Warning: this post contains pictures of naked people.
I was heading down Old Bond Street towards Piccadilly when I saw them.
I’d spent the previous hour cycling through the side streets of Soho and Mayfair in a fruitless search for some buttons for the cardigan I’d just finished making. After trying four different haberdasheries to no avail, I decided to head to Waterloo to have a coffee and wait to catch sight of the London leg of the World Naked Bike Ride.
Except there they were in front of me – a stream of naked and semi-naked people on bikes, all heading along Piccadilly, not 20 metres ahead. As I reached the lights, I realised there were no marshals nor police escort blocking the traffic: naked flesh mingled with cars, buses and taxis. What’s more, once the lights changed to green, the cars queuing up behind me would be joining them – as would I.
It’s not that I have a problem with the ride, or with nudity. It’s just that all the other people on bikes around me were naked and I was the only one who wasn’t. And there were rather a lot of people lining the streets, cameras and phones in hand, gawping at the spectacle streaking past them.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so self-conscious about being fully clothed in public in all my life.
Yesterday’s ride was just one of a number of naked bike rides taking place across the UK and around the world. They’ve been happening annually since 2004; in that year, there were rides in 28 cities in 10 countries around the world. This year there are over 70 rides planned in 20 different countries, including 15 in the UK.
Why on earth would anyone want to ride their bike naked around the centre of London? As it turns out, it’s not just an incurable case of exhibitionism. Those stripping off for the World Naked Bike Ride are doing so for a reason – to protest against car culture and oil dependency, and to celebrate cycling and the human body.
Despite the name of the ride, nudity is optional. The dress code is ‘as bare as you dare’. For some – mostly men, judging by yesterday’s ride – that does mean full nudity. For others, it means almost bare – perhaps knickers, underpants, mankini or body paint. Anything, in essence, that reveals more than it covers up.
Although I knew I wouldn’t have to strip off completely, I still wasn’t tempted to take part. I’ve never been comfortable with nudity – at least not my own, anyway. I can handle a communal shower after my flamenco class, but that’s about it. Even wearing a bikini on the beach can make me feel uncomfortable. I’m too reserved, too self-conscious…too British.
But having seen the ride, I have to say there’s something oddly liberating about seeing so many people – and there were literally hundreds – in public with no clothes on.
There were bodies of all sizes and ages – thin bodies, fat bodies, short bodies, tall bodies, wrinkly bodies, lumpy bodies, smooth bodies, hairy bodies, tattooed bodies, bodies with small breasts, bodies with large breasts, bodies with small willies, bodies with big willies, bodies with large bellies, bodies with flat bellies, pale bodies and dark bodies…all of them completely comfortable to bare (almost) all, no matter what they looked like.
Though I’m normally of the view that pretty much everyone looks better with clothes on than without, there was nevertheless something strangely beautiful about this procession of human flesh. Seeing all those people with their imperfections – their lumpy bits and wobbly bits and saggy bits and too small bits – made me realise what a waste of energy it is worrying about these things. The perfect body doesn’t exist – except in magazines – so why worry about it?
There was vulnerability, too, in that nakedness; a reminder of how exposed cyclists are on our city’s streets and of how insignificant we as humans are in the face of impending climate change.
Though I suspect most of the people lining the streets of London yesterday were there simply to gawp and laugh at the naked people, I’d like to think that at least some people had their attitudes changed – about cycling, about nudity and about the environment – by what they saw.