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What nudism is really like

A body-positive space separate from beauty norms

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When someone talks about nudism, it generally brings up images of hippies, old men that we’ve seen when we’ve accidentally wandered onto the wrong side of the beach, or crazy sex-fueled cruises. In reality, that’s not the case for people who participate in what’s called social nudism, or naturism. Nudism is not sexual, it’s not just for old men, and participating in it can actually improve your self esteem.

There are a lot of misconceptions about nudism, and one is certainly that the people there are trying to show off. Karen and Jim Lahey, long-time and active members of the nudist community, say this isn’t the case at all.

“A lot of people, when we meet them at booths, they say, ‘Oh, I can't go because, look at me, I'm too ___’ whatever it is they think they are ‘too’ of. We tell them no, it isn't how you look or how your body is, that's not an issue.” Jim Lahey, who is the secretary of the Northwest Region of the American Association for Nude Recreation, said. “We're not there to show off. You know, people think it's exhibitionism. You're looking at each other or showing yourself off and that's not the attitude at all.”

Instead, at nudist parks such as Tiger Mountain Family Nudist Park in Issaquah, nudist activities generally include volleyball, swimming, and laying out in the sun. And it’s not just for adults — families are in fact encouraged to come, which might raise some eyebrows.

“Nudist families are really great. Teaching a child to  love their body is very healthy,” Dawnzella Gearhart, the PR chairperson at Tiger Mountain said in an email. “They are taught at a very early age what is normal behavior. That somebody touching them without their consent is wrong, and they are usually comfortable telling someone that … Of course, there are people who visit our parks with ulterior motives, but they are weeded out quickly. We all watch and make sure everyone is safe. We screen everyone against the sex offender lists and do a complete background check for everyone visiting the park.”

Most nudist spaces like this do background checks on sex offender lists or for other criminal backgrounds, which isn’t the case for other state parks where you might take your children. But isn’t it psychologically damaging for children to see their parents’ naked bodies? Research hasn’t found that.

For children who are exposed to parental nudity, studies have not found correlations with higher rates of sexual activity in adolescence, antisocial behaviors, teen pregnancy, or STIs. They have been able to find that exposure to parental nudity is associated with higher levels of self-acceptance. It is important to note that these studies do not speak to the possibility of abuse and they also do not express causal findings, so it’s possible these families are just more open in general.

I talked with UW psychology lecturer Ann Culligan to try and tease some of these issues apart. She admits that she doesn’t know much specifically about nudism, but teaches Psychology of Gender which deals a lot with body shame and the cultural norms that perpetuate it.

“I think if the impulse [to bring children into nudist spaces] is entirely driven by the goal to decouple shame from the body, I think that that is a really potent way to go about that,” Culligan said. “And I'm trying to speak very carefully because I can also see like a thousand different arguments of like how that could go wrong, how it could be abused, [and] what kind of negative situations could come up from that. But if you just take that impulse, at it's pure motives, I think that it strikes me as being very powerful.”

Another facet of nudism as a non-sexual space is that, according to both Gearheart and Karen Lahey, is that it creates a place for women to be.

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“I had a women's event a few years back, and one of the things that came out [in the women’s circle] is that a lot of other places that you go, if a guy hits on you or makes you feel uncomfortable, there's always an excuse, and in a nudist venue, no, there isn't. And you have a group of women and men there to back you up, and they're out of there so fast it’ll make your head spin.” Karen Lahey, who is a trustee for the American Association for Nude Recreation, said. “Something that another woman said to me, a woman who is fairly well-endowed, was that one of the things that she liked about being a nudist is that it's the only place she could go where a man would look at her in the eyes when he talked to her. That's just the way the community works. They were more interested in who she was and less looking at her body.”

A recent study in the Journal of Happiness Studies looked at the relationship between body concept, self-esteem, life satisfaction, and a person’s participation in nudist activities. They found that participation in nudist events improved self esteem, body concept, and life satisfaction when compared to scores on the same survey taken before the event. A larger study also found that in comparison to people who had never or hadn’t recently taken part in a nudist activity, people who had taken part in these activities recently also scored higher in these measures.

For the Laheys, this certainly rings true.

“I've never been small. I've lost a lot of weight, but I always was more comfortable on a nude beach than a regular beach,” Karen Lahey said. “I felt like people were looking at what I look like on a regular beach, but on a nude beach I feel like people didn't care what I looked like. I mean, there was just no judgment.”

Unfortunately, the body of research on nudism is very small, and experiments that discern whether nudism truly causes better self-esteem aren’t being done. The deeper I dove into this, the more questions I was left with. But here are some theories.

Something that initially puzzled me about these findings is the near paradoxical nature of it. In our culture, the media has reached the bare minimum of clothing that a person can wear on a billboard and be considered not nude. The most scantily clad models are now only covering the “necessities.” And yet, body image in our generation, having grown up seeing these images, is worse than ever. But here are these social nudists who bear it all, and that makes them feel better than the rest of us. Nudity, in this context then, is doing something different.

“I think it speaks to the power of clothing and how we use clothing to … mediate our presentation,” Culligan said when I posed this conundrum to her. “You know, like the pieces of our body that we cover, the pieces of our body that we don't cover — the fashion trends that then dictate what our bodies are supposed to look like. Like when you stop and think about the fact that what we're ‘supposed’ to wear … it typically fits and ‘flatters.’ Sorry to use the word flattering. But it fits certain dimensions of a body that kind of leaves, I don't know, 90 percent of other bodies out. And over the past century there's been kind of one body type that has been universally upheld and fashion sort of revolves around that.”

In this way, advertisements are not only selling clothes to us, but they’re selling a body type too. In social psychology, there’s something called cultivation theory. This speaks to the idea that things we have repeated exposure to, whether they be stereotypes portrayed in movies or the “ideal” body type splattered all over billboards and your Instagram feed, becomes familiar. And what’s familiar to us becomes our reality. So what we see over and over again begins to be what we think is true. And when that’s the Eurocentric body ideal being loved and funny and in charge, that’s what we think is the only powerful body type.

However, for social nudists, they’re seeing body types that aren’t fitting into that small norm and they’re seeing them married, in families, and being happy and human. That’s their reality. The study referenced previously also concluded that “seeing others” naked was a more important predictor for positive body image than “being seen” by others. So it makes sense that people who are constantly seeing real bodies are a lot more accepting of their own.

“This is my hypothesis: Is that [going nude] is akin to recognizing any norm that we've just been kind of following without question, and recognizing if I break this norm, nothing bad happens. I don't die,” Culligan said.

The taboo of nudity is so strongly ingrained in our culture. We’re told our genitalia is private, and the only time you “show it off” is with a sexual partner, if then.

“Our parents clothe us. Little kids take their clothes off all the time and what do your parents do? They're scandalized and they put their clothes back on and the more punitive parents punish their kids for taking off their clothes,” Culligan said. “And there's so many rules about that basically boiled down to saying, ‘You need to be ashamed of your body.’”

But when we break that norm, throw shame back in its face, that’s a powerful feeling. It can make us question a whole bunch of other norms that we’ve been told to follow too, like, for example, whose body is “right.”

“I would kind of assume that almost everybody going in to a nudist situation [for the first time] is going, ‘I'm going to be the one with the bad body or the weird body or the unacceptable body … And then you get there and it's like, ‘Oh, everybody's a little weird and everybody is pretty beautiful,’” Culligan said. “And all of our bodies mostly kinda sorta have the same parts. But I think that there's probably something really liberating in … recognizing there's no normal. You can’t look around at a group of people and go, you're normal and I'm five ticks off of normal and somebody else's three ticks off normal.”

If there’s something that does seem to be true about nudists, it’s that they are shameless. Though this can be thrown around as an insult, it actually seems admirable, as it’s freeing them from the norms that bind us. The norms that make us want to shave off weight and hair, cover up wrinkles and all the other “flaws” that advertisements tuck away.

For the Laheys, nudism has functioned as an important social community for them. According to them, this is because the people involved in it are just more likely to be accepting.

“You're not hiding who you are. There's no artifice. You don't have clothes to say how rich you are or how poor you are,” Karen Lahey said. “That's just a certain personality type. Those people are more willing to be open with who they really are. It's really easy to get to know people and you tend to have deeper conversations, they're not so artificial, not so surface-level.”

Though more research is essential in figuring out just how powerful nudism can be, for both children and adults, there is certainly something healing about it.

If you are interested in taking a break from toxic norms and trying out a clothing-optional space in the area, Ladywell’s Spa and Hot House Spa and Sauna are both female-only spaces in Seattle. For the more nature-oriented folks, Denny-Blaine Park is a historically outdoor nudist space in Seattle, and Lake Bronson Club Family Nudist Park in Sultan, WA, and of course, Tiger Mountain, are two choices farther from home.

Reach Pacific Wave Co-Editor Charlotte Houston at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @choustoo

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(1) comment

Lake Amour

I am a conservative dad, father of two, and always have a difficult time explaining the virtues of naturism to my friends. This article is by far the best explanation of naturism I've ever read. My appreciation for writing it.

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