with all its imperfections is what I am made of, and whether you like the way I look or not, I am content to be who I am.
Finally, I have discovered how to be comfortable in my own skin.
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