Gym showers, sex parties, European beach holidays, walking into the wrong changing room, a knife fight in a bathhouse: there are so many ways to be naked in front of strangers. Some of them are even legal. Shivering naked with 2,000 people on a Tasmanian beach on a winter morning is legal, if not usually my idea of a great day out. But when given a waiver form asking you to sign away the risk of a heart attack and showing your arse on national television, who refuses that kind of invitation? Not I.
As the sun rises after the longest night of the year, Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival closes each year with a mass nude swim on Hobart’s Sandy Bay (which is closer to Antarctica than some parts of Australia). I hate cold and am bored by swimming – but I do know there is a uniquely liberating high in group nudity, which can turn anyone, from adonis to pensioner, into giggling fools. Even myself, enduring my body as I do: it is always pale and slightly doughy, no matter what I eat or lift; the kind of figure that could have been prized among the 17th-century European beau monde. (Rubens would have thought I was a total hottie.) But I’m a 31-year-old with an Instagram account, so I try not to think about what I could achieve if a dark part of my brain wasn’t always appraising my own appearance, or about how I sometimes catch myself absentmindedly poking my stomach or face, testing the spring of flab.
As the swim approaches, nerves catch on and won’t let up – nudity, swimming or cold, I cannot say. I get a media alert: Val and Philip March, two 80-somethings from New South Wales, will also be there on Wednesday. “Our dangly bits don’t look too good, but who cares!” Val said, adding that they’d also enjoyed seeing Mount Wellington, getting on the tourist bus, and the local scallops on their trip. Good on Val and Philip. It isn’t until I read “We are normally pretty conservative but somehow all the above is, at our age, the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest or visiting a space station,” that I begin to suspect Val has pretty high expectations about what other people do for fun.
The night before, I study myself in the mirror and try to figure out the best way to construct a bra from my hands for the brief run into the water. I flip flop on shaving my legs and even buy a razor, before deciding that Val and Philip probably won’t give a shivering shit, so I won’t either. Maybe my leg hairs will stop me from having a heart attack.
I arrive at 6.45am with a hot water bottle, on the advice of a kind stranger, and grab a towel. It soon becomes clear what wisdom others have brought with them: some are drinking shots, others have their dressing gowns and slightly damp uggs on. One man stares out at the water, in nothing but a Ushanka.
I start chatting with Marg, a 60-something woman from country Victoria. Like Val and Philip, the nude swim was on the bucket list. Like me, she’s alone. So we band together and make small talk as the clock ticks down. Who will be the first to get nude? “In 90 seconds, we’re getting naked,” I overhear one woman say; when time inevitably passes, I hear, “Nah, nah – five minutes, then we’ll do it.”
This year’s swim was scheduled for 7.42am. Most of us rush out of our clothes and into towels by 7.30. “Sorry, the sun’s up at 7.44 now!” one surf rescue volunteer announces on a Tannoy. But no one is waiting two more minutes. Drums begin, starting off a cacophony of hooting and clapping – until the beat finally stops, red flares go up and, as one, 2,000 people drop trou.
When the icy River Derwent water hits my ribs, I shriek and instantly feel embarrassed, until I hear everyone else doing the same. We are a gurning mass moving on the water like a wave, grunting and crying out like animals. Then the giggles start: young lithe women, old men, big blokes with their friends. No one is spending a moment on their ropey tattoos, lumpy scars or fleshy bellies, for we’re free and doing something silly in the name of art and something primal none of us could name.
A whole 60 seconds later, I can’t bear a second more and clamber out. Some stay in long after I am dressed; one man is gloriously starfished, staring up into the yellowing sky. I find Marg on shore, nude as the day she was born; she says, eyes shining: “I don’t know if I ever want to put clothes on again.” But we do and vow to meet on the beach in a year’s time as we part ways.