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Nude Awakening: The Benefits of Getting Naked

There's a lot more to the nudist/naturist lifestyle than the negative stereotypes. And the movement is seeing a youth revival.

The following article first appeared in Bitch Magazine.

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.

Perhaps as common a perception is that nudists are naive exhibitionists, and, again, this portrayal in media and popular culture is 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 2011 film Wanderlust, which features a largely clueless band of hippies at a stranded- in-time backwoods commune, nudists are too 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’s Comstock Laws. (The charges against Reuben 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 stance. Indeed, a 2006 Roper Poll found that at least 70 million Americans have skinny-dipped or sunbathed nude.

That's different than 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 mens and women's relationship to power and predation, but it offers a sincere hope that nakedness needn’t be sexual or commodified, but can echo its utopian beginnings in America.

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