Photographer Amelia Allen talks to me about feminism, equality and nudity. She might have had that bizarre feeling in Waterstones looking at her first published works, Naked Britain, on the shelf (a dream that her 15-year-old self had, once-upon-a-time) but I doubt that anyone else could have achieved what Amelia Allen has.
Immersing her 22-year-old self, both mind and body, into this project, Amelia has produced a book that explores the world of nudity in British culture and society. A successful fashion and portrait photographer, Amelia's documentary style book was inspired by a black and white image of a couple sitting naked, knitting, on a bench in Kent, in 1968 by photographer, Elliot Erwitt. "It was from so long ago and inspired by the black and white 50s/60s era. I wanted my photographs to be timeless. When I look back at old pictures people seemed much more open minded, and when I discovered British naturism was still active today, I thought it was fantastic and I wanted to develop that." Amelia tells me.
Naked Britain, is a collection of black and white photographs featuring the everyday activities of people stripped of fabric and fashion. I was intrigued to know what Amelia thought about the British attitude to nudity? "That's why I did this.' she says. "There seems to be a warped perception of social nudity here compared to other countries; there’s a stiff-upper-lip attitude in Britain, and yet there are thousands of people who are totally content to be naked in their own communities, in 2017!"
Shooting thousands of images and carefully selecting them into chapters, the book documents some very British themes; naked bike rides, naked at the Ritz, naked gardening, and swimming. Even the very old, traditional British game of Mini Ten has naked tournaments all over the UK. Believe it or not, naturists go to discos, dinner parties, and tennis matches.
The idea that men and women are completely equal when they’re naked, regardless of appearance, wealth, occupation or status, is a concept that has truly inspired Amelia, and has taken her on a journey of discovery as she explores the reasons behind the unique and controversial status of naturism today that often associates nudity with sex, and this, she tells me, is a harmful misconception.
Society endeavours to perceive perfection all the time with sexualised, objectified bodies, yet even today, breastfeeding mothers still get bad press; how have we got to these double standards?
Amelia thinks there's different stages of nudity – if you have a dinner party naked, then perhaps that’s extreme naturism, but a lot of it is at country, or members' clubs. "It's fascinating that plastic and cosmetic surgery are all the forefront of fashion in our western, middle-class world, and then you discover a group of people who are completely happy with being naked and that's what really interested me.”
Far from the free-spirited 1960's, have we gone backwards in our attitude to body image and nudity in 2018? Today, there are four million naturists in the UK and nine thousand members of the British Naturism club. Naturism is not against the law. In fact, the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 specifically excludes it. However, intending to cause alarm, or distress to somebody by being naked, in some circumstances, can be a criminal offence. There is definitely a grey area here, but naturism is legal in a larger range of circumstances than most people assume.
Amelia's not saying that all fashion's negative, or that all social media's bad, but she does believe that there are elements of advertising, fashion, social media that are taking it too far. For a lot of people, the first thing they do in the morning is look at their phone, and it's the last thing they do at night too.
"We are constantly looking at images and we're comparing ourselves to others. It used to be only in magazines where we saw these slim fashionable, stylish people, but now it's everywhere, all the time. We are striving to be perfect. All the time. And that level of perfection isn't real. If you look at the average person, this is what you see," says Amelia, pointing to her book. She's absolutely right though, and as a key player in the creative fashion industry, this is exciting to hear. Her attitude is as liberating as our subject matter.
"I love fashion. It's creative and expressive, and there’s usually a brilliant team to work with. We all work together to make something amazing, yet with Naked Britain, I’ve not done a casting to choose the perfect model, or chosen the right location, or made sure I’ve got the lighting exactly right in the studio. I’m just documenting something that's happening right now."
Amelia told me that she'd heard some amazing stories whilst shooting the images for the book and interviewing naturists. A few of them had embraced naturism following an eating disorder or sexual abuse, and where they felt they'd lost control of their body, naturism was a healing process for them. "It's a lot more than being naked, but rather more of a celebration of the body and you as a person."
Amelia was asked to lecture at Goldsmiths University London to the Psychology students, discussing the psychology behind practising naturism and looking at the freedom and removal of anxiety, self-judgement and about simply being content and accepting of yourself. "I’m no supermodel, but that's irrelevant. What’s sexy to me is having confidence and passion. I shot the whole book naked and there was a lot of self-discovery, particularly as a woman - it taps into feminism; there's no hierarchy between men and women when you remove their clothes. Naturism allows for a completely natural, vulnerable state, and this can be some people's worst nightmare. It wasn't mine, but it was a little bit terrifying!" Having taken to a waterpark entirely naked whist documenting the book, she's going again, to brave the rapids - naked, of course. "Honestly," she says, "it’s so fun! And life's too short."
With International Women's Day approaching, I wanted to know who Amelia's female role model was, and what the importance of her impact on her life was. For Amelia, it was her mum, "not because she is in the arts or fashion world influencing my creative work itself," she says, "but because of her attitude to life, and her support. She's strong and not afraid to say what she thinks, or get what she wants. I think it’s so important that women aren’t told to be ladylike or told not to speak their mind, or stand up for what they believe in. I’ve always been taught to say if I am not happy about something and not whine about it, but to make a change. My mum is unbelievably supportive and has dropped so many things for opportunities for me - she's driven me across the country or got on a plane just so I can be at a shoot. She has always told me to prioritise my career, and any opportunities I am given, over social engagements and family commitments and this has helped make my dream of being a professional photographer and published author come true. She even flew to Germany with me to meet my publisher and see my book be printed."
Amelia has recently become a part of the feminist movement, so how does she think feminism is motivating change across the world? "I think it gives people a voice. It brings people together all in the name of equality and that's so important because there is still so much work to do and we can’t forget that even if life for a white woman in the western world seems pretty nice and comfortable, it isn’t for all women across the world. To quote Audre Lorde; “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
This subject is important to me personally, and following on from the themes in Naked Britain, of liberation and equality, I have started photographing my next book which will be about women and their roles in modern society in Britain, 100 years since women won the vote."
Now I knew was never going to meet Amelia and be anything but supportive of her very successful project, or of her many projects that are yet to come. Like her, I grew up in a very open-minded and accepting family, yet I have children of my own (boys and a girl) and the world they are growing up in, with it's misconceptions of body image, worries me; and as a parent I'm not alone with these thoughts. Whilst there are many women, Amelia included, flying the flag for equality and body 'norms', it will no doubt have an impact on our future generations, and this is a weighty subject to bear.
So, what does Amelia think we should be doing? "Let's just look at other people's bodies and not feel outraged, or equally, not look and think – 'I want to look like this, or like that.' We need to change our perception of body image, and of nudity. We have this need to want to clone ourselves and all look the same; and then we're back to the 'Barbie doll' thing. If it's all about curves, then the curves are only right and acceptable if your bottom's perfectly round, or your waist is flat and slim, with perfect boobs and skinny arms - and you know what – most of us can't be bothered with all this. It’s exhausting." Amelia's interest, captured through the eyes of her camera lens, tells an important story; what do you actually lose when you take your clothes off?
"People say they can't be a naturist because they haven't got the right body. But they don’t need the right body, they just need a body."