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By the time I went home, I’d seen a hundred soft dicks, hanging from men taking walks in the woods, hanging from men eating chocolate éclairs, resting like thumbs upon beanbag chairs, and hanging from grandpas and 11-year-old boys. By then I could say I’d grown bored of all the breasts — the mosquito-bite boobs and the honkin’ big naturals, the mastectomy scars and the ingenious bolt-on racks. My only real shock was how fast I inured to the sight of an ass that hung elegant like drapes. As it turns out, anything beautiful or grotesque can become boring with enough exposure. I saw zero public boners, and heard two public farts. If I had not been there, naked myself, I might now say that nudity is not a big deal.
I traveled to the Eastern Naturist Gathering in June, clothed and nervous, by way of rented Hyundai. I was sent there not to leer at naked bodies, but to see if I could prove, by way of contradiction, what we accomplish when we choose to wear clothes. The festival was hosted by the Naturist Society, a club for family-friendly nude recreation. I was allowed to attend as a writer so long as I agreed not to name where it was held: at a rented overnight camp, out of sight from any highway.
I hadn’t planned on being nervous. I have enough invested in the idea of myself as a “laid-back person” to want to enjoy a week of nude recreation. If I have the standard amount of body anxiety for a 25-year-old white woman in America, then I have always been able to set it aside for as least as long as the time limit in a sauna. My hang-ups have always seemed more theoretical than practical.
Even so, in the week before I left, I was haunted by a nightmare of arriving at the camp only to be summoned as the first to undress. As I parked my car by a man-made pond, I worried that maybe I should have done more research. Who goes to a weeklong clothing-optional retreat: Burning Men? Doulas? Buyers of those shrink-wrapped bricks of German rye bread? In the catalog of libertines, some types are more tolerable than others. If I wasn’t going to struggle with nudity, then I was definitely going to struggle with organized nudity. I might be a nudist, but I’ve never been a joiner.
Inside the camp, there were no nudists to be seen. I wheeled my suitcase along an asphalt path and called out “hello” up the stairs of a bunkhouse. A woman appeared in a T-shirt and shorts.
“I’m here for the thing,” I said, uncertain whether she might be too.
Before she could answer, a man turned the corner, wearing a suit of the emperor’s new clothes. His unsheathed penis nodded along as he told me that check-in was just up the hill.
The check-in nudist wore mirrored shades and a supernatural, contiguous tan. He handed me a folder with the schedule of events, then pulled on his shorts, I guess for my comfort. We got in his golf cart and he drove me to my cabin. Dinner would start at 5:30 in the mess hall. He told me to wear whatever I wanted and to take as much time as I needed warming up.
Back home, I’d struggled to pack for the trip. The packing list suggested sunscreen, as well as three separate towels for “beach, butt, and shower.” It did not list any clothing. It seemed absurd — and maybe even terroristically-suspicious — to board a cross-country flight without any luggage. I ended up packing for a normal, clothed vacation. What kind of shoe goes best with stark naked? I didn’t know. I brought four pairs. To dinner, I wore Birkenstocks and nothing but a T-shirt.
The mess hall was a long wooden bunkhouse, furnished cafeteria-style. The meal was tofu and brown rice, served by non-nude chefs in white jackets. Hungry nudists swarmed the buffet line, bracing sagging plates of vegetarian food. Without the signifying benefit of clothes, it was hard to guess what kind of people they were. They were nearly all white and middle-aged or older. Every weight class was well-represented.
I sat with the check-in nudist and his wife, plus a friendly older woman with leatherette skin. Other nudists stopped by throughout the meal; it seemed they’d all been told in advance that I was coming. I was visible as a newcomer by the fact that I was at least 20 years younger than any other guest. They told me that the young folks would come closer to the weekend. (I can’t say this proved true in any statistically significant way.) As I stress-ate my plate of vegetarian food, I tried my best to answer their questions: How did you find this event? Why are you interested in learning about naturism? It was hard to feel professional with my bare ass on a chair. In my best journalist voice, I told them I wanted to learn why they got naked. This wasn’t really true, but it sounded okay. The leather-skinned woman turned in my direction.
“Well,” she asked, exasperated. “Have you ever been completely nude in the sun?”
I had not, but I didn’t want to say so. It felt like the kind of situation where it’s good to lie and say that of course you lost your virginity to a boy who goes to another school really far away.
After dinner, I walked to the lake, down an isolated trail in a thicket of trees. The sun was not scheduled to set for two more hours. The light came green and filtered through the leaves as I stopped midway to pull off my shirt, then continued down the trail, fully nude except my shoes. A breeze off the lake took stock of every fine mammalian hair on my body. Walking naked in the woods makes you feel like a real goddamn Homo sapiens. My posture looked stupid, like it had been formed in a time before women were dainty. My brain was a mass of electrical signals; I wanted to kill an animal, or maybe be killed by one.
Waving my arms in the heavy June air, my body felt too weightless, the same pang as realizing you’ve forgotten your purse in a taxi. I imagined, with some practice, that I might convert this lightness to the freedom of leaving home without a bag on purpose. I wondered if men could relate to this sensation. I’m not sure to what extent their bodies feel like luggage.
Down by the lake, I laid on the dock and let my ass cheeks cook in the sun. I flipped over and rolled around a few times, like an all-beef frank at 7-Eleven. The dock rocked left and right in the water. It was great. If this is all it is, I can go home tomorrow. One doesn’t need a week to learn why ice cream is good, or why a massage chair feels better than moving furniture. Naked in the sun! I twisted my arm to rub sunscreen on my back. I lay on the dock until the sun hung low, then picked up my towel and headed back toward camp.
Alone on the trail, I was barely aware of myself. My thoughts shuffled like flashcards: tree, bird, leaf, bird. The woods gave way to civilization and soon I was walking past red-roofed bunks and rock-climbing walls and prefab gazebos. A golf cart of nudists careened over the the hill, lending momentum to a reflex inside of me. I looked around, like I had just come to. Why am I naked? This was what happened when Eve ate the apple. I did not want to make small talk with four nude strangers. I ducked off the path to cut across the grass and hid inside my cabin for the rest of the night.
I awoke the next day, sweaty and confused, and tossed in the sheets for a few fitful minutes before I remembered I’d enlisted as a nudist. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, and found myself wanting for more ways to get ready. There is a jarring cold-pool feeling that comes with just getting up and walking out the door.
At breakfast I sat outside at a picnic table, eating oatmeal and studying the schedule for the week. “Nude” is only half of nude recreation. The activity booklet listed morning qi gong and capture the flag and square-dancing lessons. There would be a screening of Manchester by the Sea and a pubic hair roundtable called “Smoothies — Hair or Nair?” On Thursday, there’d be a talk on Parkinson’s disease, and on Friday, an all-camp talent show. I circled two-dozen events with my pen.
Across the grove of picnic tables, I noticed a man with a long, gray ponytail. I steeled myself for nude interaction and asked if he planned on attending any events. He said he was hosting three: a discussion about community, a lecture on the commons, and a screening of a documentary about the Colorado River. I flipped to the listing for his lecture in the booklet: “Can we restore the commons and our environment before it’s too late? We are the 99%.”
The talk was one of few political events on the schedule. I asked to what extent his politics informed his nudism, and he launched into a spiel about nudists versus naturists, a subject that would come up often throughout the week. As is the case with most sectarian schisms, terms can be muddy and are often debated, but a nudist is someone who likes to get naked, while a naturist gets naked to achieve a natural state. (A naturalist, unrelated, studies plants and animals.) As far as I can tell, the groups mingle freely, sharing the same circuit of beaches and festivals. Internecine drama is a luxury for the clothed.
Organized social nudity first came to United States in the 1930s, an outgrowth of the Nacktkultur clubs of German immigrants. According to historian Brian Hoffman, early nudists stripped down for their health, meeting at gymnasiums to toss medicine balls and engage in rigorous group calisthenics. Periods of technological change have often inspired frantic returns to nature. Nudism was said to cure the woes of the industrialized city. At the very least, it served to satisfy a wholesome curiosity about the body.
Such satisfaction was not well-received by anti-vice groups, which took it upon themselves to assimilate new immigrants. Birth control and burlesque were on the rise, along with the requisite panics over expanding sexual liberalism. In order for organized nudity to survive, it distanced itself from deviant bodies. By the postwar era, nudists had fled the gymnasiums of the city for private, rural nudists camps. Exclusively white and professedly straight, these camps put out glossy nudist magazines to court returning GIs and their families. The wholesome rags proved popular on newsstands, attracting the interest of horny young men. Nudists groups that wanted to expand faced the new issue of the “single man problem.” Unmarried men were feared as pedos, perverts, and homos. Some camps banned them outright, or demanded they recruit an unmarried woman — no easy feat in the prim 1950s. Many rebranded as “sunbathing” or “naturist” clubs, rejecting the lascivious connotation of “nudist.” For as long as Americans have wanted to get naked, they’ve faced a fraught negotiation with sex.
The modern naked realm is a multiform scene. The clothing-optional convert has options: family resorts, youthful naked bike rides, steamy couples clubs, clothing-optional beaches. I met retirees who lived full-time on nudist compounds. I met a housewife who ditched her husband to live in a converted van full of gongs. At its edges, the pastime touches kink groups, fairy cosplayers, crystal-healing fanatics, and even milquetoast Midwesterners.
The Naturist Society was shaped in the ’70s as a loose association of nude beach enthusiasts. Today, in name, the group is open to all, but its demographics are still a product of history (mostly couples, mostly white, mostly straight). The nudists at the gathering made their livings as public-school teachers, lactation consultants, and electrical engineers. Some had endured unthinkable trauma; many just wanted to be naked in the sun. My ponytailed friend told me the camp had one naturist for Trump. I failed to track him down, but I did find his car in the parking lot — an old shit box held together with a confused pastiche of bumper stickers. (He allegedly went Trump because Hillary was crooked.) By the end of the week, I’d meet naturists and nudists, Bernie what-iffers and New Hampshire libertarians. There seemed to be a circular relationship between taking off your clothes and freeing yourself from preordained political alignments.
After breakfast I sought refuge from conversation in a class called “Active Stretching for EveryBODY.” The teacher was a small-framed man named Barry with the magnanimous demeanor of someone who volunteers to collect carts in the parking lot of a food co-op. Barry had developed his Active Stretching as a riff on Active Isolated Stretching, a briefly-popular yoga alternative from the ’70s. He sat atop a stack of gymnastics mats and used his nude body to model the technique.
Muscles, he explained, work in antagonistic pairs. To stretch one, you simply contract its opposite.
He squeezed his biceps in a muscle-man pose and turned to show us how his triceps grew slack. The class played along, following Barry through a series of contortions that would have been illegal in a strip club down the road. As I lay on the floor and lengthened my hamstring by pulling my quadriceps up by my ear, I felt more at ease than I’d expect, exposing my vagina to a group of middle-aged strangers. There was something comforting about following Barry’s directions, about giving my body over to a script. This was not the improvised nudism of small talk over tofu; it had more in common with a doctor’s office checkup, or the structured routine of heterosexual sex. Moreover, we all had a practical reason to be naked. It made sense, in this case, to see one another’s muscles.
Barry led the group in a move called the “da Vinci.” We stood, arms up, in a jumping-jack pose and tried to inscribe our bodies in circles. As we moved our arms in 360-degree arcs, certain stiff angles won groans from the class. Barry came through with modifications. We stretched to prevent carpal tunnel and neck pain. It was rare to hear someone speak with such frankness about the fact that our bodies would eventually fail.
I looked around the group and watched the other people stretch. An eightysomething man and wife reached for their toes on towels in the corner. The room was a showcase of strange and gnarled postures. Spines curved over in improbable ways. Everyone else had at least a few liver spots. In your 20s, there’s a cognitive fail-safe that makes it impossible to imagine your body becoming an old person’s body. Our access to the symptoms of aging seems to be meted out according to market potential. (I know about wrinkles, only because I know I should buy a cream to prevent them.) Prior to nudist camp, the only naked old person I’d ever seen was a flailing, dying man at my hospital volunteer job in high school. I remember recoiling less at the sight of death than the sight of a naked octogenarian. It seemed to me like the most forbidden thing. There is a false, mortality-denying logic that polices crop tops and bikinis as the province of the young.
But here, in stretching class, naked old people weren’t a secret. Aging bodies were taken on their own terms — not feared, but accommodated. Without the tell of age-betraying clothes (Costco sneakers, Reagan-era windbreakers), it felt easier to believe that their bodies could be mine. As I watched a woman lift her leg over her head, I wondered if I ever knew anything about time.
The following morning was cold and rainy. Most people at breakfast were wearing at least one article of clothing — a silk kimono or a terry-cloth bathrobe or a souvenir sweatshirt from a regional nude beach. One couple stepped out in matching tie-dye Snuggies. Only two well-insulated men remained nude, one very hairy and one very fat. The scene felt like the relief effort following a tragic YMCA locker room fire. In this state of collective dishabille, it was hard to say what the group had in common. Yesterday we were naturists; today, just a bunch of people in incoherent outfits. Everyone looked dispirited, watching the rain, drinking their coffee from Styrofoam cups. I felt glad to have the weight of a sweatshirt on my shoulders. It was nice to be naked while stretching or sleeping, but I couldn’t adjust to parading my naked body past the buffet line. I imagined myself as a giant pair of breasts, loading a plate with MorningStar sausage. It was hard to do anything without thinking about my boobs.
In my normal life, I’m a bad dresser, maybe by choice. I wear a lot of men’s shirts and practical shoes because I hope this rejection of fashion might be read as a sign of my politics or intelligence. Of course, such deliberate choice-making is exactly what fashion is, but that’s the joy. It feels good to make a context for my own body. If I can’t control how people will treat me, then at least I can suggest how I want to be seen.
When you are naked, you only have one outfit. If you want to be seen differently, you have to change your situation. A naked woman in a doctor’s office means something different from a naked woman in the upstairs bedroom of a frat house. Perhaps in a post-everything world, our bodies wouldn’t matter; naturism comes pretty close to that ideal. At camp, I barely heard anyone talk about his or her body. The ethos was more body-neutral than body-posi, but I still missed clothes. Without their powers, my personality and body language had to pick up a lot of slack. Every interaction felt tiring.
I spent the rest of the morning asleep in my cabin. My ass was badly sunburned and it hurt to wear clothes. It stopped raining after lunch and I dragged myself to an outdoor discussion about the biggest issues facing naturism. The talk seemed rigged to favor the opinions of the moderator. A few vocal men discussed hostile lawmakers, the graying of the population, and the apathy of naturists themselves. No one seemed to enjoy this event, except for a woman asleep on her towel.
At night I walked to the canteen for a square-dancing lesson. I had never square danced before, but I was looking forward to learning something I could take with me out into the clothing-mandatory world. The canteen was a big, open rec room with old arcade games and bad fluorescent lighting. At the center of the floor, the rough shape of a square had already begun to form — three women, four men. It turned out that everyone else already knew how to square dance, with some having square danced their way into adulthood all the way from elementary-school gym class. They forged on with the lesson for my sake only. I felt the familiar flush of gym-class humiliation, except now I was also naked.
The first thing I learned was that square dancing is not the same as line dancing. Line dancing is a synchronized group dance where everyone faces in the same direction and nobody touches. Square dancing is an elaborate coupled dance with lots of touching and changing of partners. My partner was a shy man in black tube socks and a Casio watch. I did not feel eager to have him hold my naked body, but soon he proved a dependable dancer. Our first song was a wife-swapping routine called “Push Ol’ Pa, Push Ol’ Ma.” It opened with a jaunty fiddle and a move called “grand left and right” that involved shaking hands with different partners around a circle. As the ladies traveled clockwise and the men counterclockwise, I took extreme care to connect with each outstretched hand. I shook the hand of a 7-foot-tall man with back hair. I shook the hand of a gay man in pearls. When the song was over, everyone agreed that I was a really good square dancer. It is easy to learn quickly when the risk of failure is grabbing a stranger’s penis.
Square dancing is easy so long as your partner knows what he is doing. I felt like a widget on a production line, being spun and tipped and sent forward by conveyor. The next song we danced to was heavy on a move called the “right-hand star.” The four naked men stepped into the center and walked in a circle with their right arms outstretched. The ladies stepped forward to catch their left palms, and soon the whole group was revolving on an axis. Sometimes the dance would encounter a bug and I’d find myself caught in a remedial do-si-do. In these moments, as I dodged hairy chests, I wished for some clothes to divide me from the world. The boundaries of my body felt blurry.
Outside the window, the sun began to set. Now we ladies made the right-hand star. As the room spun around me, I felt the very specific solidarity of four women square dancing naked in the canteen of a children’s sleepaway camp. Everything about humans seemed so arbitrary. This week I was here. Next week I might be putting on mascara, or decorating a Christmas tree, or watching a man on TV dunk a ball through a hoop. Nothing seemed stranger than anything else.
On my final night at camp, the nudists held a Star Search on an old wooden stage in the multipurpose field house. The room had that special big-night feel, like a local high school Christmas concert, with everyone saying hi and tuning up and rushing around for last-minute adjustments. The weather was still bad and we all were half-dressed, a state that felt either too much or not enough for the occasion. A man with Coke-bottle lenses assembled a clarinet. Another walked around distributing song sheets, and soon I looked up and the show had begun with a rousing group-sing of several naturist anthems. Someone strummed a thin ukulele chord: “It’s fun to be na-tu-ral, it’s fun to be free.” We all sang along with surprising good tune, hitting the high notes on “Nudity! Nudity!” Now the tone for the night had been set.
The curtain went down and the curtain came up, revealing a woman in a puddle of blue light. Looking plain like a ’70s health class textbook, she sang a beautiful and talentless rendition of a ballad. The act had the feel of a cinematic climax, but the action of the night had only just begun. The curtain went down and the curtain came up. A woman spread her body on a rubber yoga mat. Her pecs strained in tug of war with her lats as she rolled up from cobra into down dog into plank. As the chorus swelled, she kicked into half-moon, exposing the eye of her vagina to the crowd. We all clapped politely. A teen boy took the stage and played a trumpet cover of a Selena Gomez song.
Next we all did a Graham Parker singalong. When an act called for participation, we participated. When an act called for laughs, we all laughed. A woman told some jokes about sex after 60, where “the only things that get stiff are your hips and knees.” We sat rapt like we were watching our own children perform. With each new dawn of the curtain, I felt stunned by the sight of yet another naked body. I guess it takes more than a week in the woods to shirk that most common stage fright nightmare.
Curtain down, curtain up: A woman played a beat on a gong and a drum as her pendulous breasts hit the twos and fours. A man with a 12-gauge ring through his dick read an original poem about his sisters. Three singers and a harpist covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and I cried. Between acts, the light leaked blue beneath the curtain. I wondered, if we married at 15 and died at 40, we’d really even need to do this sort of thing. If you imagine a ukulele is a full-sized guitar, then the penis of its player looks enormous.
For the final act, the house lights came up and someone came by with the song sheets again. We all looked around in new appraisal of our peers. Here we were, half-dressed, far away from any highway. A man took a seat at the out-of-tune piano. He struck a few chords from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin — give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow.
Tomorrow I’d go home and put on my clothes. Together, as the key climbed higher and higher, I joined in singing final reprise:
Always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the bright side of life…
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a writer in Los Angeles.