Saturday 29 November 2014

The bare truth of why we all like to look at naked women

Kevin Myers

Published 16/06/2009 | 00:00

'Irish Women and Public Nudity', not so long ago, would have ranked with 'Nuclear Fission; the Eskimo Contribution' as the title of the world shortest book.

Along with 'Zulus and Supersonic Flight'. Or 'Lesbian Camogie in Saudi Arabia'. Or '101 uses for Pigs' Foreskins', by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Simply, Irish women didn't do public nudity. To be sure, Irishmen weren't all that great at it, but Irish women were as likely to appear naked in front of strangers as Mother Teresa was to do a pole dance in front of the Pope.

I know three Irishwomen who once went to a naturist beach in France, but wore bikinis throughout. And they actually boasted about this on their return, declaring how "weird" the nudists were. No, girls, we know who the weird ones were. The actress Olivia Treacy once proudly declared that she was so principled that she had performed Lady Chatterley on the stage, fully clothed. Which is rather like mounting a production of 'Hamlet of Sunnybrook Farm'. And Irish fashion models would refuse to do underwear shows. Girls had to be brought over from pagan England -- the whores! the sluts! -- to perform in Dublin's annual commercial lingerie parade.

And far from this infantile prudery being a matter for embarrassment and shame, it was actually one of national pride. Irish women -- it was said -- didn't demean themselves by taking off their clothes in public.

While male nudity on the stage became a commonplace in Dublin theatre, female nudity was almost unknown. English actresses such as Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren bared all on the London stage, and in film, and no one thought the worse of them: but their Irish she-peers still donned swaddling clothes in public. A priggish and grisly she-neurosis masqueraded as a Hibernian virtue. It took the American photographer Spencer Tunick to prove that the days of Irish reticence about public nudity were largely over.

A year ago, he got thousands of men and women to appear on Sandymount Strand, naked. And the amazing thing about his achievement was that it didn't consist of the young and beautiful: people of all shapes and sizes, and of any age, toddled out without any clothes on. I could not have been more surprised if I saw the entire Loreto order doing a Riverdance in the nude down Grafton Street, with the three Marys -- Robinson, O'Rourke and McAleese -- capering nakedly in the lead.

So times have indeed changed. Which is no doubt why Paddy Power is offering odds this week, not on whether many women are going to turn up for the nude bathe-in this coming Sunday to raise money for Action Breast Cancer (for hundreds have already said they will), but precisely where it is going to take place.

The organiser, Maire Garvey, hopes to get the event into the Guinness Book of Records, with the largest number of naked women skinny-dipping at the same time.

And this is where the sexes -- once again -- divide. Because there's hardly a man alive who wouldn't love to be present surrounded by hundreds of naked females. Whereas, if hundreds of naked men gathered together, this would be a matter of sublime indifference to most women. And to most men also. For both men and women prefer female nudity to male nudity -- not in an explicitly sexual way, but through some generalised aesthetic.

It is not even a matter of beauty, but of comfort: ordinary, unposed female nudity is reassuring and pleasing to both sexes. Maybe this goes back to our days at the breast, when we associated the naked mammary with sublime contentment. But there's more to it that that: men love women's bodies, even non-erotically, in a way that women love neither men's bodies, nor their own.

There is no male equivalent to "Does my bum look big in this?" Few men are burdened with the bodily low-esteem which cripples so many women. Men's magazines are not full of perfect male bodies, as women's magazines are full of perfect female bodies.

Not merely do the two sexes inhabit two different kinds of anatomy, but we possess two entirely different kinds of mindset about those anatomies.

How much of this is purely Irish, and how much is a more generalised female sense of inferiority, I don't know: I suspect Swedish women would still strip off in mixed company far more unselfconsciously than Irish females. That remains a hypothesis, for there'll be no mixed company for the girls-only sponsored Dip in the Nip at a beach in Sligo this Sunday morning.

The actual beach is a better kept secret than that for the Normandy landings -- hence the Paddy Power bet. Alas, I will not be there: for like virtually every other heterosexual male, I would love to be a single man on a beach, surrounded by 500 (or more) naked women, no matter their age or appearance. The male dream: but rules is rules. Vulva-owners only: and I'm not talking about a rally for Swedish cars.

The oldest naked participant will get a €200 sponsorship donation to Action Breast Cancer: at the moment, a 71-year-old is in the lead.

Interested women should check www.cancer.ie or contact Maire Garvey at 086 4016047.

kmyers@independent.ie

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