What it feels like: Irish naturist (50) on why she's happier with her clothes off - even in the snow
With Ireland due to get its first official nudist-friendly beach, Hazel Newton (50) from Cork reveals what the news means to her and why she's happier with her clothes off - even in the snow
It was about 15 years ago when I had an epiphany. I was on holiday in Greece and there was the opportunity to go out on a boat and watch the moon rise over the mountains. It was beautiful, there was phosphorescence in the water and another lady, who had brought her swimming togs, got in to swim.
I love swimming in the sea - it's where I'm happiest - but I hadn't brought my togs. On this occasion I decided that all the usual feelings of inhibition and embarrassment that would normally have stopped me from taking my clothes off weren't enough to outweigh the draw of swimming in a sea full of phosphorescence under a full moon. I can still feel the soft water on my skin. It was an amazing experience. When I went to get out, someone brought me a towel to the top of the stairs and I remember hearing one person say to another, 'now that's body confidence for you'.
That was the start for me. From then on I looked for holidays with nudist beaches, then I progressed to naturist hotels where everyone was naked all the time. The first time, it felt a bit weird standing in a hotel lobby with no clothes on, but after 24 hours it just felt normal.
I've now got my holiday packing down to just a ruck-sack. The only downside is having to put clothes on again to go home - it feels horrible, I hate it.
Two-and-a-half years ago I joined the Irish Naturism Association which, with 231 members, is currently the fastest growing naturist association in Europe. Despite our climate, there's a full range of naturist events that take place. I know people who have done nude yoga classes in Dublin, bodypainting or the World Naked Bike Ride in Cork. I learned to play croquet in the nude and even went hiking in Wicklow in the snow with a naturist group wearing just hats and boots, which was an exhilarating experience.
Being outdoors naked gives you an incredible sense of body awareness - you feel the sun, wind and cold with your whole body. I'm going to sound like a right old hippy, but there's a real sense of being at one with nature. This time of year I'm starting to crave getting outdoors with my naturism. I love to garden in the nude and I'm fortunate that the house I live in is quite secluded (it was one of the main reasons why I chose it).
It's definitely something that has been beneficial to my health - it's de-stressing, good for vitamin D and tops up feelings of body acceptance.
One of the things I love about naturism is that people don't compartmentalise or judge each other. It's maybe to do with the level of maturity that you have to have to be comfortable around people with no clothes on.
There's no judging someone on their social status by looking at their clothes or fixating on what they do for a job - we're all just people, of all ages and from all kinds of backgrounds.
The working definition of 'naturism' is non-sexual, social nudity. But without doubt, the biggest misconception people have is that it is sexual. That's a view that's often not helped by the media which seems to be stuck in a Carry On film mentality about nudity. It's maybe hard to understand if you've not been to a naturist event, but it is the most non-sexual environment I have ever come across.
It's far more like how you would have felt as a toddler when you ran around a beach with no clothes on and not a care in the world. It's very innocent and safe. I would feel much safer at a naturist event than I do walking down a street in the city.
Growing up, the message is always that you cover up certain parts of the body, otherwise people will assume you're up for sex, so I think that inhibits a lot of people, particularly women.
But I'm generally surprised by how positive people are in their reaction when I talk about my naturism. I've never had anyone say that I shouldn't do it or I'm a terrible person somehow.
Not long ago I was on a beach that is traditionally one half naturist and one half textiles - that's what we call clothed people - but I decided I wanted to walk the full length of the shore. On the way I asked people if they were okay with me being naked and not one of them was bothered. But I suspect it might have been different if I was male. I know a lot of my male colleagues only get to practise their naturism at organised indoor events. As a country though, I think we're loosening up about things. By and large I don't think people give a damn - they realise there are worse things than seeing a naked body on a beach. Respect is key.
Legally it's okay for us to be naked anywhere as long as there's no intention to cause fear, distress or alarm or engage in a sexual activity. But we don't want to ever cause trouble so we tend to go to out-of-the-way spots. Like the spot in Dalkey that recently got an advisory sign saying that people might see a naked body - I think that's a good idea because it means if someone had terribly strong feelings and it would be distressing for them to see someone naked, then it gives them a choice.
But it's also not somewhere that people would typically go with their families - that's why we go there. We don't want to cause offence or upset people. We're not campaigning for an exclusively nudist beach in every county, just signs to help visitors find the traditional naturist spots and so anyone who might have a problem with us can choose to go elsewhere - there are plenty of glorious beaches for all of us.
I've no awkward or embarrassing stories - maybe that's a sign of how accepting and mature naturists are. But of course there are always the usual jokes about making sure to wear protection when barbecuing and slathering on the sunscreen on delicate areas. Etiquette-wise the rules are the same as when you're clothed: if you're talking to someone, talk to their face. We're generally a very nice bunch of people who just happen to prefer doing some things without clothes on.
I can't imagine not being a naturist and I've no plans to stop. It's just kind of who I am at this stage.
In conversation with Chrissie Russell