For decades, advocates have touted nudism’s ability to combat sexism, objectification, and bad body image. Can it now be an antidote to our over-twerked culture? Rhiannon Russell goes bare to find out
It’s no secret what lies behind the shroud of trees at the end of the long driveway in a rural area of East Gwillimbury, Ont., about an hour north of Toronto. The sign—“naked people beyond this point”—makes sure of it. If that’s not clear enough, there’s also a diagram of a nude family, complete with defined genitals. At Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park, you leave your shame at the road. I first visited Bare Oaks on a brisk October day two years ago for this story. On the drive up to the park from Toronto, I spent most of the time wrestling with the idea of disrobing. Bare Oaks is not a clothing-optional resort, as some are. Weather-permitting, all visitors must undress; this prevents clothed patrons from coming to gawk. The resort allows people new to naturism an adjustment period though, during which they can acclimatize to being naked around others. So Stéphane Deschênes, the owner of Bare Oaks, doesn’t pressure me. Yet, it’s unsettling to be the sole clothed person in a room of naked bodies, drawing more attention than if you undressed and blended in.
Inside the clubhouse, the first thing I do is watch a mandatory video for new visitors about the park’s rules, things like no overt sexual behaviour, no photography without consent, and absolutely no bathing suits. I’m having a hard time paying attention. I can see Deschênes ambling around in my peripheral vision. Though he met me in the parking lot clothed, he’s naked now. I start to sweat, clad in my hoodie and vest, but I keep my eyes glued on the screen, as happy naked people run, swim, and play. See? it seems they’re telling me. It’s not such a big deal. But it sure feels like it is. After an interview in Deschênes’ office—he is naked, legs crossed, and I remain bundled in my layers, working up the nerve—I decide it’s now or never. I undress in the bathroom, which in hindsight seems redundant. It’s tough to force myself to exit it. Not because I feel sexually vulnerable—Deschênes is not the slightest bit creepy—but because this feels so foreign. And I think my body will somehow look that much weirder or worse than everyone else’s.
You know the dream: you show up at school or work then come to the heart-stopping realization that you forgot your clothes. All your peers see you and laugh. This plays through my mind as I stand, naked, in the bathroom, my hand poised over the doorknob, heart racing. My brain, first polite in reminding me I’ve neglected to get dressed, is now frantic. I do not want to open this door. But I take a deep breath, turn the knob, and step into the hallway. Deschênes turns the corner. Six feet tall with zero tan lines, he has a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache that extends nearly the width of his face. Despite my inner turmoil—I’m naked! I’m naked!—he doesn’t give me a second glance. “Do you like hot tubs?” he asks. I nod, my backpack shielding my chest. It’s cold. We head through the dining room (standard except for the photos and murals of nude people on the walls) passing several other people in the buff along the way. I’m trying desperately not to stare, keeping my gaze trained either on their faces or on the carpet in front of me. This isn’t, after all, a place where ogling is appropriate.
Naturism, or nudism, as some still call it, involves baring it all, typically in a communal setting. It’s not about exhibitionism nor is it even remotely sexual. Through stripping down, naturism aims to strip the body of its association with sex and to ease its practitioners of their psychological hang-ups, like body shame and lack of self-esteem. In many ways, it’s a direct social answer to the decades-long lack of body diversity in advertisements, magazines, and television—in favour of often hypersexualized images of skinny women and muscular men. “Our idolatry of the trim, tight body shows no signs of relinquishing its grip on our conceptions of beauty and normality,” writes Susan Bordo, a gender and women’s studies professor at the University of Kentucky, in her book Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O. J. Simpson. “Fat is the devil, and we are continually beating him—‘eliminating’ our stomachs, ‘busting’ our thighs, ‘taming’ our tummies—pummeling and purging our bodies, attempting to make them into something other than flesh.” Clothing, especially for women, often assists in this dissection (see: push-up bras, skinny jeans, and bikinis).
This is where the naturist ideology comes in, removing clothes entirely from the equation. “The clothes we wear are very good at breaking us down into parts as opposed to a whole,” says Deschênes. “When you’re nude, you are a whole. It’s very difficult to look at a nude person as body parts.” Naturism forces you to accept your body as it is. It is, too, a dose of reality seeing other people’s unenhanced, naked forms: wrinkles, hair, cellulite, and all. On the surface, Deschênes says, it seems like naturism is all about skinny-dipping, but it really can make for a better world. Once you’ve spent enough time in a communal nude setting, he adds, problems with sexuality and body image—all “those things”—are resolved.
The idea of a nudity fix-all is not new. Organized nudism first dates back to Bombay in 1890. Three British men who thought clothing encouraged body shame and that it was healthier, anyway, for the body to be naked in a warm climate decided to form a secret naked fellowship, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his book A Brief History of Nakedness. By the early 1900s, Europe was ripe for nudism, thanks to exploratory writings about sexuality and health. In Germany, outdoor nudity was promoted as a way to reconnect with nature and expose the body to much-needed fresh air and sunshine. It was in that country that the first international meeting of nudists took place in 1930.
Lisa Stein, the co-founder of two nudist parks in southern Ontario, remembers growing up in Germany around this time, swimming naked in the river near her house. “I never saw my mother hiding her nakedness or anything like that,” recalls Stein, who is now 80. “It comes so natural to somebody who grows up like that.” German immigrants brought nudism to the United States in the 1930s, promoting vegetarianism, a raw-food diet, and living outdoors. By that time, clubs were forming in Canada too. According to the Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN), “the wave of postwar immigration brought many Europeans with their own extensive experience, and they not only swelled the ranks of membership, but often formed their own clubs, helping to expand nudism from coast to coast.”
In the 1960s, the term “naturism” emerged,incorporating a philosophy about respect for the self, others, and the environment—all themes that dovetailed nicely with the ’60s ethos. In 1967, American psychologist Paul Bindrim conducted the first session of nude psychotherapy at a resort in California. Participants undressed then engaged in physical behavior: hugging and sitting in a circle, arms around each other. “My concept was that physical nakedness could facilitate emotional nakedness and therefore speed up psychotherapy,” Bindrim said at the time. One of his techniques was “crotch-eyeballing,” which was exactly what it sounds like—participants stared at each other’s genitals to eliminate the “exaggerated sense of guilt” in the body. Unsurprisingly, nude psychotherapy caused a media frenzy, but it was covered favourably, as though it were a plausible technique, no doubt in large part because of the open-mindedness of the era.
But, as Ian Nicholson, a psychology professor at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University, writes in the Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, the attention seemed to inflate Bindrim’s ego and his claims grew increasingly grandiose: that nude psychotherapy could cure suicidal thoughts, arthritis, psychosis, and impotence. When the ’60s ended, so did much of the public discussion about nudity. The same magazines that heralded Bindrim’s approach just years before began to portray him as more crackpot than guru. “With little appreciation of the history of the American nudist movement and a near messianic sense of therapeutic mission,” Nicholson writes, “Bindrim did little to separate nudity from sexuality.” Blurring those lines may have contributed to Bindrim’s slide into obscurity, but the connection he made between nakedness and emotional development holds some validity.
Take Sandy Hessel, a stocky woman in her 60s with blonde hair and a kind face. She lives year-round at Bare Oaks, cutting grass and swimming nude in the summer and bundling up to leave her trailer in the winter. Ever since she was a kid, she loved being naked. Her mother struggled to keep clothes on her as she ran around the neighbourhood. When Hessel hit puberty, things changed. Her family doctor began to sexually assault her during appointments. “I shut it down,” she says. “I didn’t deal with it. I withdrew. I wore layers and layers of clothing to hide.”
Yet nudity didn’t lose its appeal. When she was home alone, with the blinds drawn, Hessel would undress. “We feel more vulnerable, more exposed [naked] when really the opposite is true,” she says. “Out in the other world—because I don’t live out there anymore—it is very dangerous. You have to dress to impress and that just attracts attention and it gets worse from there. Men need to be raised differently so that they don’t see women as sex objects and I don’t know if that will ever happen.” Bare Oaks is her safe haven now.
Indeed, Bare Oaks is safe haven for more than 500 people and, out of the 50 or so clubs across Canada, it’s one of the largest. It’s tough to say how many Canadians identify as nudists or naturists because no such data exist, although in 1999, the FCN commissioned a survey to suss out this figure. According to the resulting data, approximately 2.7 million Canadians “have the naturist/nudist mindset (have gone or would go to a nude beach and/or club/resort).” Of those millions, there is a whole range of types, from the stereotypical retiree or senior, to a younger generation of adults gravitating toward naturism as they raise their families.
Breakfast is often a naked affair in the Barnes* household. Luke, Alicia, and their three children, who are between the ages of five and 10, sleep in the nude and make it to the breakfast table in various states of undress, be it birthday suit, underwear, towel, or full outfit. On weekdays, the kids head off to school—dressed, of course—but take off their clothes once they walk in the door at the end of the day. Luke, who works from home, prefers to wear something with a pocket for his phone. But weekends are more laidback. The family often won’t get dressed until absolutely necessary, like when guests drop by or it’s time to run errands.
I meet up with Luke and Alicia, both in their thirties, at a mall food court in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., area. (A few days prior, Luke emails me: “We’ll be the ones that are naked under our clothes.”) The couple was not always so open. Up until two years ago, Alicia says, they were “fairly conservative,” imposing limits on when and where in the house nudity was acceptable. “I came downstairs one day to find my kids dancing on the coffee table completely naked with the curtains open, and I was like, ‘OK, no nudity downstairs,’” she says. “We were having a lot of discussions about ‘is it OK to change in front of the kids?’”
These conversations about how they, and God, felt about nudity—the Barnes are dedicated Christians—prompted them to scour the web for more information. Plenty of Christian naturist websites supported the perspective that nudity was natural and morally sound. Eventually, seeking further clarity, the couple decided to visit Bare Oaks. “It was very freeing,” Luke remembers. “It seemed more practical too. You get wet and you don’t have to dry off and wear wet clothes, that kind of thing … Looking back, I remember various people I talked to, the image I get is their face. It’s people I met, not naked bodies.” They came back with their two boys, who loved that they were allowed to frolic outdoors in the buff. (Alicia’s daughter, from her previous marriage, chose not to go. She’d been growing more body-conscious, piling on clothes. But as the family continued to explore nudity, she warmed up to the idea of nudity at home, shedding her layers gradually.)
Since then, the Barnes’ house has been clothing-optional. In taking this stance, Luke and Alicia feel they’re removing the stigma surrounding certain body parts—for instance, while a penis has a sexual role, it has other purposes too. They also hope their children are learning there’s nothing alien or awkward about the human body. Luke believes it’s difficult for people today to know what a normal figure looks like because we rarely see one, a fact compounded by today’s ubiquitous “ideal body”—one that often involves Photoshop, make-up, and the right camera angle. Body hair and bellies, however absent in pop culture, are normal, which is why he’s sure to bare his. “My kids,” Luke says, “need to know what normal bodies look like.”
Twenty-three-year-old Montrealer Serena Strunga agrees. She was thrilled to find Bare Oaks, where she and her three-year-old daughter, Leilia, have vacationed the past two summers. They also are often naked at home. Strunga hopes Leilia’s naturist upbringing will strengthen her self-esteem as she enters the so-often-insecure teen years. “I hope she’ll realize that body image is not actually that important,” Strunga tells me via Skype. It worked for Strunga. Though she’s had nagging thoughts that she’s not skinny enough or that her breasts are too flabby, she says naturism has helped her feel more comfortable in her own skin—even when those fears and insecurities persist, unbidden. “I mean, I try not to think like that, but it’s difficult to get out of that mindset.”
Deschênes and I sit in the hot tub—a respectful distance of water rippling between us. Steam rises and swirls in the sunlight streaming through the bathhouse windows. Chatting with him, the water up to my shoulders, I feel slightly more at ease. Deschênes is an immensely passionate naturist. He signs his emails “Yours naturally,” and teaches me the lingo: we live in a “textile” society and a “cotton-tail” is someone so new to nudity the sun hasn’t browned their backside yet. His foray into naturism began as a teenager when he skinny-dipped with friends. He loved it. He did some research and joined the FCN, later becoming a volunteer, and eventually president. He bought Bare Oaks in 2006. Though no longer the organization’s president, Deschênes is the go-to guy in Canada for everything naturism, and could talk for hours about society’s complicated relationship with nudity. He uses words like “socialization” and “brainwashing” to describe how children are raised to hide and be ashamed of their bodies. People living in the body-phobic, image-obsessed world, he tells me, need regular therapy—going naked—to transcend such problems of the textile world. Going naked once doesn’t quite do it. Often in the spring, he’ll notice a bit of awkwardness from members who’ve remained clothed in the colder months. “They’ve gotten back into this idea,” he says, “that it’s not quite right to take your clothes off until they get used to it again.”
So if naturism has therapeutic potential to increase feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, why don’t we all go naked in our homes? Why haven’t naturist clubs seen an influx of new members as society’s body complex grows more intense? Nudity has never fully regained the public profile it had in the ’60s. Bindrim’s era, Nicholson tells me, was “the high-water mark of social scientific interest in nudism and really kind of the endpoint of it as well.” Since then, academic work on nudism has often been critical—and, in the case of nude therapy, he writes, the change has been even more dramatic. In the boundary-pushing ’60s, nude therapy was worth legitimate and lively debate, he adds, but by the mid-’80s people viewed it simply as “unethical” and “‘obviously’ wrong.”
With this type of discourse, it’s not surprising that mention of naturism today prompts smirks and weird looks. It’s generally misunderstood, thought to be code word for swinging or sex clubs or pedophilia. This infuriates Deschênes. “We’ll get somebody who says, ‘When does the sex start?’ or ‘Can my girlfriend and I have sex on the lawn?’ No!” He laughs in disbelief. “And if you do, we’re calling the cops. That’s an indecent act.”
I spend several hours at Bare Oaks, chatting with Deschênes and his staff, sitting on a towel in the dining room as per hygiene rules. This is so ordinary to them that their nonchalance rubs off on me, and by the end of my visit, I feel more comfortable than I thought I could. When it’s time to leave though, my awkwardness returns. I head to the bathroom to get changed, and Hessel gives me a quizzical look. “We just change where we are,” she says with a reassuring smile. So I get dressed in the hallway, hoping no one sees me hiking up my jeans and fiddling with my bra. As I step out of the clubhouse into the cool air, I’m glad in more ways than one to be clothed.
Lisa Stein, who unlike everyone else I spoke to was raised nudist, just doesn’t understand that anxiety. “I find it very difficult to explain this because it is such a natural thing to us anyways,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe not to you or to anyone who’s been told right from when they’re a little person to cover up. Why do you have to cover up? … You were born naked.” I agree with this thought process. It’s positive, healthy, and practical. And yet, I haven’t been back to Bare Oaks or any other naturist park. Nor do I feel a desire to. The thought of baring it all again makes me squeamish. Plus, I’ve made peace with my body. Perhaps, back in my insecure teen years, this trial-by-fire approach would have benefited me. But now, I don’t feel I need to undress in order to up my self-esteem or self-appreciation. I’m already there. Deschênes would argue this is my textile upbringing talking, and he’s probably right. Some habits are hard to break.
* names have been changed