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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!" 

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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.