Photographer Amelia Allen's new book, Naked Britain, is a celebratory exploration of the human body, with a focus on the UK's growing naturism movement. With fashion photography published in magazines such as Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair, and clients like Matches Fashion, Hermès and Temperley London, Allen's latest creative endeavour may seem a little uncharacteristic. But her background in fashion is in fact what led to her new project.
"I have spent the majority of my career photographing conventionally beautiful and aesthetically pleasing models who are used to displaying clothes," she tells R29. "Everything surrounding this is to do with body image and having to look a certain way to fit a specific societal construct of what is seen as beautiful. Growing up today, through such a politically dynamic time, where women’s rights are a huge issue, I wanted to create a project that took liberation and freedom of body image into the limelight. I wanted to photograph a community that represented equality in body image, appearance, sexuality and gender. I felt a desperate urge to photograph another side of society, and to experience something away from fashion, but something still very much focusing on the beauty of the human body. Naturism was perfect for this."
Amelia's first foray into naturism was attending a clothing-optional day at a members' club in Buckinghamshire. She met a family who invited her to a naked picnic and skinny dip, before introducing her to the wider community. Three years on, they're still friends. "The first experience was quite a daunting one and it all builds up in your head but you’ve just got to treat it like a band aid: once the clothes are off, you’re free. It’s really good fun, very refreshing and liberating," she says. "There's something about wandering around in a place you usually wouldn’t be naked – like a garden; I loved it. It took some getting used to, but not only was I trying to learn about this way of life through my photography, but also to grow personally. To step out of my comfort zone and look at my own relationship with my body and attitude to nudity."
So what did she learn? "Many said one of the reasons they liked being involved in the naturist community was that they could be themselves, away from mainstream life and remove all those stereotypes and statuses of clothing," she explains. "Being naked means you are a blank canvas and for some, you are anonymous." Are they happier in their own skin than the rest of society, or do they get hang-ups like the rest of us? "I think both. They are more self-accepting, because they realise there is more to life than their appearance. I guess everyone has an opinion of their own body and that changes throughout your life. They feel most comfortable and relaxed being naked and under a lot less pressure than among clothed society."
Most of Amelia's subjects are 35 and older, and the free-love attitude of young people in the '70s hasn't quite carried over to 2017. We're more open than ever about our sexuality and gender identity, with sex clubs and polyamory becoming more and more widely accepted – but nudity is often still seen as crass. "It’s quite funny that that is the case, and that casual sex and paid clubs are so normal to many but nudity with no sexuality is seen as distasteful," Amelia notes. "Is that because the people who sunbathe topless or breastfeed in public don't fit into society's idea of an aesthetically pleasing idea of body image? There seems to be a double standard: it's okay to be naked if it's for sexual pleasure or observation, or for an editorial, but not okay for the freedom and liberation of it," she highlights.
Does she think attitudes are changing? "I think so. Plus-size models help a lot of young women who aren’t the size of a catwalk model. I'm a fashion photographer and a size 14, and that is okay. However, they are still beautiful, so it's helping young women on social media but not changing attitudes to all body types and ages," she says. "I think it's important to recognise that ad campaigns and social media are not honest perceptions of reality. Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s showreel."
Despite our best efforts, we all have unconscious prejudices towards bodies, thanks to the media's unrelenting bombardment of unattainable, inaccessible and over-sexualised images. It often takes a lot of work to love your own body and not hold others up as the epitome of perfection. Amelia's shots of the naturists, free of self-consciousness and judgement, encourage you to do just that: appreciate your body for the wonder it is.
Click through to see our favourite photographs from the book.