Nude Beaches in Sydney
When Spencer Tunick called for volunteers to take part in his mass nude photographic installation in front of the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Monday morning in March this year, over 5,000 people – more than twice the number expected – turned up and stripped off for the US artist.
But just a week earlier, a display of public nudity at another waterfront location in Sydney drew a very different reaction. On a warm, sunny Sunday plain-clothes police officers descended on a regular gathering of nude bathers at Little Congwong Beach at La Perouse. The police instructed the nudists to cover up or leave, taking details from several people and returning some time later to ensure compliance. The following day, the incident was widely reported as a “raid” or “crackdown” on an “illegal nude beach”. (Although Little Congwong has never been a legally designated nude beach, nudists claim it has been used as such for at least 40 years with minimal objection – until now.)
The contrast between the two episodes raises questions about attitudes towards nudity in contemporary Australia. On the one hand, according to Spencer Tunick, Sydneysiders’ willingness to peel off and be photographed with thousands of naked strangers “delivered a very strong message to the world that Australians embrace a free and equal society”. On the other hand, as Sydney grows and its demographic make-up changes, members of local councils say they face increasing calls to reclaim established nude beaches for what nudists call the “textile-using” public.
Robert Belleli is the deputy mayor of Randwick, the local council responsible for Little Congwong Beach. He says that with the advent of motorway access from the outer suburbs, La Perouse has attracted an increasing number of visitors over recent years. Upgrades to the national park behind Congwong and Little Congwong beaches are bringing day-trippers closer to the nudists than ever before. “Families are using the bushwalk and then they’re being shocked by the sight of what they’re seeing there,” Belleli says. Randwick Council has twice rejected requests from the lobby group, Free Beach Action NSW, a group convened in October 2005 by Gerald Ganglbauer, to legalise nude bathing at Little Congwong.
The call for more “family-friendly” beaches can also be heard in the debate over another of Sydney’s nude beaches, Lady Bay Beach in Vaucluse. Woollahra councillor Anthony Boskovitz says that over the past five years he has been “worn down” by requests to have Lady Bay taken off the list of NSW’s legal nude beaches. An economist by training, he believes the issue boils down to a question of supply and demand. “We’re not really supplying enough beaches for the demand. The demand is for family-friendly beaches; the demand is for beaches that everybody can go to,” he says.
Juan Mellado, a regular user of Little Congwong Beach and a member of Free Beach Action NSW, sees nudist beaches as a sub-set of family-friendly beaches, rather than the opposite. “Naturism is a family activity,” he says. “We have a group of families going there with their kids. We play cricket with the kids and stuff like that.”
From a historical perspective, too, the terms “nudist” and “family friendly” are not the strict opposites that critics suggest. Sociologist Ruth Barcan, author of Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, explains: “There’s a sort of venerable tradition, going back a century, of nudist writing about the social and psychological benefits of bringing up children without shame. There’s always been a really strong current in nudist writing about the beneficial effects of kids growing up with a comfortable relationship with their own body.”
Barcan points out, however, that nudism as a philosophy-cum-lifestyle “has always been a quite hidden and quite particular practice” in Australia. She says that while popular perceptions of nudism as “anything from comic to strange to downright perverse” remain much the same, change is occurring in our attitudes towards the naked body more generally.
“What I see happening is the association between nudity and only one thing is strengthening,” she says. “That’s a definite trend: nudity equals sex. Nudity obviously has always had erotic and sexual meanings, but nudity could also mean a whole lot of other things. It could be heroic, it could be majestic, it could signify truth, authenticity, innocence and so on. But that range of other associations is really under threat – I think that’s new.”
In addition to this restricted view of nudity, Barcan believes a restriction in the range of body types deemed acceptable by popular culture is another factor driving public uneasiness about nude beaches.
Woollahra councillor Anthony Boskovitz describes the shift in public attitudes in the following way: “There’s a different standard these days than there was 30 years ago. People don’t feel as comfortable around nudity now as they did back then. There’s certainly an increase in modesty these days.”
Boskovitz, 27, says he doesn’t know why this change has occurred. “Older people have said there was a place for [a nude beach at Lady Bay] back in the 70s and people used it. But these days younger people who use beaches are just not partaking in nude bathing. I just don’t think it’s as socially acceptable as it was back then.”
So how did Spencer Tunick manage to draw such a big crowd in a city where nudism is a marginal practice and the general population’s attitude to nudity is at best indifferent? Ruth Barcan lists several reasons including the celebrity status of the photographer, the institutional backing of the Sydney Mardi Gras, and the circumscribed nature of the event, which gave people who are not regular nudists the chance to participate in something fun and exhilarating, but ultimately quite safe.
“The thing about a Spencer Tunick is precisely the fact that it’s a one-off,” Barcan says. “When you do a one-off thing in a special circumstance, in a specially licensed place, what it confirms is that we don’t do this most of the time, whereas nudists want to do this most of the time, if not all of the time.”
Despite the pressures, the demise of nude beaches in the Sydney metropolitan area may be some way off yet. At a council meeting in February, Anthony Boskovitz’s motion to have Lady Bay declassified as a nude beach was voted down, receiving support from just one of his fourteen fellow councillors. Down at Little Congwong, meanwhile, Juan Mellado says that over the last couple of years he has seen a growing number of newcomers (recognisable by the “textile marks on their bodies”) showing up to try out nude bathing – young couples and women notably among them. Robert Belleli of Randwick Council concedes that as long as nudists want to use Little Congwong, they will. He adds that enforcement of the law prohibiting nude bathing there will continue to be a matter for the police.
Acknowledgement: This article was witten by Fergus Grieve, journalism student at the University of Technology Sydney firstname.lastname@example.org phone 0401 166 829.