See our Magnum Photos gallery on nudist camps.
The most disconcerting part of my visit to a nudist camp I’ll call “Hidden Bush” occurred when I got in a discussion about the benefits of nudity with a longtime member I’ll call “Dick.” Nudists, nudists will tell you, are very friendly, and Dick had spotted me as a newcomer as I stood naked and adrift by the pool. He came over to welcome me and proselytize for the benefits of nudism. He told me about the cruise he had taken to Alaska with 2,000 other naked people, and as I tried to envision all of this sagging flesh chugging toward unsuspecting caribou, I was distracted by a more immediate, awful sight. I could see myself reflected in Dick’s sunglasses. All of me. It was impossible to follow our chitchat as I watched my pale flesh quiver every time I made a gesture.
In Slate’s Human Guinea Pig column, I try unusual jobs and hobbies that usually don’t require me to take off my clothes. However, a few years ago, I posed nude for art students. So my objection to the suggestion of a colleague that I go on a nude vacation was met with derision by my editor. “You’ve already crossed that line. Now live the lifestyle!” he said, sounding like a brochure for the American Association for Nude Recreation.
I went to the AANR Web site (one lobbyist for the organization later told me, “We’re the NRA of nudity!”), and I found a club within a few hours drive of Washington, D.C. I phoned Hidden Bush and said I would like to come for a solo visit (the club allows couples and single women as visitors but not lone men), and was told an upcoming Saturday would be particularly good because there would be a tropical-themed dinner that evening.
On the appointed day, I was buzzed in at an electronic gate, which opened onto a camplike, woodland setting. I went to the office, and the man behind the counter handed me some paperwork, which I filled out while I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I could see his penis. He told me a tour was assembling and that I should go back to my car, strip, and join it.
To prepare myself, I had done some reading at various nudist Web sites. The theme that emerged was that as the gate to a nudist club closed behind me, more than my clothes would fall away. I would shed the burdens of my normal life and the hierarchical status-consciousness that clothes enforce. I would experience a relaxation so profound by being around lots of other naked people that my vacation would have double the stress relief of a regular vacation. As a woman, nudism would give me self-acceptance and freedom from the judgments of the outside world. Also as a woman, I was reassured by a page of the AANR Web site that promised clubs were not sexual in nature and male members’ members were unlikely to become “visibly excited.” In the event of tumescence, a male is supposed to drape himself with a towel and then jump into the pool.
I also found that nudists are the people whose official response to full-body scanners at airports is “Bring it on!”
On the front porch of the main building, our group gathered. Our guides were Bob and Carol (all first names of my fellow campers are pseudonyms—no one at Hidden Bush offers a last name), a trim couple in their 60s. The other visitors were two couples, one in their 20s, the other in their 40s. We were all wearing the only permitted wardrobe: hat, shoes, and towel. A towel is an essential nudist accessory—basic hygiene requires that you drape your own towel before putting your pubic area on any public area. Bob and Carol told us they’d belonged to Hidden Bush for years—their grandchildren now came for weekends. “This is like Mayberry in the buff,” Bob said.
A membership at Hidden Bush allows you to come anytime, but the majority of people arrive for the weekend. There are cottages to rent and mobile-home hookups. I wandered in the residential area later in the afternoon and saw a naked man working on his car engine, a naked man wielding a leaf blower, and a naked grandfather showing his clothed grandson the fine points of home repair.
There are nudist clubs that provide the opportunity for permanent residence. I spoke to Carolyn Hawkins, a spokesperson for the AANR who lives full-time at a club in Florida. Ironically, during her workday for AANR, she has to wear clothes to the office.
On our walk to the main clubhouse, we saw couples holding hands, their rear ends swaying contrapuntally. We passed the tennis courts filled with couples playing mixed doubles; it looked like agony without sports bras. The clubhouse has an indoor pool and hot tub. During the colder months there are dances, darts tournaments, and holiday-themed events there. Halloween is huge. Nudists are mad for costumes, which they shed as the evening wears on. They have a pre-Thanksgiving feast, at which no one has to worry about loosening their belts. And together they ring in—what else?—Nude Year’s Eve.
As we walked around I realized being naked full-time presents certain difficulties. Lack of pockets is one. I wondered where to put my car keys, and I was told nudists are so honest that I should leave them in the car. I kept trying to stick my sunglasses in the neck of my nonexistent shirt. As we passed the restaurant, let’s call it Café Private Parts, I asked how I was supposed to pay for a meal. Bob told me that most people leave a supply of cash in an envelope by the front counter.
Some resorts are clothing optional, but at Hidden Bush nudity is mandatory. This made me wonder whether nudists have a recurring nightmare in which they show up in public with their clothes on. Bob and Carol sat us down at a picnic table as they gave us a low-key pitch for the benefits of becoming members of Hidden Bush. Then we were free to use the facilities for the rest of the day.
Club members drive naked around the premises and scoot around in golf carts. I had to move my own car, so I draped my towel, buckled up, and took off. Of all the things I did that day, driving naked was by far the most fun. As an investment opportunity, a nude driving track could be a bigger draw than go-karts. I wandered over to the pool, reserved a chaise, and got in the water. Immediately, Peter, a chunky middle-aged man, swam toward me and asked whether I was a first-timer. (Nudists are indeed really friendly!) I asked how he could tell, and he replied, “Oh, don’t worry, lots of people stay completely white all season.”
As we treaded water and talked, I mentioned my husband, and Peter asked where he was. When I said he was at home, a look of alarm crossed Peter’s face. I never should have been allowed in as a guest, he said. Married people can only come if both partners show up. From his tone I worried that Peter was going to call security and some burly men would wrestle me into a bathing suit and hustle me off the property. But Peter decided that now that I was here—and naked—I could stay.
He told me they had such a strict policy because the club didn’t want to become enmeshed in marital disputes. There have been the cases in which longtime couples at the club turn out to be married, just not to the spouse they show up at the club with. He said the conflict the club sees most often is that the husband wants to come, the wife is reluctant, and when they walk to the office and see naked people milling about, the wife runs back to the car and they speed away. Some potential members, on seeing real naked people, and not their airbrushed fantasies, also make a quick U-turn.
I had expected nudists to go for the natural look between their legs, but they followed the precepts laid out in a recent episode of Entourage in which Johnny Drama explained that, “Everyone goes smooth nowadays.” Most people had what I came to think of as the Agent Orange—complete defoliation. Second most popular was the soul patch – a little spot of hair at the pubic bone. A far runner-up was the look known in waxing salons as the landing strip – a narrow band of hair. Nudists are the people for whom a tattoo on the rear end (and there were many) actually makes sense as a piece of body art.
People at Hidden Bush ranged from 8 to 80, but the vast majority were couples from their 40s to 60s. Families are welcome and children are allowed to wear clothing until age 18. The parents I spoke to said that young children are natural nudists, but that around puberty, self-consciousness hits and long T-shirts come out. Most of the naked, young lifeguards working shifts at the pool were second generation members who had grown up as nudists.
You could say nudity is the human default; certainly, being naked has a longer history than wearing clothes. No one knows when humans started covering themselves. One group of scientists dates it to about 100,000 years ago—a figure arrived at by studying when the body louse, which lives in clothing, split off genetically from the head louse. (Another group of scientists disputes this and places the split at around 500,000 years ago.)
In recorded history there have always been societies, such as the Romans, that embraced nudity and those that abhorred it—think of the Victorians. The Greeks were big on doffing their togas. The Olympics were nude events—gymnos means nude, so gymnasiums were places of nude exercise. Given America’s Puritan origins, we have never embraced social nudity as easily as the Europeans. Still, some notable Americans would have been happy campers at Hidden Bush. Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau both advocated the benefits of naked “air baths,” reports the Southern California Naturalist Association. Before there was a Secret Service to put a damper on such frolics, President John Quincy Adams regularly bathed nude in the Potomac.
Modern nudism took off in Germany as the Freikorperkultur, or “free-body culture” movement at the beginning of the 20th century, sparked by the revival of the Olympics. Nudist camps eventually came to America and worked their way from East Coast to West. The nudists—there is a branch of the movement who call themselves “naturists“—regularly battled prudish prosecutors, the publicity from the court cases enticing more people to join. Today, there are about 45,000 members of the AANR, which is only a fraction of the number of people who practice some degree of nudism. You don’t have to join the organization to go on what the association’s marketing department calls “a nakation.” They estimate nude recreation is a $450 million industry.
As the day wore on, I was increasingly aware that other naked people don’t relax me. I had read that some nudists call people who prefer clothes “textilists,” and I am one. It was true there was nothing overtly sexual about the club. Most members’ desirability would have been enhanced by wearing clothing of any kind—a hospital gown would do. I found my own nudity was a source of discomfort. Carolyn Hawkins told me that she loves the freedom from the tyranny of clothes. “With clothes you worry, ‘Is my skirt too short, are my pants baggy?’ ” I was worried that my skin was baggy.
If Sir Isaac Newton had been a member of Hidden Bush, he wouldn’t have needed a falling apple to help him arrive at the theory of gravity. The aging breasts of the female members amply demonstrated its effects. One of the most startling sights of the day was that of a lovely, firm young woman whose right breast was completely encircled by an elaborate tattoo. I couldn’t help but think about the lower half of the design becoming obscured as time did its work. I also had the opportunity to muse about a taxonomy of male genitalia, which would start with the acorn and end with the salami.
Nudist literature emphasizes that all kinds of people from all walks of life are attracted to nudism. But I tried to figure out whether there was a common thread that drew people to this activity. I discussed this with yet another friendly man who came up to me in the pool. Like many men I spoke to, he was former military, which makes sense, given that nudity is a kind of uniform. He felt nudists’ most salient qualities were gregariousness and not taking life too seriously. I had to concede Hidden Bush seemed devoid of sad sacks.
The tropical dinner was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., and in the hour before that, the pool and tennis courts became deserted. I assumed everyone was off dressing for dinner; then I realized that couldn’t be right. Unfortunately, it was. As people began gathering I saw that many of them were wearing Polynesian-style attire. It turns out that a man in a Hawaiian shirt below which his genitals dangle is a much more disturbing sight than a fully naked man. It’s also true that a woman wearing the National Geographic look of grass skirt topped by uncovered breasts seems somehow desperate compared to a plain old naked body.
I found it uncomfortable to eat among more than 100 naked people. There is too much congruence between food and body parts. As I viewed my fellow diners, I kept thinking of sides of beef, of the clam known as the geoduck. Sylvia Plath’s words from The Bell Jar came to mind, the scene in which the main character sees her boyfriend naked for the first time: “The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.”
I debated whether to put my napkin in my lap, but no one else bothered. I sat at a table with two families with young children. I asked one of the mothers why they came here. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” she exclaimed. She gave me the list of usual reasons for nudity—it’s so relaxing, it strips away social status signals, it feels like another world. Then she concluded, “I admit it’s not normal.” She said she and her husband weren’t open with their families about their hobby and the children had been instructed not to talk about their lack of clothing with outsiders.
At dinner, I saw a demonstration of the divisive power of sartorial choices. Walking by our table was a man wearing an orange-colored mesh sack over his genitals. One mother at the table nodded her head toward him and whispered to the other mother, “What’s with the orange underwear? Really!”