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Nudism: Stick It to Your Puritan Forebears By Stripping Down

Nudism might be a marginalized lifestyle today, but eons ago it was all the rage. And no wonder: public nudity is natural, healthy and fun.
 
 
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"Sunglasses are your best friend at a nudist resort," I say, echoing advice I was given years ago. "You will stare. Also, you should have all the laughter out of your system by the time we reach the pool."

This advice is for my friend Sheree, who is accompanying me to the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Central Florida, a stone's throw -- and a million miles -- from Walt Disney World. The laughter I anticipate is by no means derisive; it's pure social awkwardness, like when you hear a bickering couple say things that are too personal about each other.

You can imagine the nudist resort, can look at pictures and envision everyone in the mall with you today naked, but nothing prepares you for going through the gate and seeing a squadron of elders who look like MeeMaw and PapPap with all their dangly, bulbous, fuzzy bits on display, not to mention the people next to them at the pool who look like your co-workers or drinking buddies. Your giggles aren't judgmental -- they are culture shock.

The reason I know all this is because the Guinness World's Record organization is admitting into its annals (or wherever it keeps these things) a record for the most people skinny-dipping simultaneously.

Coordinated by the American Association for Nude Recreation, 132 sanctioned nudist resorts and beaches across North America will see God-knows-how-many naked heinies dashing toward the water. And for some reason, I uttered those three little words that lead to the deepest regrets and the greatest adventures: "I'll do it!" 

***

Nudism might be a marginalized lifestyle today, but eons ago it was all the rage. According to the New York Times, Mark Stoneberg, a geneticist at Germany's Max Planck Institute figured out that the body louse, "with claws adapted for clinging to fabric, not hairs" evolved around 107,000 years ago, which must have been around the time we started wearing tailored clothes.

The Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., were played nude ("gymnos," as in gym, is Greek for "naked"), but credit for formalized nude recreation goes to the Germans, starting in the early 1900s with the Wandervogel ("migratory birds").

Taschen Book's Dian Hanson, writing in Naked as a Jaybird, describes the Wandervogel as "young men and women who took to the countryside, hiking, singing an shedding their clothes in protest against Europe's dehumanizing industrialization." The nudist movement emphasized clean living, healthful exercise and the joy of nature. Kurt Barthel, a German immigrant, is credited with the bringing the movement to America, founding our first nudist colony in 1929.

So, despite the mopey, outsized shadow of our moralizing forebears, not all Americans were terrified by nudity or mistook it for perversion. John Quincy Adams took morning skinny dips in the Potomac, and "Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau lauded the benefits of nude nature walks, or 'air baths,' " says nudistvacations.info.

The American Nudist Research Library at Cypress Cove is chockful of historic publications, including 1933's The Nudist, the first au naturel American magazine filled with photos that have a Maxfield Parrish quality -- flapperish beauties set in natural splendor.

The next wave of magazines came in the 1950s, with titles like Modern Sunbather, a genre for which Betty Page was a popular model. Once we start to get into the mid-60s, the influence of "nudie" as opposed to "nudist" becomes evident: the poses become more provocative, the looks more "come hither," a sea change befitting a culture on the verge of sexual revolution.

The "jaybird" referred to in the Taschen title earlier is Jaybird Magazine, a nudist mag that Hanson describes as "hovering in a gray area somewhere between the decent nudist magazines and porn," but, she writes, like the Wandervogel, the Jaybirds were "nurtured by social upheaval and dreams of a better life for all mankind."

The sexual revolution did come, and it accomplished a lot of critical changes in terms of our openness, maturity and acknowledgment of lifestyles other than Father Knows Best.

But while modesty lost some of its influence, it found a sly successor in poor body image, which makes a lot of us even weirder about our bodies than Carrie White's mom would have us be. Shaun Dreisbach, writing in Glamour about that magazine's 2009 body-image survey of 16,000 women, says,  "Sadly, more than 40 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies, a number virtually unchanged since 1984," when the magazine's first survey was taken. A look at the ubiquity of implants, face-lifts and other surgeries could easily make you wonder if it isn't more.

This displeasure with our bodies is especially sad when you realize that, to paraphrase Glenn Gers in his film about eating disorders, Disfigured, every good thing we get, we get through them.

My own self-image is probably not that different from most women. Some days I think I'm Sophia Loren, some days I think I'm Quasimodo, and mostly think I'm in between. And while I'm no wallflower, I haven't appeared naked in public since I came skidding into this world in 1964.

This would include my first trip to Cypress Cove in the early '90s when, as a young reporter, I went out to cover a charity event they were having -- donating their clothes to the homeless. I was an instant fan, but I didn't participate then nor in any of the subsequent stories I did on other clothing-optional places, using the shield of "professional distance" as an excuse. And rightly so. It's hard enough to get quotes right under normal circumstances, never mind when you keep accidentally hitting your naked boob with the tip of your notebook.

"Most of the women are pretty tentative," at first, says Barbara Hadley, who owns Cypress Cove with her husband, Dean, whose parents founded the resort in 1949. Like other women I've talked to, Barbara got into nudism at the behest of her first husband, who was in the Army Air Forces in World War II and enjoyed the nude and topless beaches of Europe.

"I think (men) have their own little anxieties going on but outwardly they're calm." So the men are the catalysts, but Hadley says, "it's the women that choose to come back again."

"Once they find out that the body doesn't have to be a 10, and they can see all the different other body shapes and find it's not a voyeuristic environment, they can really relax."

Barbara was divorced when she met Dean on the Cypress Cove volleyball courts in 1977. Now, after 26 years of marriage, with grandkids around and son Ted running the business, there are four generations of Hadleys at Cypress Cove.

A trio of women I meet on the day of the skinny dip (all of whom were introduced to the nudity notion by their husbands) say it's the atmosphere that makes them come back.

"This is the Cadillac," one says of Cypress Cove, because things are kept under control, unlike nude public beaches, where there is less security, and where at least one woman had an unpleasant incident involving a man with a camera (Cypress Cove is a gated resort with a hotel, campgrounds and amenities, and nonmembers have to check in with the office). They like not being judged by their clothes; you could be sitting next to a millionaire, they say, and never know it.

"It's so relaxing," one says. "You just leave everything behind. If people are going to judge you, they're going to judge you because you say something stupid."

This is true to a great extent, in that the first thing you notice about being naked is that no one is looking at you. It's a nonsexual nudity, and the vibe is similar to that at any average vacation resort.

On my first day, I eased out of my clothes one item at a time over the course of about an hour, and once I did, the relaxation was palpable. With no bathing suit squeezing your flesh and reminding you of how much you have and no wardrobe tricks to diminish this or amplify that, it's all you, baby: no faking. There's something very freeing about having no choice but to be exactly what you are.

Now you've relaxed, and you can sit back and be dazzled by something from which consumer media has shielded you: the staggering variety that real human bodies come in. Variations in sizes, shapes, colors, density, hairiness, age, texture, mass and buoyancy will knock you sideways unless you're a doctor, moritician or hooker and have seen it all before. You will be reminded wonderfully of those Discovery channel specials about life at the bottom of the ocean, the ones that make your mouth drop open with the thrilling realization that you don't know shit about the world in which you live.

Lastly, there's the feeling of sun hitting some parts of your body for the first time and the incomparable sweetness of gliding through the water and feeling it everywhere -- cool and vast and tranquilizing. Hanging out under the waterfall with Sheree and calling it "research" made me feel, not only like I was like a perfectly realized component of nature, but also that every decision I've ever made to get me here was good and I must be the smartest cookie in the box. 

Finally, the day of the big dip arrives, and if my theory is true -- that doing things you fear is a great antidepressant -- I'm about to reach idiotic heights of happy-happy-joy-joy. Having gotten over the culture barriers of nudity, I now face what, for me, is weirder than being naked: being in a Florida lake.

Florida is hotter than Satan's jockstrap in the summer, a condition you'd think would be mitigated by our nearly 8,000 lakes. Oh, how wrong you would be.

The lakes in Florida are an evil tease put here by a vengeful God who knew in advance we were going to fuck up Election 2000. And normally, the only way I'd get in one would be if the rest of the world was on fire. Plenty of people enjoy water skiing and boating on them -- I swam in them happily as a child -- but now I see them as a creepily warm haven for alligators and bacteria, the latter of which is heightened by rain, heat and runoff.

Now I know in my right mind that neither Cypress Cove nor Osceola County would expose anyone to any such danger, but I can't help pining for the resort's two spotless, lovely, turquoise pools, and when I hear the rules require getting into the lake up to our waists, I imagine ending up at the gynecologist two weeks from now, living out the birth scene from The Fly.

Dozens of people are already playing around in the water, looking perfectly happy, and watching them from cool, green grass I start to march forward, refusing to be dissuaded by imaginary ickiness. Hundreds of people are expected to participate and, I reason, if I wake up looking like Stephen King in Creepshow, so will they. Maybe we'll all go get mowed together.

The water is brown and warm -- like wading into Starbucks venti espresso -- and I'm not imagining the feeling that something is crawling up my leg. It turns out to be air -- bubbles made by the artificial aeration of the lake, which Dean Hadley had already told me about.

"They're only bad if they get in your nose," said a brainy-sounding young man covered only in tattoos, referring to bacteria. The fact that others have even considered it makes me feel like less of a dork. My nerves pass like a cramp and finally the moment arrives.

As the countdown begins, the crowd is starting to cheer, photographers begin to set up on tall ladders to get us all in the picture, and employees are egged on to strip down and get in (which they all do). We cheer, we wave, we all turn around for a butt shot, and when the official picture is taken and time is called, Cypress Cove will have contributed 403 naked booties to nudist history.

As we start the exodus from the water, there's a feeling of camaraderie and accomplishment, even though the full count won't be ready for several weeks. Especially now, when the world feels so uncertain, taking the time to enjoy something as simple as the sun on your naked skin feels rich and important. A record number of people across North America got together today, looked at all the economic problems, international tensions, bad news, self-doubt and social convention -- and showed the world their sunny side.

Or they mooned the whole damn thing, depending on how you your mind works.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.