As a society, we sure do love a naked body. We love the purity it represents. We love its rawness, its vulnerability, its innocence, its sexuality, its natural beauty in all its various shades and shapes. We admire its freedom and its symbolism.
As long as we can sell it. As long as it turns a profit.
Since the beginning of the nudist movement at the start of the twentieth century, nudists have challenged the social constructs that have kept us clothed and ashamed of our bodies. To the credit of nudism’s cultural impact, society has certainly come around to the idea of nudity, but perhaps not in the ways that the founders of the movement would have hoped. That’s not so say that nudists throughout history have not fought hard to promote their values or protect their rights, but the progress that nudists have made in effecting cultural acceptance of nudity has largely occurred in the spaces where nudity could serve the profit-driven society that restricted nudity in the first place. Despite their hard work, nudity for the pure and simple sake of nudity is still illegal in almost every corner of the United States—regardless of how much we claim to value liberty and freedom—but nudity that can be restricted and then sold, or that can be used to sell some other product, is accepted and often even celebrated as liberating and brave. A nude woman embracing her body on the cover of a magazine is a champion for women, for body positivity… but also for the beauty industry and the magazine publisher. The same nude woman so much as occupying public space, however, will likely be harassed if not arrested and charged with public indecency.
Society has, in this strange way, come to love a naked body, as long as it has been laundered through some corporate marketing campaign for fragrances or alcohol or jeans. Not when it exists outside of a financial transaction, independent of products, services, and profits. Not when it it just exists naturally. Not when it challenges the industries that rely on us being ashamed of our own bodies and unfamiliar with each other’s. We have grown quite comfortable with nudity as long as it can be made to serve capitalism rather than undermine it, to the point that a marketing campaign featuring the kind of nudity that we ourselves are not allowed to engage in feels fresh and freeing and genuine. It feels like a win for public acceptance of nudity. And, in a way, it sort of is a win—one for which nudists can claim much of the credit, after nearly a century of ideological head-butting and legal battles over the distribution of nude images and the right to gather on private property, though there are myriad other cultural moments that have contributed as well.
In the context of a cultural landscape that forbade any and all free and public nudity and that stifled nearly every effort to liberate beaches or even gather privately, nudism’s success in painstakingly carving out space for itself in the form of gated resorts is impressive. On one hand, adapting nudist ideals and values to be compatible with a pay-to-play model may feel like a betrayal of nudist philosophy—nudism was never supposed to be about the business of getting naked, after all. On the other hand, however, there might actually be something quite resourceful about nudists playing by the rules of capitalism and within the confines of social conservatism to promote a philosophy and way of living that challenge capitalism and societal norms. While we may have struggled—and oftentimes failed—to secure nudity rights or to expand access to free spaces like nude and clothing-optional beaches, with considerable prolonged effort nudists have established spaces for ourselves the only way we could. We settled into private, remote clubs where, for a fee, select individuals could experience social nudity, natural landscapes, and an escape from the pressures of modern life in a way that can hardly be experienced elsewhere.
It’s worth celebrating nudism’s twentieth-century survival tactics, even if it meant shuttering social nudity behind toll gates and day fees, especially if we hold out hope that that approach has been a temporary solution to carry the nudist movement and its community forward to more hospitable times and social views. Because it worked, right? Nudism is still here, even if it’s tucked away and difficult to access. At least nudism is still here.
If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you might already know that my most recent reading material has been Sarah Schrank’s Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body, which explores and details many of these ideas involving the commodification of the naked body and the trajectory of the nudist movement from the early twentieth century to today. (If you have not already read it, I highly recommend it.) Near the end of the book, Schrank touches on more current trends in the objectification of the body, the commodification of the idea of nudity, and modern movements such as “Free the Nipple” that work to reclaim the body from those forces. Schrank had little to say, though, about what these trends might mean for the further longevity of the nudist movement, or what role the private nudist resort might play moving forward, which is understandable given the scope and perspective of her work.
Being both a millennial and a nudist myself, I cannot help but ponder where this trajectory is leading us and how others of my own generation and the generation after mine will carry the nudist movement forward. With each passing generation and era, nudism has faced unique challenges and obstacles, but has also enjoyed moments of varying acceptance. Each generation faces different obstacles, seeking something from nudism that perhaps the generation before had not, or bringing something to nudism that the generation before could not. The complex relationship between nudist values and the commodification of the body is further complicated by these generational struggles and changing societal norms, but that does not mean that nudism is in danger, just that it will continue to adapt as it always has.
For young people who have seen bodies, including their own, become so obsessively commodified, nudity occupies a different space in our collective consciousness than it might have for previous generations. Millennials and Gen Z have seen bodies treated as profit centers, either by selling images of nudity or by using nudity to sell something else, to the point that I would argue young people are both desensitized to the naked body and fatigued by its commodification, and young people are responding in turn.
One way is by simply acknowledging that the commodification exists and recognizing that the restrictions imposed on our bodies are unjust, creating new narratives around their bodies, rejecting traditional beauty standards and celebrating diversity. Another way is by taking advantage of that same commodification to serve their own ends: It should not surprise anyone that many young people have embraced platforms like OnlyFans where they can sell access to images of their own bodies, on their own terms, for their own profit. On the surface, it looks like just another symptom of the commodification of the body, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s a reappropriation of body commodification forced to serve the individual over the corporation. After all, if our bodies are being sold, why are we not the ones profiting? As an aside, I understand that many nudists are troubled by these platforms that offer access to others’ bodies for a small fee, I only hope that we can think critically about the social climate in which these platforms thrive before judging those who use them.
When it comes to young people being fatigued by the long, enduring legacy of objectification and commodification of the body, it would make sense that younger generations would also be resentful of being sold access to nudity or body freedom. For those readers who may not be as familiar with nudism, it is important to be aware of the anxiety that much of the community feels when it comes to the question of attracting and retaining younger people, citing fears of declining nudist club membership as the current population ages and struggles to replace itself with young faces. Accompanying this discourse and anxiety are the assumptions that “young people aren’t joiners,” and that “young people don’t like to get naked.” While I heartily disagree with those assumptions (as I am a young nudist myself who is a joiner and who does like to get naked), I do think that young people are very conscious of what they are joining and may feel uneasy about being sold access to something that they believe should be freely available. That being the case, we should not be surprised that more young people are not jumping through hoops to engage in social nudity in remote communities, driving hours and paying gate fees in order to gain access to a space where they can be relieved of the social expectations of the clothed world. Young people might not accept that the solution to the commodification of the body is to pay to access spaces where we can be free of that pressure.
Maybe it feels disingenuous to the young nudist to embrace the freedom of social nudity and all of the social norms that it breaks and challenges, but to then see that nudism in its current state plays by the same rules as every other industry that profits from nudity and its scarcity. Time and time again during these conversations, we wonder why young people are scarce (but not entirely absent, I would like to add) at nudist resorts and clubs but are crowding onto nude beaches every weekend. I don’t find it surprising at all that young nudists might see greater value in a space where social nudity can be enjoyed freely, without gate fees, gatekeepers, or any other strings attached. The nude or clothing-optional beach is a true escape from the transactional nature of most of our interactions with the naked body, and therefore a more appropriate solution—or at least a very important part of the solution—to this fatigue of body commodification.
You might be thinking, then, “What do we do about that? How do we confront this change in values among the younger generations?” First of all, do not despair. Second of all, it’s not something that needs to be confronted at all. It sounds to me like that “change in values” among young people is actually closely aligned with nudist ideals—the ones we started out with a hundred years ago. Young people are widely embracing body acceptance and racial, gender, and sexual equality, while thinking critically about the systems in place that make us less free, less equal, and less authentic to ourselves. That sounds a lot like nudism to me. It may just be that now is the right time for nudism to spill out of the resorts and return to the core tenets of nudism that we spent most of the twentieth century struggling to promote and protect. It may be time to take a second shot at tackling some of the moments of nudist history where social bigotry and legal retaliation stopped us in our tracks. It may be worth trying to present the benefits of nudism to a world who may finally be ready to make room for nudity. We can pick back up on our work freeing the beaches we lost and undoing the public nudity laws that chased the nudist community into the resorts and clubs in the first place. It’s not a matter of abandoning what we’ve already built, but on spreading our little naked wings a bit more.
It’s all… kind of a blessing. Society’s newfound appreciation for equality and human connection and the skepticism around how our bodies are constantly objectified are not an obstacle for the nudist community but an opportunity to promote healthier views on nudity and share with others what we’ve already known. Maybe, just maybe, the world is ready to get naked. And maybe now we can help them do that.