IF YOU are worrying about how you are going to afford that Elizabeth Hurley swimsuit this season, worry no more. A new trend is sweeping the nation and the beauty is, it won't cost you a penny.
"It's mad to think that people are willing to spend so much money on a little piece of string that goes between the cheeks of your bum," said Pat Gallagher, president of the Irish Naturists Association. Forget layering and think about shedding layers if you want to keep up with the fashionistas this summer.
Nudity is all the rage and last week, company founder Peter Englert is counting his millions having sold his hugely successful naturist tour company, Peng Travel. The 70-year-old millionaire and nudist has been in the naturist holiday business for 30 years and had to give serious thought to retiring.
"Normally people retire at 65, I enjoyed my job so much I put retirement off," he said. The demand for naturist holidays is increasing and according to conservative estimates, there are more than a million practising naturists in the UK. Ireland is also seeing numbers increase. "We have been receiving more calls than usual lately - there are thousands of naturists in Ireland and it is finally becoming more acceptable to be naked," said Pat Gallagher.
Carmel and her husband Declan are leaving Ireland this week for a two-week holiday in the Caribbean. "We will spend most of our time abroad being naked in the sun, just enjoying the peace and tranquillity of being together and the amazing feeling of bathing in the sea with no clothes on," Carmel said. The couple, who say city life has taken its toll on their relationship, discovered that they enjoyed naturism when they accidentally came upon a nudist beach on the Costa Del Sol. "We just saw all these naked bodies basking in the sun, we laughed and thought, well why not?"
The experience was so positive that they now practise naturism in the privacy of their home. "We're different people when we strip off. For us it's like shedding all your worries and stress and just getting back to basics. Carmel takes off her work clothes, I take off my overalls and that means it's time to relax," said Declan.
Carmel said they are hoping for good weather this summer so they can explore the many secluded spots Ireland has to offer. "We haven't really had the courage to explore naturism in Ireland but if we get the weather this year there's a beautiful waterfall we would like to visit," said Carmel.
The Irish Naturists Association is taking a stand against the image of the body beautiful currently being portrayed by advertisers, particularly to young women.
"Look at page three or look at the cover of any magazine, people are being pressured into thinking they need to resemble these unrealistic models to be attractive. Now that's madness," said Pat Gallagher.
The INA is working to promote a healthy attitude to body size by encouraging people to give naturism a try. People of all shapes and sizes enjoy naturism, Pat tells me, saying that those who are insecure about their body shape should definitely give it a go. "When you're naked you are what you are and you accept that. You actually begin to enjoy your own body shape and you also learn that most people don't have perfect bodies."
He goes on to say that naturism also transcends the social pecking order and can make socialising easier. "I've been introduced to people in high-ranking positions and people in ordinary jobs while in the nude and what's so refreshing is that when we're all naked there is no status - we're not bankers, teachers or lawyers. We're just Betty, Jo and Mary."
The nudity business is booming and John Carter, owner of Silverleigh, a naturist hotel, health spa and nudist club in the UK, has been enjoying a recent surge in demand. "We get a lot of people from Ireland coming here because you don't have a naturist spa like this. There is obviously a market for it. We're delighted to have our Irish clients, they just come here to relax and switch off from everything," he said.
THE nude travel industry alone is currently estimated to be worth over $300m a year worldwide and this has tripled in 10 years according to the Trade Association of Nude Recreation.
Across the globe, naked workouts, naked shopping nights and naked pubs have attracted the adventurous naturists and proved lucrative for insightful entrepreneurs.
Starkers is a naked disco event held in Central London for those in the nude for dancing and, according to Lisa, 30, who went with her boyfriend, "It's a great experience and most people are just laughing and enjoying the freedom. At least you don't have to worry about your outfit - you have to wear shoes though, nice stilettos make your bum look good when you're naked."
Mick is 69 and although he does not call himself a naturist he enjoys a naked swim on a quiet strand in the west once a week. "I've been doing it for years now and I don't think a thing of being naked. When we were young we couldn't afford bathing suits and swam naked. It's today's society that has made a taboo thing of nudity," he said.
He attributes his good health to the weekly swim and said that he often gets funny looks if people see him. "Most people don't walk down the strand as far as I do but if they do, I usually get a wave or they'll get a good old laugh seeing a naked old man going into the Atlantic ocean in the middle of November."
Asked if his family have followed his example he laughs. "They think I'm cracked - they come along Christmas morning to watch me going in and that's about it," he said.
Galway naturist Catherine, 58, blames conservative Catholic values for the initial slow uptake of naturism in Ireland but says that she has noticed more participation in recent years with many of her friends enjoying nude sunbathing while on holiday abroad: "People have been slow to talk about enjoying being nude. Many people still have very conservative Catholic views on nudity but most people now realise that naturism is not about sex, voyeurism or exhibitionism - it's about being a balanced human being and enjoying nature alone or with the ones you love."
"Women," she said, "take their tops off and sunbathe and so they should find removing their uncomfortable bikini bottoms quiet liberating." She said that because Ireland does not have weather like Spain or France, a nice spa with indoor and outdoor facilities would be wonderful. "Maybe I'll open one myself - then we might accept that beauty isn't about being skinny or tanned or muscular, it's about being natural."
The allure of the nude form has captivated artists for centuries with images ranging from the ancient Greeks who would strip naked before competing in the Olympic games, to the pregnant supermodel Kate Moss who was painted by artist Lucian Freud. It was Moss, who, when pregnant with her daughter Lila Grace, revealed that one of her remaining unfulfilled ambitions was to pose for Freud.
The artist, who has been known to spend years on single paintings described what he searches for in capturing his subjects, "I paint people," he said, "not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."
'Naked Portrait 2002' shows the normally waif-like Moss plumped up by pregnancy and reclining in a pose unlikely to grace the cover of a fashion magazine.
"As naturists we see ourselves how we happen to be and not how we should be according to society," said Pat Gallagher. In requesting a portrait of herself by an artist such as Lucian Freud perhaps Kate Moss was trying to capture that moment of "being" which naturists seem to be so connected with.
Last weekend Pat and his wife lay together naked on the beach, later some friends came around and stripped off to enjoy the gentle Irish weather: "We had a lovely evening - we're all comfortable in our own skin."
The INA's campaign, Bums on Beaches, aims to encourage more people to give naturism a go. Currently there are no official 'clothing optional' areas in Ireland and Irish law does not recognise naturism but the INA is campaigning for this to change.
Those considering naturism may want to pencil World Naturist Day - June 11 - into their diaries.
Or if you'd prefer something more active, you could consider signing up for the World Naked Bike ride in London on June 10.