Why you should care

Because nudity is as old as time. And so are the attempts to control it.

It’s still swimsuit season, there’s still time to lace up those sneakers and get moving. Which is exactly what some folks are doing as they seek out classic jogging sensations: the steady bounce, the adrenaline build, the burning quads, the wind against their … genitals?

These days, a certain group of people are running around, only they’re doing it buck naked, sporting just sneakers for flair. Here in the industrial town of Porto Alegre, Brazil, the trend has been happening so often that it’s being called febre de pelados, or naked fever. Over the past several months, around the city’s streets and parks, folks have spotted — and often snapped with cellphone cameras ­— naked joggers. Some call it silly, others outrageous, but the police call it something between criminal and insane.

The Porto Alegre joggers aren’t alone. Across the globe, from Colorado and Ohio to the U.K. and New Zealand, people are heading out for naked sprints. Some recently cycled nude in cities around the world to raise awareness for different causes, while others have poured buckets of red wine over their bare bosoms to protest bloodshed in Ukraine. Of course, public nudity isn’t particularly new. But watch the global headlines and you might notice that naked running seems to be having a prolonged revival, sometimes for familiar reasons: out of political protest, to support feminism or animal rights, or simply for the sheer enjoyment of jogging cru. In Brazil and some other countries, people appear to be doing it on a lark. Which makes the whole trend seem even more “ridiculous,” to 34-year-old Porto Alegre professor Rafael Pereira, “because this is one of the coldest places in Brazil.”

In a time of X-rated selfies and sexting, nude jogging can seem almost quaint, even pure.

Not surprisingly, the naked jogging trend has sparked another trend: the banning of naked jogging, or public nudity in general. In 2012, San Francisco passed a public nudity ban, shutting down the thrills of those like nude protester George Davis, who griped to the San Francisco Chronicle that his hometown would soon lose its reputation as “the kinkiest city.” Just last week, Topeka, Kansas, followed (anti-birthday) suit, and Sacramento is considering doing the same. Go to New York, and you’ll find a city entrenched in a battle over the desnudas of Times Square, who cover their breasts only with paint and pose for pictures in exchange for tips. Recently, a controversy kicked up in Cambodia over tourists posing for photos near Angkor Wat with brilliantly white smiles and a lot of brilliantly white skin. Barcelona, the place where the party doesn’t start until dawn, went even further and banned “partial nudity” — such as wearing a bikini around town. As it turns out, at least in the realm of the European Court of Human Rights, public nudity is not a basic human right.

running naked (153804501)

A naked demonstrator runs in Athens during a protest against the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Source Aris Messinis/Getty

It’s been a long, uphill jog for nudity lovers over the years. Throughout history, so-called nonsexual social nudity has been linked to cultural touchstones, from naked competitors in the Olympics of ancient Greece to the development of the sport of surfing in 1800s Polynesia. Around the turn of the 20th century, the first naturist club was founded in India, and the first naturist resort founded in Germany. But 1974 may have been the high-water mark for public nudity, with a rash of streaking events across American college campuses. The fad even slipped onto the stage at the Oscars that year. Topless movements sparked across the U.S. in the ’90s, but today — to the chagrin of frequently topless comedian Chelsea Handler and others — toplessness is still not legal in about a third of the states.

And yet we might be seeing a revival of the time-honored practice of public buck-nakedness. In 2010, Felicity Jones co-founded the Young Naturists America to promote the cause to millennials via events like topless Meetups, naked hikes and that perennial favorite, skinny-dipping. Its second-annual NYC Bodypainting Day attracted 70 artists and 100 models this year, twice as many as last year, but it could have been even bigger: “We’re trying to not grow it too quickly,” says 27-year-old Jones. The American Association for Nude Recreation says the naked rec market — think nude beaches, resorts, cruises — is already worth almost half a billion dollars. Even the TV networks are taking a crack at showing crack: Seemingly endless nude reality shows have crept up on us, from Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid to VH1’s Dating Naked. Turns out that while all the participants strip down, executives line their pockets.

Though it may sound surprising given the bronzed-butt-and-thong situation, toplessness is still illegal on the beaches of Brazil. That, of course, has led to repeated protests, which often look like small groups of bare-breasted women encircled by the erect zoom lenses of hordes of “photographers.” Repeating an argument often made elsewhere, Ana Paula Nogueira, leader of the 1,000-strong Topless in Rio movement, says it’s just not fair that men can go to restaurants and even church without shirts, but women can’t go topless on the beach. “Brazil is a bit schizophrenic,” Nogueira says: Underlying the country’s hypersexualized image, there’s a deep strain of sexual conservatism. Those topless protests? Maybe they’re a spectacle now, but she insists they’re really about gender equality, and meant to normalize public nudity in the long run.

Nude Events for Any Occasion

Golfing: La Jenny, France

Yoga: Bold and Naked Yoga, New York

Olympics: Pilwarren Maslin Beach, Australia

Night running: Kenya

Camping: Taylor Camp, Kauai, Hawaii

Volleyball: White Thorn Lodge, Pennsylvania

Sledding: Magdeburg, Germany

Rugby: Dunedin, New Zealand

Streaking: any ole U.S. college

Indeed, when it comes to public nudity, our cyberlicious modern world turns up one constant around the globe: the share factor. For every topless protest, there are a thousand InstaPics; for every nude trot, a grainy cellphone vid. Ask folks like Nogueira and the media attention is part of the deal. But in a time of X-rated selfies and indiscriminate sexting, naked jogging on your own can seem almost quaint, even pure.

So why should you slip on your birthday suit alfresco? “When you shed your clothes, you shed your stress,” proclaims Carolyn Hawkins, spokeswoman for the AANR. In her view, meeting someone at a nudist resort takes on an equalizing dimension. “You find out who they are from inside, from the heart,” she says. Similar logic drives the latest (nude) trend in yoga. Practitioners liken their naked asanas to a philosophical stance, driven by deep moral beliefs about authenticity, transparency and the like. Such lofty claims aside, being naked among other naked people in quasi public settings can be just, well, fun. “A lot of people just enjoy it,” says Jones, of the Young Naturists.

But the impact of seeing a bouncing jogger in the nude has been taken quite seriously in some places. In Colorado a few years ago, a priest was found guilty of “indecent exposure” for dashing nude around a high school track. And down in Porto Alegre, the reaction to bare-skinned runners has been to send at least one of them to a mental hospital for being “imbalanced.” Mixed martial artist Betina Baino was one of those who recently strolled naked there on a rainy afternoon; she told Globo TV she did so for “personal reasons,” but her former trainer said he was worried she might have a psychological problem. Neither Baino nor her ex-trainer could be reached for comment, but Antonio Barbaresco, a spokesman for the city of Porto Alegre, says no one seems to know why more nude joggers have been out and about. “It’s something spontaneous that no one understands,” he says.

There is some hope for public-nudity advocates. Munich recently created six “Urban Naked Zones” for sunbathing in the buff, while Barcelona dropped its “partial nudity” (aka bikini) ban in April. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, an appeals court overturned a ruling against a naked runner for “offensive behavior.” “If it was offensive,” the man told the local paper, “then God wouldn’t have given us genitals.”

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