Swimsuit optional: The liberating joy of skinny-dipping

Like her granny before her, writer Rosie Green has plunged into sun-warmed seas, freezing lakes, moonlit rivers – all completely naked. She reveals the spontaneous, liberating joy of skinny-dipping.

My grandmother loved getting naked. Not when grocery shopping or gardening; she wasn’t some kind of eccentric or deviant. In fact, the only kinks she had were in her garden hose. But she did love skinny-dipping.

When confronted with a pond, lake, river or pool she couldn’t wait to disrobe. Her preferred tactic for maintaining maximum modesty was to get in up to her neck then, with skilful treading of water and Houdini-like contortion, wriggle out of her costume and fling it to the bank. As a family member you knew to remain alert to the possibility of being hit by a water-sodden cossie.

Alongside her bobble nose and penchant for garibaldi biscuits, I’ve inherited her love of skinny-dipping. On my first Teletext-booked holiday with friends we ran stark naked into the Mediterranean. When we emerged, we had gained a welcoming committee and lost our clothes, but that didn’t put me off. I’ve plunged into freezing lakes, climbed over fences to swim in hotel pools and splashed in rivers at moonlight. All naked.

What’s the appeal? For my granny, I suspect it was laced with rebellion, and there’s an element of that for me, too. Fiona Murden, psychologist and author of Mirror Thinking, says swimming in the buff goes against a social norm. ‘We expect people to walk around with their clothes on and, if they’re going swimming, to wear a swimsuit. In that sense skinny-dipping is resisting convention.’

skinny dipping boardwalk and swimsuit
Getty Images

Remember the ‘Will patrons kindly refrain from’ swimming-pool signs? No bombing, no running and – my personal favourite – no petting. Getting naked was obviously so off-the-scale naughty it wasn’t even included.

Skinny-dipping is in the same category as smoking behind the bike sheds, creating cocktails from your parents’ drinks cabinet or going to the pub underage – thrillingly insubordinate. Which takes me right back to my carefree, recalcitrant teenage self. It unearths a little of the 18-year-old me. Which, I suspect, is what makes my teenagers so completely mortified about me doing it. There’s plenty of eye-rolling and indignation as well as threats of disowning me.

But I don’t care what my kids say because skinny-dipping feels spontaneous, joyous, freeing, brave, exhilarating… and sensual. Two films I watched as a teenager, when I felt the first stirrings of sexual longing, were A Room With a View and The Blue Lagoon, and both involved naked swimming. The former saw Freddy Honeychurch, George Emerson and Reverend Mr Beebe jump into a cool lake on a hot, hot day. There was a hidden pond, set among lush greenery. There was full-frontal nudity and lithe bodies (the VHS may have been paused). There was frolicking and grappling and sheer unadulterated joy. When Cecil Vyse, Miss Honeychurch and her mother disturbed the men’s fun, their contrasting buttoned-up constraint made the carefree abandonment of skinny-dipping seem even more appealing to me.

The Blue Lagoon was a heady blur of tanned, impossibly beautiful teenagers. (Google tells me Brooke Shields was only 14 when it was filmed, which makes me feel mildly nauseous.) They seemed to spend most of their time in the buff and intertwined in turquoise waters – all budding breasts and peachy bottoms. It felt a long way from Birmingham.

Murden thinks the sensuality aspect of skinny-dipping comes from ‘the exoticness of being naked and the thoughts of rebellion and liberation all coming together with the physical sensations: the cold on “private” parts of our body that are not normally exposed and are more sensitive to touch.’

Rosie Green
Rosie following in her grandma’s (bare) footsteps. Image: Rosie Green

I love the feeling of cold water on sun-warmed skin – the shock of the temperature change, the sheer delight of instant cool. It makes me feel happy and alive, less beset by anxiety and catastrophising.

Murden understands why. ‘The shock from the cold fresh water and immediate impact on the body shakes us out of our worries and sharply focuses our mind. We aren’t able to think about anything else except for the experience itself.’

When you are in nature, fully exposed to the elements, you can’t think about tomorrow’s meeting, the fact that your pension pot is perilously low, or that call you need to return. You are in the moment. Murden compares it to the effects of meditating. ‘It takes us out of our modern-day environment and gives our brain a break. It’s also totally and utterly in tune with our evolutionary roots.

‘Plus, being immersed in water encourages a release of endorphins, which brings a sense of wellbeing and happiness,’ she says. ‘Studies have also shown that being in water up to chest level increases the blood flow to the brain. That in turn removes the build-up of stress hormones.’

Which is why skinny-dipping is even more enjoyable right now, when we are all living with unprecedented uncertainty. It’s the perfect antidote to the social anxiety that comes with lockdown lifting, the endorphin deficit from long, hug-less months and the unsettling talk of a second wave. The silken water’s caress and the bonding laughter with my friends is balm for the body and mind.

For me, skinny-dipping is a high-summer activity. I know some brave souls throw themselves into icy pools in January, but not me. In my world it is forever linked with languid, lazy hot days. When the world shifts to a different mode and the usual rules don’t apply. Shirt buttons are undone, flesh is on display, work is sidelined.

I visited Chatsworth House in the Peak District a few years ago on such a day. A group of lads had come out from Sheffield and were jumping in the river in various states of undress. Swinging on ropes. Jumping from the bank. Wrestling, jostling and teasing. Their bodies lean and muscular, unmarked by life. Some were shirtless, the brave ones in the buff. Naked, these boys could have been from any time in history. Because the joy of diving naked into cold water on a hot day is timeless.

I hope I’m still doing it when I’m a granny. Just watch out for that flying swimsuit…