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Nudism: A Healthier Lifestyle or a Bunch of Hype?

Two travelers bare it all in Australia but fall short of finding naked bliss.
 
 
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Several days into our time in Australia, I convinced my intended that we should work at a nudist resort.

We had eight weeks and little money to spend on our trip, and so decided to join an organization called WWOOF, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, whose $50 membership came with a book of names and phone numbers of Australians who would trade us food and lodging for about four hours of work a day. The day we got the book, I read it in our hostel as I would an enthralling novel, turning the pages until well after my eyes grew tired, fascinated by each subsequent sentence. There aren't really any rules for who can and cannot run a listing in WWOOF; anyone with 45 bucks can get his contact information and a description of what he's looking for printed. The upshot is that there are opportunities far beyond organic farming for a WWOOFer. We could do anything. We could shear sheep, or build tables, or baby-sit someone's ailing mother, or groom alpacas, whatever those were, or keep a lonely couple company. I wasn't far in when I encountered the first entry by nudists, and, excited for a salacious break in otherwise tame reports of cow-milking and hay-making, I read their requests and warnings aloud to Dan.

"This one says, 'Nudists only, please,'" I told him, and he laughed. Half an hour later, I interrupted his journal-writing again. "Look at this: 'Please be advised that we are naturists.'" It hadn't taken me long to figure out that "naturist" was a euphemism for "naked all the time." But though Dan smiled, or shook his head -- or ignored me, after awhile -- I was picturing us running nude through a vast vegetable garden, stopping here and there to scoop up weeds while exotic birds called overhead. I imagined wind caressing my evenly tanned skin and warm afternoon sun on my buns, even as we drove to Peter's (non-nude) Organic Farm, where we had made contact and agreed to work.

Once I decide that something is a good idea -- going to Australia, baking a chocolate cake, trying nudism -- I work blindly, diligently, toward setting it into motion. As I continued flipping through the 1,500 entries in the WWOOF book in search of our next destination after we finished our daily duties to Peter's chickens and banana trees, I marked the nudist positions along with those that offered interesting activities like composting and making cheese. And I kept pestering Dan.

"What if we were naked right now?" I asked him while lobbing a machete at a banana branch our first morning in the sweltering field. He said something pragmatic, like, "We'd be getting badly burned," or, "We'd have a hell of a time getting this banana sap off later."

Both of our fathers had consistently walked around naked or in their underpants in our youths, but our mothers and culture had nevertheless managed to instill conventional embarrassment for our nude bodies in us as children. I'd had my first taste of the thrill of bucking it on European beaches years prior, but Dan didn't believe my assertion that casually baring his genitals to a crowd would be empowering. He wasn't annoyed, as I was, at the shock our hosts exhibited when I got ready to go swimming in the creek by stripping down to a bikini. (I realized a minute too late that the four other girls joining us, their grandchildren, swam in long shorts and tee shirts.) But Peter and his wife were teetotalers, Baptists and septuagenarians, and after three days in which we hadn't been able to curse, get wasted, or rag on Jesus, I knew the time was right. I announced to Dan my intention to call Taylorwood, a 30-acre nudist resort in the Whitsundays, a gorgeous piece of the continent's east coast that we had to drive through on our way south anyway. Dan simply shrugged and said, "Fine."

We arrived at the low, long sign with yellow wooden letters announcing the resort five hours after leaving Peter's early one morning. We turned off the empty, jungle-lined highway and pulled into the drive, stopping at a short, swinging fence that was held fast by a padlock and a thick metal chain. Dan got out of our tiny, imported rental and inspected the lock before doing something I couldn't see and throwing open the gate. "It's a trick chain," he said, getting back in the passenger seat and handing me an envelope with our names on it. "There's a break in one of the links." After he replaced the chain, we drove on along the bumpy dirt path, looking at the surrounding palm trees and fields. The envelope contained, in addition to plenty of spelling and grammatical errors, the information that the first little green caravan -- caravan is Australian for trailer -- on our right was our new home. There were also instructions to throw off the shackles of the clothed world immediately.

"We are a NUDIST resort, NOT a clothes optional resort, and this applies to our staff and WOOFERS as well. (This naturally will depend on the type of work, the weather and naturally, health, then we wear clothes.) Can you imagine wipper snipping in the buff? OUCH!" Wipper snipping is Australian for weed whacking, and Dan and I suspected this had been typed without a hint of irony. We had also received a page of frequently asked questions reiterating that it was best to assume "the nudist uniform (nude)" as soon as possible, pointing out that we needed to carry a "personal towel" at all times so that our bare bottoms didn't make contact with couches and chairs in common spaces (which, though we had never considered it before, greatly relieved us), and assuring us that there was no reason to be embarrassed by our nudity because every nudist has had to take "that first step of being nude amongst strangers," which I guessed implied that they were a sympathetic people.

We grabbed our boots, hats, and toiletries and entered our trailer. It featured a bed at one end, a small couch at the other, and a kitchen sink, refrigerator and small table in the middle. We set our things down and looked around. We opened the fridge, which was empty. We looked at each other.

"Well," I said. "I guess we should get naked?"

Dan shrugged, shook his head, and laughed a little. "I guess."

We walked down a path toward the pool, naked but for our sandals and sunglasses. Near the office, we ran into the resort owner.

"How ya goin'?" he asked, which is Australian for "How are you?" and he stuck his hand out toward Dan. "I'm Rogin." He was average height, thin, his medium brown hair shaved into a flattop. He was wearing shorts and a button-down shirt.

Afraid that we were the subjects of an insidious joke, we glanced around frantically until we located two naked people in the pool. They raised chubby arms out of the water and waved at us. We turned back to Rogin and introduced ourselves.

"You've got the day for yourselves," he said. "Just look around, and have a swim if you like. We'll start early tomorrow morning." We must have looked confused, or distressed, because he paused before he walked away, adding, "I'm dressed because I'm going into town for a bit."

The man and woman in the pool got out to greet us. They were average height, overweight and smiling. They looked like any other friendly middle-aged couple, except that they weren't wearing bathing suits, and they were absolutely and unequivocally without a single pubic hair. Chlorinated water glistened on the man's back hair, chest hair and ass hair, but what pudenda were visible from under their big bellies were smooth and disconcertingly shiny. This guy said his name was Peter, and I said something about our just having stayed with a Peter, though inwardly I doubted that that Peter waxed his balls. The woman swung her arm out from behind pendulous, waist-length breasts to shake our hands, and I wondered why she didn't remove her moustache or sparse chin beard, as she obviously was no stranger to depilatory creams or razors. We made conversation about the weather and where we were from for a few minutes before the two waddled away to their state-of-the-art trailer, parked just across the street from our old, sad one. And by the time they had turned their backs to us, just like that, we were used to being naked with unfamiliar people. They were clearly comfortable with their bodies, and, as we were as well, the interaction had quickly taken on the banality of any polite meeting. If we'd been harboring inhibitions, they were gone.

The resort wasn't so much what the word calls to mind as a property on which people park campers. It wasn't yet officially open for the summer, and Dan and I had just met the only guests, so we wandered empty grounds. There was one cabin that could be rented, and a few slightly derelict caravans, but it appeared that most people roared up in powerful mobile-home-towing trucks, which they parked on small lots spaced along the drive. There were a few grassy field patches dotted with palm trees, and beyond that, the bush, which is Australian for forest. Inexplicably, a flock of peacocks roamed the resort. I imagined they must have been added for a touch of the aesthetic, but they climbed up on furniture and knocked things over with their ostentatious tails, and occasionally engaged one another in raucous fights. The lounge area next to the pool at the end of the drive boasted a TV, some cheap couches, a few tables and cooking amenities like pots, pans, a sink and a barbecue. Really, the whole thing made up a slightly glorified picnic area, but then there were signs in the bathroom block next to our camper stating that this was the cheapest nudist resort in Australia (so please conserve water).

Most WWOOF hosts feed their workers whatever they cook for themselves and/or their families, but Rogin and his wife, Linda, whom we hadn't seen, had stocked a refrigerator with food for us to "self-cater." That was fine with us, until we realized that they'd provided cheap pasta with powdered sauce packets, some canned vegetables, and a Styrofoam container of old frozen chicken pieces. I sat on my personal towel, one half of the only towel Dan and I had, which we'd ripped in half in case we both needed to sit down at the same time, and flipped through a copy of the Australian Naturist while he grilled the meat. The magazine was full of pictures of people doing stuff naked: swimming, playing fetch with their dogs, horseback riding. I skimmed an article about the value of doing things naked as a family, as it fostered self-confidence and tolerance (though it failed to explain exactly how) in children at an early age. If I understood the nudist movement, and the article, correctly, some of it was to do with being comfortable in your own skin, no matter what, but most of the pictures were of girls, the majority apparently under the age of 25, and all of them in outstanding shape, their bald pubic areas glinting in the sun.

Prior to 1972, it was illegal in Australia to show photographs of a woman's pubic hair in any context other than medical. Ancient Greece liked depilated ladies, as did a long tradition of Western art, and so too, evidently, did the lawmakers. (Germans, whose word for pubic hair, schamhaar, translates literally to "shame hair," appear to have had some issues with it as well.) Aussie nudist magazines had to airbrush pictures until they won the right to leave muff in the shots. But pubic hair wasn't popular for long. Soon girls were trimming, waxing and shaving in nudist magazines as in nudie magazines, which brought us to the current situation: not a pubic hair in sight, on our new friends or in the Australian Naturist . There was, however, a letter to the editor in which a reader commended the magazine for printing a few pictures of girls with big healthy bush, which is American for pubic hair, in a recent issue. Pubic hair was coming back, the reader insisted, and it was nice to finally see magazines acknowledging the organic look.

"Hey, see, some naturists do like it natural," I said to Dan. I looked up at him at the barbecue, and he gave me a distant, "Oh, yeah?" He was busy turning chicken and keeping his exposed skin away from the hot grill and spattering grease. He was standing as far from it as he could, his back arching his belly into a concave half-moon away from the fire, his arms reaching out in front of him. He flipped the last piece of meat over and took a large step back. He looked at me, sweat and exasperation on his brow. "This is stupid," he said.

Rousseau philosophized in the 1700s about returning to a naked state of natural virtuousness and joy, but early 20th-century Europeans thought they had discovered the key to the new and glorious world in nudism. Enlightened, sun-soaked, fresh-air-gulping citizens formed movements promoting the ultimate cure-all: a socially and physically active nude life that would produce a strong, disease-free, socially adept, morally intact populace. Ruth Barcan, in her book Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy , explains that "the early exponents of naturism saw it as a recipe for a healthy individual, for healthy relations between the sexes and for a healthy society." Doctors recommended it, Germans attended naked gym school and clubs, and Christians wrote books about recovering Eden on earth. French journalist Roger Salardenne claimed that naturists were after, and expected, nothing less than "the complete development on all levels of the human personality and the obtaining of a harmonious balance of the individual and society based on the worship of honor, beauty, truth and health."

And so there we were, two beautifully healthy beings who respected truth, and maybe even honor, waiting for Rogin near the office in nothing but our work boots and hats at five to 8 the next morning. He arrived after a few minutes. He was, again, fully clothed.

"Today's a clothes day, guys," he said, looking at our nude bodies like we were the idiots. "It's a bit chill." Though the sky was overcast, the temperature was no less than 75 degrees. Granted, that was about thirty degrees below normal, but Dan and I had already applied thick layers of sunscreen and DEET all over our skin, and it was lightly drizzling, which made it, if anything, the most practical condition for not bothering to wear dry clothes. We went and got dressed anyway, and then began the grueling and repetitive task of raking rocks out of the driveway. Sometime after tea, but before lunch, which was our quitting time, Rogin disappeared for a few minutes and returned nude. I saw him coming back up the path, his flaccid penis jogging around between his legs as he moved. My eyes lingered on it longer than I felt a nudist's should. I looked away as he stopped and stood with his skinny, sagging chest and hairless, gleaming genitalia facing our covered frames for a moment.

"You can wear what you like, guys," he said, and then picked up his rake and resumed work.

After lunch, and after Rogin had interrupted our meal to criticize our raking abilities (there were still plenty of too-big rocks in the gravel drive), I went to the communal bathroom. We were covered in dust and sweat, and I wanted to rinse off before jumping in the pool. Behind the sinks and the toilet stalls were two tile walls, one extending a little ways into the room from the left and one from the right. Mounted into the backs of the walls were the showerheads. Nothing divided the showers in each corner but the 15 feet of space or so between them. The back wall of the building, the wall opposite the walls with the showerheads, was made of glass. I stood between the two open stalls for a moment, considering their lack of privacy. The bathroom facility was set up on a hill at one edge of Taylorwood. Its entrance faced the bush. Its back, the enormous window, looked out over the resort.

The next day Dan and I played naked Frisbee, just like in the nudist magazines, after we had earned our free time for the day from Rogin. We could see Peter and his wife sitting in the lounge area watching TV and drinking beer, as they had been doing pretty consistently for the last two days. I articulated my concerns to Dan about our recent heavy chemical use. Though I was pleased to have a nicely sun-kissed ass, it certainly wasn't good for my skin, and we were running low on sunscreen as we slathered ourselves in it several times a day. Plus, it's buggy in the bush, so in addition to the sunscreen, we'd already exhausted an entire small can of topical insect repellent, which we were applying in places I was sure the manufacturers hadn't intended when they developed it. It didn't stop the mosquitoes anyway; we would, with clothes on, usually sustain a few bites on our arms and legs, but without the protection of fabric, our bodies were covered indiscriminately in itchy, poisonous bumps.

"I think I'm growing a DEET tumor," I told Dan.

"Well, you probably have dengue fever or Ross River virus from the mosquitoes anyway," he said, tossing the bright orange disk my way.

At dusk, I stood over the oven range in the lounge stirring some crappy dried noodles to life in boiling water when a new set of shaved nuts walked in. He had emerged, I presumed, from the 40-foot RV that had lumbered into our Frisbee-playing ground an hour before. He was tall, 40-ish, on the thin side, with bleached spiky hair. From across the room, I could see that his eyes were badly bloodshot.

"How ya goin'?" he asked, blinking around him. "I'm Neil."

"Hi, Neil," I said, smiling. "I'm Nicole." He stood still for a moment, looking at the TV, which I'd turned off after Peter retired to his camper, then staring at the couch and the pot I was cooking in. He walked slowly over to me. I made myself small, pressing my arms hard into my sides, when he stopped an inch from my body. Being naked with strangers had become pretty normal, but that didn't mean I wanted our bare skins touching. I kept my face turned forward while he brought his mouth nearly to my ear. His voice was low and gravelly. "What's for dinner, Nicole?" he asked. He considered my pasta briefly after I named it, then walked away.

Since my desire to come to Taylorwood had been based somewhat on vague romantic notions and mostly on compulsion, I had failed to wonder what it would really be like. And while I had answered Dan's repeated queries about why I wanted to work at a nudist resort so badly with assertions it would be fun, and that even it if wasn't, a good story was better than a good time, I had never stopped to think that maybe some of my interest involved a desire to be looked at. I was the first person to strip when someone suggested skinny dipping, and part of the excitement of hanging out topless on beaches overseas had been the throng of hot young foreign men that generally accompanied it. Though I'd selectively forgotten the HBO specials I'd seen when I was fantasizing about running around a nudist resort, cable had taught me that nudists tended to be old, out-of-shape men. Since I hadn't considered the possible influence of my own exhibitionism in deciding to go naturist, I certainly hadn't contemplated its conditions. Evidently, I didn't think that enforced exhibitionism was as fun as it might sound. Evidently, I wanted to choose who looked and when. I hoped not to run into Neil again. Even before his arrival, I'd showered quickly at night because the window I stood naked and washing myself in was one of the only lights in the dark resort sky.

By the next afternoon, Dan and I had decided that we hated Rogin. He was a windbag and a jerk. He was running for city council, which was queer, since people don't usually elect naked people to government positions, even locally, and he constantly lamented the appalling inferiority of the other candidates while we worked. He complained about the quality of the horribly unpleasant and boring raking and clearing and sweeping jobs we did, even though we were both hard Midwestern workers. Dan got stung twice in the face and I once on the arm when Rogin sent us near a wasp nest to do some chores, and he always gave Dan more English muffin halves than me at tea. We hadn't come here for the work, and certainly not for the dehydrated noodles. We had come to be nudists, which we had been, and we called a farm a thousand kilometers or so down the coast that agreed to take us in three days.

That evening, while we were doing our dishes, a new heavy, immaculately waxed couple entered the lounge area. The Australian Naturist reader who predicted the comeback of heavy bush was ahead of his time, or else word hadn't reached Taylorwood's guests yet. I, however, was embodying the visionary trend. Pubic hair maintenance hadn't seemed particularly relevant on the banana farm, and I'd found myself reluctant to resume my usual trimming once we arrived at the nudist resort. I'd modeled for fetishists, taken my clothes off for artists, and even posed for pornographic anime illustrators. Still, it's unsettling to sit around watching Australian soaps ass naked under the pretext of candor and communal good feelings while people steal clandestine glances at your vagina, and I was glad that my shame hair was securely in place.

Dan and I retreated to our trailer after half an hour of what had become standard conversation with the nudists (isn't Ohio the state with all the potatoes, no, that's a different one, you wouldn't believe what our RV can do, oh yeah, it's probably amazing). Dan was several steps ahead of me on the path when the two tiny, shitty little dogs that lived in the office escaped whatever had enclosed them and charged my ankles, barking and baring their teeth furiously. Defending myself against small, mean dogs could only be more ridiculous if I were doing it totally nude, and here I was. I kept them off by whipping my personal towel at them while the new couple helped from the couch. "Watch out!" they called cheerfully. "They bite!"

No one has maintained, in a long while, that exercising, housecleaning or eating naked is better for your body than doing any of the same activities clothed. Nowadays doctors prefer to found advice on things like facts and evidence, and also there's that skin cancer thing, so nudism is mostly recreational. Taylorwood had the elements of a good time: beer, magazines full of young, hairless girls, TV, a pool. The only thing that wasn't enjoyable was the constant, compulsory nudity. Despite all our efforts, we had sustained extensive insect bites and sunburns, and our butt cheeks were permanently dimpled and crinkly from sitting on our scratchy, textured personal towels during down time. We had placed delicate body parts near open fires and stove ranges and ill-behaved pets, and coated them in sunscreen and bug spray. Nudity had rendered nearly all our activities totally impractical, sometimes miserable, and occasionally unsettling. I suspected the real motivation for many nudists consisted of a combination of a desire to belong to something and exhibitionism, and nobody was owning up to the latter. Neil had asked me twice more what was for dinner, once when I was clearly making breakfast, and though there are creepy people everywhere, perhaps it's better to encounter them while dressed. I love being nude, even publicly sometimes, but it has its time and place and limits. Like soccer fans, and scientologists, nudists just take a good thing a little too far, and I missed being able to put on a T-shirt, or underwear, for various reasons.

And so, two days later, we left. Even in my sensational reveries of nude bliss, and even in the utopia depicted in the pages of the Australian Naturist , where healthy attractive people live in the buff together, each one equally beautiful, equally leered at, every one a young brilliant professional cutting loose, organizing volleyball games, engaging in stimulating conversation about Gaarder and alternative forms of hair removal, somebody is bound to lean too close to an oven range. Nudism doesn't make every moment of life more fantastic, as I had imagined it would. Unfortunately, it wouldn't save civilization, either, but then early 20th-century Europeans had had a lot of ideas that didn't quite work out. Dan and I pulled out of Taylorwood's drive with our clothes on and our car packed. We drove south down Bruce Highway, on our way to an ecologically sustainable village where we would tend and plant vegetables, and from there, to Sydney, to the Blue Mountains, to whatever WWOOF hosts we decided to live with for a while, with a little more appreciation for modern civilization's dependence on pants.

Nicole McClelland is an editor at Mother Jones and the founding editor of The Extrovert .

 
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