This article appears in our 2012 Fall issue, Elemental. Subscribe today!
Consider the nudist. In American pop culture, nudists conjure up a strange set of images; none of them are very positive, let alone humanistically celebratory of our physical form. As conventional wisdom has it, nudists are the people you least want to see naked, and their mainstream portrayal is generally played for laughs, if not gags. The title essay in David Sedaris’s book Naked, for instance, details the author’s foray into the world of “nude recreation” with descriptions of bug-bitten limbs, dimples on the wrong kind of cheeks, sweaty genitals, and toilet paper stuck to reddened rears. The clothes-free lifestyle may sound sexy, but as Sedaris discovers, it’s anything but. An almost-equally common perception is that nudists are naive exhibitionists, a portrayal used in media and popular culture as an emphatic punch line. From an episode of 1970s sitcom Love, American Style in which a groom-to-be reluctantly accompanies his bride to the nudist colony where she grew up (“When you said ‘nudist,’ I thought you said ‘Buddhist’!”) to the 2012 film Wanderlust, which features a largely clueless band of hippies at a stranded-in-time backwoods commune, nudists are often painted as people who, at best, simply don’t get other people’s discomfort—or, at worst, pressure them into awkward co-nakedness.
There’s also a darker element to popular perceptions of nudism and nudists. When police raided the Los Angeles home of Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens in 2001 and charged the actor with possession of child pornography, many of the items in question were yellowed copies of 1950s-era naturism magazines—all of them legally produced and decreed acceptable under the United States’ Comstock laws. (The charges against Reubens were dropped.) And contemporary naturist magazines like Going Natural (published by the Federation of Canadian Naturists) and N (the official publication of the Naturist Society) have long been shelved alongside porn titles, the result being an association of nonsexual public nudity with explicitly sexual, meant-to-titillate pornography—spurring questions about gender essentialism in the lifestyle, as well as whether asexual nudity is even possible. But there’s a lot more to the nudist/naturist lifestyle than can be summed up with cute cracks about tan lines and adipose folds.
Even the terms remain a source of debate—the “naturist” handle adds a bit of legitimacy to the lifestyle, tying it to a love of the outdoors and an affinity for the environment, but many in the scene use “nudist” and “naturist” interchangeably. Going starkers in public isn’t as anomalous as you might think. Clothing-optional beaches abound all over the world, with a recognized code of conduct that prohibits sexual activity and predatory behavior, discouraging even staring. The World Naked Bike Ride, held every June in more than 70 cities worldwide, attracts thousands of riders in support of the ride’s antipollution and procyclist stance. A 2006 Roper poll found that at least 70 million Americans have skinny-dipped or sunbathed nude. That’s different from spending the bulk of your life without clothing, but it nevertheless suggests that plenty of us support the core elements of naturism—ultimate freedom and acceptance of ourselves and others—and respect the rights of those who believe that, as the saying goes, “Nude isn’t lewd.”
Of late, nudism has experienced a youth-fueled revival. Though packed with potential, also present are considerable conflicts. The new nudism might not have the ideologic wherewithal to up the fight for clothes-free rights, nor address deep-rooted assumptions about race, disability, class, and gender identity. However, it does offer a sincere hope that nakedness needn’t be sexual or commodified, and can echo its utopian beginnings in America. Nudism was common in ancient societies, but even then the belief in clothing-free recreation and religion faced threats from conservative social forces. According to Aileen Goodson, author of Therapy, Nudity & Joy—a 1991 book that makes the case that in-the-buff group therapy can help heal low self-esteem—the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, were said to have swum naked in the royal pools. The two rulers abandoned traditional Egyptian deities in favor of a single sun-disc god, and believed that nakedness allowed for maximum exposure to holiness (hence all the flesh-baring depictions of the couple). This changed after the poet king’s death, however. After his son, King Tut, took over, nude sport fizzled out in Western civilization for hundreds of years and wouldn’t take hold again until the rise of the Spartans.
The Greek city-state gave us nude running and the Olympic Games, originally all male and all naked. But Sparta’s gymnastics—the root word, gymnos, means “naked”—also might have provided the first fateful link between public nudity and sexual perversion. According to classicist Thomas Scanlon, militarism, developmental sexual segregation, and the Spartans’ athletic culture are widely considered responsible for the pederasty that became characteristic of Classical Greek society. “Athletic nudity, in particular, was not a device to enforce civic egalitarianism, as some have argued, but is a persistently erotic incentive that reinforces hegemonic maleness and advertises the individual’s virtuous exercise of restraint,” wrote Scanlon in a 2004 Journal of Homosexuality article titled “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century bc Greece.”
Nudism in colonized America had some proponents as well—Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau advocated in-the-buff walks that they called “air baths”—but more common in the Puritan-settled culture was the belief that nudity was shameful and meant to be hidden by as much fabric as possible. Social nudity as an organized movement didn’t really gain momentum in the Western world until the advent of clothing-free spas in Germany in the 19th century. German immigrants to the United States brought the country’s Freikörperkultur (a German movement whose name translates to “free body culture”), with its interest in clothing-free recreation and health spas, to their adopted homeland in the early 20th century.
Indeed, though people tend to think of free love–era nude beaches and Woodstock skinny-dippers when they think naked recreation, the 1930s and ’40s are widely considered to be nudism’s golden age in the United States. German Americans began many a nudist group during that time, prompting the founding of the American Gymnosophical Association and nudist lodges and clubs, with unassuming names like Rock Lodge Club and Squaw Mountain Ranch, that populated the East and West Coasts. And the later hippie subculture did adopt nudism as part of its broader rejection of establishment narrow-mindedness and bourgeois sexual ethics. Granted, a lot of this was situational nudism—skinny-dipping and streaking, not dedicated clothes-free living—but the freedom of the lifestyle stuck with participants, some of whom went on to become activists leading the charge to decriminalize public nudity.
There have been several notable civil-rights victories, such as a 1992 New York court decision that allows both women and men to go topless in public and, around the same time, the creation of publicly funded clothes-free spaces like Miami’s Haulover Beach. But with victories also comes continued uncertainty about the role of nudism in America and what its beliefs and practices should be. Despite nudists’ early-1990s win for Haulover, for example, the state has since seen an overall decline in beaches where public nudity is permitted. Some municipalities, such as St. Johns County in Florida, have pages-long definitions of the human buttocks in city code to criminalize its exposure. In Arkansas it’s illegal to be naked around anyone except your physician or spouse.
Contrast this with a city like San Francisco, where public nudity has long been considered completely uncontroversial so long as the nude party isn’t visibly aroused or “sexually grotesque.” In fact, a 2011 proposal by a city supervisor to the San Francisco City Council suggesting restrictions on nudity in restaurants and requiring naked citizens to place a towel or other barrier between themselves and public seating like bus benches simply advertised the city’s famously tolerant attitudes to a new audience. According to one longtime nudist, “[Supervisor Scott] Wiener might as well have shot lasers and fireworks into the sky announcing that public nudity is legal.” And into this range of wildly conflicting views on what it means to be nonsexually nonclothed comes a youth-driven attempt to reclaim naturism and bring lifeblood into the movement’s aging core demographic. In recent years, up-and-coming naturist organizations like Young Naturists America, Vita Nuda, and American Naturist Youth are looking to attract a younger demographic with naked gatherings ranging from music festivals like Nudestock to sushi parties to ski trips.
The old guard, for the most part, wholeheartedly backs this push for fresh recruits; the movement they love is in danger of literally dying out unless it can attract younger, long-term participants. The American Association of Nude Recreation currently has 48,000 dues-paying members and the Naturist Society has 25,000, but the majority in both groups are 45 and older. In a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece, Naturist Society head Nicky Hoffman likened the existing retreats to “retirement homes.” But outreach can be tricky; there’s the dreaded but indelible ick factor, for starters. A 2007 Associated Press article reported that the residents of Solair Family Nudist Resort, a naturist retreat in Connecticut, invited the student populations of many New England schools to visit for a day. Not surprisingly, only a few took them up on the offer.
There’s also the fact that it takes a fair amount of money to live the buff life. Private nudist clubs and retreats can cost upward of $500 for a yearly membership, though many have lower rates for those 30 and under. A 2008 New York Times feature on “nakations” focused on high-end clothing-optional resorts, yoga retreats, and mountain-bike excursions, as well as nudist cruises and condo developments—all geared toward a demographic with both lots of free time and lots of disposable income. Nevertheless, there’s been something of a boomlet in youth-oriented organized nudism, in part by bringing the focus toward concerns like body image and acceptance. The Florida Young Naturists, who have thrown a Spring Break Bash yearly since 2009, have seen the profound impact an excursion into nudism can have. “People [who] have self-image issues, weight issues, stuff like that…naturism really does kind of break down walls,” says Robbe White, the group’s founder. “People feel loved and accepted and free in their own skin.”
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I attended the Florida Young Naturists’ 2011 party at the Sunsport Gardens Family Naturist Resort in Loxahatchee, Florida, and found plenty of young people who’d discovered, in nudism, a community that felt authentic and accepting. This, admittedly, surprised me. Not only has this generation grown up in a world where everything from fast food to running gear is sold with sexualized imagery, it’s grown up in thrall to an aspirational celebrity culture in which around-the-clock monitoring of baby bumps, “bad beach bodies,” and movie-star skin outbreaks have set an unreachable bar for what it’s acceptable to look like in public. “Naturism has helped me to accept my body,” said one attendee. “As a bigger woman, I’ve [been made to feel] like there’s something wrong with me. But here, you learn that body types vary—and that they’re all normal.” And while we often assume it’s women who bear the brunt of society’s body-consciousness, many of the men I talked to were relieved to find, in nudism, an escape from measuring up to other men.
This all sounds great: Who wouldn’t support a movement that promotes a healthy body image? With so many of us living lives at least partially fueled by commercially prodded low self-esteem, it was both shocking and refreshing to encounter none of the shame-making, looks-based social stratification that defines textilist (nude-world speak for “clothed”) settings. Equally refreshing was the general lack of sexual vibes permeating the event. Again, considering we’re used to a consumer culture in which everything is sexualized, combined with a conservative culture in which sexuality is demonized, one could be forgiven for expecting a young nudist gathering in Florida—home to a million tanked Spring Breakers each year—to look like a brightly lit version of Plato’s Retreat, the notorious ’70s-era New York swingers’ club.
There’s a lot more to the nudist/naturist lifestyle than can be summed up with cute cracks about tan lines and adipose folds.
But sexual contact has always been verboten at nudist events, as is ogling, tongue-wagging, and other come-hither behavior. Despite the hot, sweaty weekend’s made-for-bacchanalia vibe, I didn’t get the sense that anyone was there for a potential hook-up. Which is not to say the event was free of creeps or all whiffs of objectification—“Can I get a picture?” a man breathily asked me—but it had less of both than most women experience when they’re sporting jeans and a t-shirt. Still, cultural critics, especially those with an eye toward gender politics, must maintain a few reservations about the new kind of youth-focused nudism. For starters, the new nudism, apart from its obvious demographic differences, diverges from that of decades past in that it’s not nearly as philosophically or politically motivated. Yes, mass naked parties and gatherings constitute a basic rebellion against societal norms, but so far, it’s a rebellion without a unified ideologic cause or modus operandi.
Where the old-guard nudists seemed to actively campaign for the legitimacy of their lifestyle—many legislating for clothing-free public spaces and buying land to set up “colonies”—younger nudists and naturists seem less interested in the civic aspects of nudism (nude sit-ins!) and more in the social ones (nude tattooing!), even when they’re using public nudity politically, as with the World Naked Bike Ride. Granted, there are exceptions. For instance, August 26 marks International Go Topless Day, which brings awareness to worldwide top-free equal rights movements. Overall, though, it seems the new nudists are content with the gains made by those who stripped down previously and don’t seem to see the need to build upon them. When asked about end goals, for example, some of the young nudists I met at Sunsport Gardens told me they’d maybe like to live on a colony one day, seeming much more interested in attracting people to a lifestyle than to a cause.
That brings up another key issue: If the new nudism is oriented around event planning rather than intellectual conversations, the discussion and debate required to change the very entrenched—and outdated—elements of the culture may not be taking place. Take the dress codes in some naturist settings, also. For menstruating women, a common practice is the wearing of sarongs. At Sunsport Gardens, home of the Florida Young Naturist party, management required sarongs to come off poolside—even for those clearly acting in a reportorial capacity. This policy has apparently been a significant source of tension between Sunsport’s old-guard nudists and newer participants, with the club’s male manager maintaining a hard-line position on sarongs and advising menstruating women to purchase rubber cups rather than use tampons or pads. Old-guard nudism has been famously hard-nosed in the past about not allowing such body modifications as tattoos and piercings in nudist spaces and retreats.
Then there’s the gender essentialism evoked by many nudist events’ treatment of male guests. While statistics are statistics, and the overwhelming majority of sexual predation is perpetuated by men, nudist settings routinely treat single male guests drastically differently than single female guests, putting the burden of proof on them to demonstrate they’re not predators before any clothes get doffed. At Sunsport Gardens, for instance, lone males are checked against a sexual predator database before being allowed on the campus. At other nudist settings, unaccompanied men are flat-out banned.
It’s inarguable that nudism today simply cannot sustain the same idealistic bonhomie as it did in the 1930s and ’40s, when clothes-free pioneers literally built their own retreats from the larger world, or in the 1960s and ’70s, when the lifestyle was simply another part of a burgeoning counterculture. The world is too cynical, the flesh too commodified, the pictures too easily uploaded to millions of eyeballs. But it says something that the lifestyle’s boosters persist in trying to sell the freedom of nudism to a new generation, to carve out a fun, shame-free utopia in a surface-obsessed culture. While the young nudists today might not carry the activist torch as diligently as their forebears, they too are trying to re-create an Eden on earth. We can take our hats off to that, even if, for most of us, the rest stays on.