OK. So you’re not a nudist. You’d just rather keep your clothes on, thank you very much. Maybe you have had quite enough traumatizing public nudity in your high school gym class locker room and you have no interest reliving that experience. Maybe you feel a little uneasy about your shape, your imperfections, your psoriasis, that large mole, or a noticeable birthmark, and you’d rather keep those things tucked away. Or maybe you just don’t have any interest in getting naked—much less around other random people who are also naked—and any movement of people championing the right to do exactly that is… well… irrelevant to you. Those nudists are nuts.
Fair enough. While I do think dabbling in nudism might help you overcome some of those traumas and insecurities, you can keep your clothes on. I’m not going to fight you on that.
I am a nudist, and I have considered myself one for quite some time, but I am not naïve. I understand that most people simply are not nudists, that most people are not particularly interested in or knowledgeable about the nudist movement or nudist ideology, and I fully understand that a lot of people find it uncomfortable to see or even talk about nudity in general. I am at peace with that. In fact, almost all of my very best friends are non-nudists—or “textiles” as we affectionately call our less-enlightened, clothes-clutching counterparts—so I am under no delusion that nudism is a mainstream way of life or that non-nudists should just innately understand why nudists want to take off all their clothes and run around with each other in the sunshine.
I’m not here to convince you or anyone else of all the great things about nudism… I’m not here to tell you how great it feels to taste the breeze, the sea, and the sunshine on your skin, or to convince you of all the benefits of breaking down social barriers to connect with people on a more human level. There are plenty of other websites, articles, blogs, and Twitter threads out there that have those topics covered. Heck, I’ve probably even written some of them. No, instead I just want to convey why you, as a person who has no interest in becoming a nudist, can and should still care about what nudists believe in, what nudists stand for, what nudists have already achieved, and how we have contributed to the cultural zeitgeist. I just want you to see nudists less as weirdos and fringe activists and more as an integral—albeit quirky—part of the world that we all share. We are, after all, your neighbors, friends, and family members. We see the world a little differently, sure, but we value freedom of expression, connection with the natural world, and human diversity and unity, just like many of you do.
In a recent (adorable) BuzzFeed video on YouTube entitled Nudists Reveal Secrets About Nudist Communities, three nudists are interviewed on what it’s like to be a nudist, diving into everything from why they love it, what their first experience going nude with others was like, and how it has impacted their lives. They even tackle the deeply engrained public perception that nudists are mostly old guys (yes, there are a lot of old men… but we’re working on that, I promise). As much as I loved this video and seeing nudism represented in a positive light without sensationalizing naked bodies, it’s easy to casually consume and dismiss its content. It’s interesting and respectful and it raises awareness, but once the average person has seen it, they can carry on having learned a few tidbits about a way of life that seems quaint and quirky and completely removed from the way they themselves move through the world.
What wasn’t captured in that BuzzFeed video is a century-long struggle between nudists and their nosy NIMBY neighbors, moralizing mid-century matrons, meddling church leaders with far too much time on their hands, decades of recurring police raids, years of courtroom battles with the United States Post Office, and anti-nudity and anti-obscenity laws in nearly every state and metropolitan area, all of which eventually earning us the privilege of being interviewed about what it’s like to be a nudist as though it’s just as ordinary a way of life as beekeeping or veganism. And, yeah, it is just as ordinary, but it took a great deal of work to get here.
In many ways unseen by the general public, however, a lot of these little joys and privileges are still just as endangered as they’ve always been. There are still people fighting to shut down the few remaining nude beaches and to stop any new ones from being established. There are still states where it’s illegal to be a nudist (I’m looking at you, Arkansas). There are still laws in place that treat male and female breasts differently or that can land you on a sex offender registry for being caught urinating outdoors. There are still shockingly few spaces available in the United States to actually be a nudist, due in large part to decades of anti-obscenity laws.
Without decades of nudists advocating for the right to assemble and fighting local governments, there wouldn’t be nude beaches for BuzzFeed writers to visit and then write about how disappointing their experience was. Without decades of legal battles all over the country, you wouldn’t be able to ponder whether you’d like to maybe… someday… possibly try that nude yoga class you saw advertised at the studio across town. “No… I don’t know… Maybe not for me… What would my friends say?” Without decades of clothing-optional spaces being harassed and raided by cops, naked men and women being wrangled into police vans, you might still be able to be arrested if a prudish neighbor caught a glimpse of your naked body through a bedroom window. Without years of fighting against the USPS, you wouldn’t be able to send anything through the mail with even a hint of nudity, let alone sexual content. Without these struggles, there would be no World Naked Bike Ride for people to giggle at or complain about on Facebook. And I don’t think that’s a world that any of us want! Nudity, even if it’s silly or uncomfortable, makes life a little more interesting.
Unfortunately, all of that cultural struggle and all of those legal battles to carve out a space for ourselves has firmly planted the nudist movement in a sort of liminal space in our cultural consciousness: Neither completely erased nor fully actualized in its potential as a valid, accepted way of life, with a few legal protections here and there that keep nudists wrangled into small, socially palatable pockets but without much control over public perception of our own community, mentions of nudism in popular culture can be met with a grin or a wink while actual nudists struggle to organize events in their communities without causing outrage.
But we live in the twenty-first century and one of the most beautiful things about what society has evolved into is our ability to quite simply let other people enjoy things. We can do that. We can tolerate people liking things that we ourselves do not like or understand. We do it every day. Some people like music that I hate, but they are still allowed to roll all of their car windows down, turn up the volume, and drive down the street where I might be forced to hear a little bit of it while I’m out walking my dog. And that’s OK, because I share the planet with people who like different things. People can dress in ways that I don’t like, or do their hair in ways that I don’t like, or read books or watch TV shows that I don’t like, or have all kinds of beliefs or superstitions that I don’t share, but… you see where I’m going with this. Just because I don’t believe in astrology or like watching golf doesn’t mean that those things should be banned or criminalized or even stigmatized. Promoting nudism is of course about body acceptance, body freedom, and personal liberty, but it’s also about accepting that we can all enjoy different things while being respectful, causing no harm, and coexisting in the same world. We don’t need to go around policing behavior that isn’t harming anyone. That’s not the world that any of us really want to live in, is it?
I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, sure, but nudity is different, because it’s wrong, gross, obscene, unnecessary, etc.!” Is it? Is it actually, though? People all over the world are naked right now. Showering, shaving, sleeping, making their first or second or third cup of coffee of the day, sitting on the toilet, having sex, trimming their nails, popping zits in the mirror, soaking up sunshine on a sandy beach, skinny-dipping with friends, enjoying a hot sauna, getting a check-up at the doctor’s office. The world is full of human bodies, roughly eight billion of them, every one with warts and scars and hair and buttholes and nipples and toes. How can that be obscene or gross or unnecessary? How can we honestly, genuinely claim to be offended by the sight or mention of the one thing that truly makes us all human: Having a human body? I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy that it’s normal or natural or authentic to be offended by nudity. We may be socialized to respond that way to nakedness, but that’s not who we are and we would not have survived as a species if it were natural to be offended by each other’s bodies.
And honestly, what is really so weird about nudity? What’s so weird about liking to be naked? Sure, maybe it’s a somewhat uncommon joy, but even then, is it really that uncommon? Given that we have accepted and embraced skinny-dipping as a beloved pastime and rite of passage, steam rooms and saunas as a staple of relaxation, and streaking as a light-hearted, harmless prank, it does seem that some amount of social nudity is already accepted as normal. Take a look, too, at the rise in people choosing to spend time nude at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, or browse the numerous Tweets where average, everyday people share candidly that they enjoy just walking around their own homes naked when they’re alone. It sure seems to me like a lot of people really do like to be naked. Maybe they don’t call themselves nudists, but those little moments of joy that they’re enjoying in the privacy of their own home are what nudists work hard to promote and support. Put into context, taking joy in nudity is no more or less weird than letting a bunch of little fish nibble the dead skin off your feet or bungee-jumping off a bridge or memorizing every episode of Doctor Who. And even if it is weird, who cares?
We just want to get naked in the most peaceful and respectful way possible, and we would love it if the rest of the world saw that and thought, “Yeah, that’s cool! You do you!” But it’s more than that. Nudists don’t just promote nudism for our own benefit. Many of the causes that nudists take up impact non-nudists as well, such as social media censorship which treats male and female nipples unequally, normalizing diverse and realistic body types, and seeing past social, gender, and racial barriers that hinder connection. We nudists aren’t just stripping down for the pure joy of it, but because we feel our little bit of joy and passion might actually make the world a little bit better for everyone. We feel like body acceptance might also help non-nudists learn to love themselves, like learning to see past someone’s differences and social status could also help non-nudists connect with one another. We feel like people should be able to choose how much or how little they want to wear without being harassed in public or online.
So what’s all the fuss and what are nudists still fighting for? The fuss is that in the United States, and in most countries, there are still hardly any spaces where a person can just be naked, let alone be around others who also like to be naked. Due to the anti-obscenity laws I mentioned earlier, nearly every single nudist space that wasn’t shuttered by local governments in the twentieth century has been driven so far out into the countryside that they struggle to attract visitors and remain solvent. The fuss is that, in some cases, a college professor’s career can be at risk if it’s found out that they just like to be naked in nature, even though there’s science to suggest that activities like forest bathing can be beneficial to our health, and even though thinking critically about what society deems right and wrong should be an integral part of education. The fuss is that, in many states and local jurisdictions, a neighbor can still call the cops on you if they peek over your fence or into your windows and catch of glimpse of your naked body. Those are not obstacles that people who share other hobbies, ideologies, or ways of life have to deal with, and frankly these are little injustices that don’t just impact nudists but anyone caught briefly rejecting the idea that bodies, butts, balls, and boobs are icky and obscene. We don’t want anyone to have to be afraid of being seen naked.
I want so much to believe that we live in a world where we can be happy for other people who find something that makes them feel whole and that brings them joy. I want so much to believe that people can have different passions, hobbies, and perspectives, and share those with each other not for the sake of converting anyone to their own way of thinking but to connect with each other, understand each other better, and expand our consciousness beyond our own experiences. At the end of the day, I don’t really care if you don’t have any interest in taking off your clothes. I really don’t. I am not asking anyone to become a nudist or to even try it. Not today, anyway. My only ask is that you see the value in a world where others can enjoy and celebrate something that you don’t understand or care for personally, that you question why it’s OK to stigmatize and criminalize human bodies, that you even perhaps appreciate from afar that it’s pretty rad how much nudists have contributed to our shared culture and society. And you can chuckle about how silly we are to want to run around naked all you want, as long as you’ll support our right to do so peacefully and respectfully.
After all, we nudists are just like everyone else. Well… without the tan lines… or all the shame about our bodies… but aside from that, we’re not so different. I bet you’ll even find some causes that we can work toward together.