The first episode of 'controversial' new reality show Naked Beach aired on Thursday night. I’ve put controversial in inverted commas because Greggs' sausage rolls have caused more fuss than this flogged-to-death format is likely to generate.
So what’s it all about then? I could say it’s Love Island with love handles, Big Brother with baps, or maybe just Oglebox (apologies) but that would be doing the makers of Naked Beach a disservice because it’s actually a very serious show – nay, a noble 'quest' to make us all feel better about our bodies.
A serious show requires serious people and that's where the fully clothed (boo!) social psychologist Dr Keon West of Goldsmiths University comes in. Dr West's genuinely interesting and insightful studies (including "Naked and Unashamed: Investigations and Applications of the Effects of Naturist Activities on Body Image, Self Esteem and Life Satisfaction") show that people’s body image, self-esteem and life satisfaction could be vastly improved by seeing more "normal, naked bodies and spending more time with our own naked bodies". Naked Beach puts this to the test with the ambitious aim to "help fix the nation’s body confidence issues".
Another genuine and serious person is mental health expert and body image campaigner Natasha Devon MBE, who tells us that basically, Britain's body image is in our boots. She cites more studies that found over 75% of women are unhappy with how they look, 45% of men don’t like what they see in the mirror and now, because we're such a bunch of idiots, our kids aren’t happy with their bodies either. Devon says this is a global health issue that affects our mental health and has links to depression.
And so the premise is this: Each week, three 'guests' whose body confidence is painfully low are sent off to a self-esteem bootcamp (or should I say, BOOTY camp) at a luxury villa in Greece, to spend time with some naked people who love their bodies.
These naked 'hosts' are a diverse range of shapes and sizes and skin colours, and each one was selected because they are part of the body confidence movement, which I cannot and will not be flippant about.
And yet despite its serious goals, the show gets very, very silly. In episode one, guests Elysia, Darrell and Kaye are cajoled into nude wheelbarrow races, hula hooping and life drawing lessons on the lawn, before stripping off each night in front of their rigged-up mirrors and telling us how they feel about themselves. At the end of each episode, a titillating finale looms: will they choose to bare all?
If you’ve watched any reality TV before (yes you have, you liar) then Naked Beach is bound to feel familiar – from the earnest voiceover to the diary cam confessions, exuberant hosts and silly challenges. Were it not for our serious science boffin doing pieces to camera you'd be forgiven for forgetting you're watching a serious effort to transform the nation for the better and not just some shameless excuse to ogle a few naked millennials while you wait for your Dr. Oetker pizza to cook.
If I sound cynical it's because I am. I didn’t hate this show – the hosts and guests seem warm and lovely – but parts feel forced and insincere, and I kept asking myself what the end goal is here. Are we willing people to get naked for their self-esteem or is it just a cheap payoff for the viewer?
Yet I truly rooted for the cast of episode one because they all seem like beautiful, shy souls, and regardless of the show’s simulated sincerity, there is no doubting their cripplingly low self-confidence is real. Darrell talks about convincing himself he doesn’t care anymore – a defence mechanism to which I think many, many people can relate. Twenty-seven-year-old Kaye from Preston works in a fish and chip shop and hates everything about her body except for her toes. She's funny, but her story is genuinely troubling: she’s been with her adoring partner for 10 years but won’t get married because she can't face the thought of shopping for a a wedding dress. Elysia has had a kid and says her self-consciousness impacts her life every day.
And now to the elephant in the room: no one in Naked Beach is actually naked. In fact they're all wearing more than I did getting my last Brazilian (2010, thanks for asking).
The very brief explanation offered at the beginning of the show is that the nylon codpieces are to help ease our very body-conscious subjects into the process but that didn't seem credible to me, so I asked a spokesperson for the show to explain. Was it a watershed thing? Did the hosts not want to strip completely? Did the producers think the nation’s heads would explode if faced with full-on front bottom shots?
Here's what they had to say: "Naked Beach is about body image not genitalia or gratuitous nudity. Both [Devon and Dr West] agree that people with very low body image usually also really struggle with nudity and so, given the details of the four-day process were initially concealed from the guests, the experts felt that meeting a group of entirely naked hosts from the get-go may be unnecessarily confronting and so body paint and modesty covers were introduced."
Fine, but maybe don't call the show Naked Beach then? Oh and all that body paint is going to be a nightmare to clean out of the swimming pool filter.
Despite my reservations about the show's worthy intentions, there are takeaways here. I’m not going to whip my bra and knickers off when I’m walking home and fling them onto the windscreens of oncoming cars while singing Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real" at the top of my voice, but I do buy Dr Keon's logic – seeing a more representative range of bodies more often works. We need more of that, everywhere, every day.
And if I haven't made this clear, I believe body issues should be taken very seriously. I grew up in a home where the only thing enforced more strictly than the Bible was the Weight Watchers points system. (My mum and her mates used to carpool to their WW weigh-ins once a week in what they called "the fattybus".) All through my teens and 20s I have been tortured by body confidence issues, done more dumb crash diets than I care to recall and often skipped social engagements because I felt like Kaye does about her wedding dress. So I get it, but you'll have to pardon me if I happen to think that painting sunflowers on our tits isn’t going to solve the problem.
Naked Beach is on Thursdays at 8pm, Channel 4 and on All 4.