By the turn of the 20th century, there was a full-fledged nudist movement unfolding in Europe. This wasn’t the oil-soaked, full-penetration nudity of the Roman Empire, but a communal understanding among “nonsexual social nudists,” folks that felt the sting of the Industrial Revolution in their lungs and wanted to get back to nature. They were, predictably, mostly German and they let it all hang out in parks and naturist resorts. Though the trend made its way across the Atlantic, it morphed in America, becoming a beach thing – and, eventually, becoming a subcultural thing.
Mark Haskell Smith, who reports on subcultures for a living, shed it all to live as the nudists do for his book Naked At Lunch. Smith weaves his American and European nudists adventures with the fascinating history of nudism. Inverse talked to him about the future of the no-clothes pastime and what not to do at a nudist resort.
Let’s talk about social nudism in America. How has it changed from when it first became a thing here to today?
At the beginning of American nudism, it was a direct import from Germany. So it was very health oriented — they would take over a gym and they would do calisthenics and swim in the nude. As it spread after World War II, when American nudism really took off, it was really just about hanging out and relaxing with your friends. A lot of nudists will say that they’re just more relaxed when they’re naked. It’s relieves stress. I think that is different for everyone — I don’t know if it’s true for me, exactly. So it became less about a health movement and more about socializing and relaxing. That meant, like a little game of volleyball and baked beans and burgers for lunch.
That’s really how it was until now, there is sort of a new movement of young nudists who aren’t doing that but the classic American, nudists resort nudists are very much into hanging out by the pool and getting their tan.
Would you say that nudism, as a recreational activity, is growing around the world?
In Europe it’s certainly popular. I just came back about a week ago from a nude cruise on the Greek islands. And most places that we stopped did have nude beaches. It was common there. But I didn’t see a lot of people using them, while there was a lot of people in swimsuits on the other part of the beach. So I don’t really know, but I did just read an article about a young French nudists who are really involved and there’s definitely a movement of young nudists here in America. They’re doing more things like going to the beach, or taking over a campground — doing stuff like that which is not part of the more traditional resort culture of American nudists.
I think it’s growing, but there is also this whole sort of body culture thing that is going on. You walk down the streets and you see advertising for gorgeously photoshopped women without a sign of fat and the sign says, Are you beach body ready?” That can be really disheartening to the average person, right? So nudism as a response is where you go and see that people don’t look like that. People have normal bodies like you have and everybody is a little bit different. So there’s this great sort of body acceptance in nudism that is a direct sort of antidote to the nudity we see in marketing. Or when you see people naked on TV or movies — they are all, they’re movie stars, models, or porn stars. They don’t look like normal people. So, nudism can kind of help people reclaim ownership of their body. Like, “I look okay. This is alright.” It would be great if more people tried it because I think they would feel better about themselves.
Had you tried nudism before you wrote the book?
No, not really. I mean, I had skinny-dipped in lakes with my girlfriend out in Kansas, but no one else was around.
And did you find the nudist communities welcoming?
The one generalization about nudists that is actually true is that they’re really friendly people. They are super welcoming. They’re kind of like, you dare to join their club, they are more than happy to have you.
Yeah, theyre really nice people just as a general rule. I didn’t meet a single — well this is going to sound wrong. I was going to say I didn’t meet a single asshole while I researched the book.
But no matter how open they are, it seems like even the most free-sounding communities have certain rules. Like when I went to Burning Man, I realized that there was certain cultural rules I needed to learn now that I’m here. What are the rules that you picked up on when it came to nudism?
The kind of general rule is that everyone sits on a towel — that seems to make everyone comfortable. And its really like, just don’t be a creep. Don’t be a perv and don’t be a creep. Everyone sort of looks at each other, but don’t stare. No one makes sexual jokes on innuendos. They really go out of their way not to have any kind of — there’s not even the banter or flirting that you would get if people were wearing clothes. I want to say it’s respectful, but there is more to it than that.
There is one thing that I saw at a nudist resort that I thought was really great. It was a sign that said “Behavior requiring an apology is not tolerated.” That’s a good rule of thumb for life.
What would you say is the future of the nudist movement? I would say that at least in the United States, there’s still a taboo that comes with nudism. Do you think it will gradually seem more normal? Or do you hope so?
I hope so. Mostly because it helps with having a healthy body image — otherwise we’re all just going to become slaves to marketing. This isn’t a genius analysis of how marketing works, but they make you feel bad about yourself. So you’ll diet with what they want you to use, you’ll wear what they want you to wear; convince you to get a gym membership that you’ll use two times. It’s all designed to make you feel shitty. And nudism really is like a “fuck you” to the capitalist system in a lot of ways. At least to that, what nudists call the cosmetic fashion industrial complex.”
Personally, I would like to see more people say that and more people be happy with how they look. I think Lena Dunham is doing a pretty fantastic service for women by just being naked on her TV show and just being like, “Hey, Im sexy.
But I don’t know — I hope so, but I have my doubts. I just keep seeing (09:47) the conservatives closing beaches and people going, “Oh, nudists are perverts.
Can you expand on conservatives closing beaches?
Yeah, well what happens is that it’s almost always real estate developers. So they’ll build a condominium complex or luxury home or something near some beautiful beach that’s traditionally been a nudist beach, and then they’ll the police or park department to arrest nudists because they don’t think that they can sell property for as much as they want if people are seeing naked people. That happens all the time. It happened on Fire Island. There’s a beach called Mazo Beach in Wisconsin that’s on a river that had been a nudist beach for years and it just got closes a couple months ago. Even Haulover Beach in Miami, which is really only the sort of urban nudist beach, gets pressure from people with money who want to develop the area, who pressure the city council.
It just seems absurd to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.