As a Gender and Sexuality Studies major at Tulane University in New Orleans, it came as no surprise to those who know me that I would be writing my senior thesis on nudism as a culture. What did add some shock value was my announcement that I would be conducting some of the research for this paper myself.
Finding the perfect place, however, proved to be more difficult than I expected. Some places I had found in my initial research enticed their patrons by advertising that they had mirrors on the ceilings.
Ideal, if I was looking for a swingers convention.
Instead, I had chosen to conduct my research on a non-sexual, social nudist community in order to fill the gaping holes in academia where nudism is concerned. After months of careful research and maneuvering away from the less tasteful nudist communities around the United States, I found a perfect place to conduct my research.
Toadally Natural Garden is a long way away from my home in California. This organic, 32 acre farm outside of Hartford, Wisconsin, is owned by Paul and Jane, a lovely couple and long time members of True Nudists (link NSFW) and The Naturist Society. They opened their farm to the public four years ago with the wish to share their beliefs on love, acceptance and natural living with other like-minded people.
For some of my more skeptical readers, I feel it is necessary here to say that places like Toadally Natural Garden have a zero tolerance policy for sexual behavior or contact. This is a place for living and experiencing, not for erotic pleasures. Pictures are strictly forbidden. I even witnessed Paul removing someone from the property for having their phone out.
Nudism is not always and exclusively synonymous with sex.
Living in a trailer by a man-made pond for two weeks was an experience I will never forget. Being just down the hill from the Big House, I was made to feel welcome at once. As the Garden is clothing optional, it was my decision whether I wanted to strip down to my birthday suit or not, and neither Paul nor Jane pressured me one way or the other. It truly was an optional lifestyle.
I did, however, choose the naked option. For research, you see.
People trickled in day and night, either gardening in the buff or simply choosing to have a beer by the pond and relax. Worried at first that I wouldn’t have enough subjects to interview for my thesis, I was soon overwhelmed by the number of people who came to share the joys of being naked and had more interview material than I knew what to do with.
I thought I would have to poke and prod and pull the answers out of them, but I barely had to say a word. Turns out, people love to talk about being naked.
Men and women, old or young, married, single, divorced or widowed; it didn’t matter what background a persona came from or if they had children or not. These wonderful people were delighted to tell their stories and more than happy to help spread the word on the nudist life style. And I, too, am happy to do so.
I learned a great many things by being naked for two weeks – more than I probably realize – but here are the 6 main lessons I learned while baring it all.
1. Clothes are very important.
Indeed they are, just not in the way I used to think. Yes, we use clothes to cover our naughty bits and to express our personal sense of style, but they also play a larger part in our every day lives.
Clothing is a way in which we judge each other subconsciously (or consciously). We place people into groups and label them, determining rank and social position by these “costumes” we put on daily.
During my two weeks on the farm, I was surrounded by people of all different socioeconomic standings, careers and educations. Strip away their uniforms, their expensive watches or ripped jeans, and it was nearly impossible to tell one from another.
One afternoon, I was having a rousing conversation about my quite sinful past for the better part of an hour before realizing I was speaking to a priest! That same day, it was only after a woman made a joke about how surprised she was by the lack of illegal narcotics on the property that the group realized she was a police officer.
Members of the nudist community are not a rag-tag bunch of delinquent pedophiles or homeless criminals. Quite the opposite actually. They are your teachers, your law enforcement, your doctors, your fathers and mothers.
A lot of mothers. Seriously. Maybe you should ask your own mother about nudism.
2. No one cares what you look like.
It’s truly amazing how fast you can get used to being naked in public. For me, it was three days before putting on an article of clothing felt strange. Clothes really did start to feel like a costume I was putting on to present myself to the outside world.
I had always been pretty with my body image, but I had never really noticed how much I was aware of myself under my clothes.
Is my shirt sticking to my stomach? Do I need to suck in more? Are my shorts riding up my butt? Does my bra make my boobs look appealing?
Being naked, there was nothing to hide behind. At first, this was terrifying. I was hyper-aware of everything.
Why are my nipples hard? That’s embarrassing. Jesus, have I always had this many rolls?
Then, one morning, I realized I had gone a full hour without thinking about how I must look to those around me. I immediately sucked my stomach in and sat up straight, feeling embarrassed. It suddenly dawned on me that no one had noticed -- no one cared if I was slouching or if my thighs looked big when I sat down.
No one cared.
Then came the next few days fighting myself -- fighting all the years that I had taught myself to prepare for society’s gaze. This manifested itself in what I’m sure was a hilarious pattern of clenching, sucking in, and straightening up followed by a sudden realization and an immediate release.
I imagine I must have looked something like the waving, inflatable, arm flailing tube men you see outside car dealerships. But again, no one cared.
A few days later I had to go in to town due to an unfortunate stint of clumsiness on my part and was forced to put on clothes. My clothes pinched and clung in the most uncomfortable way, even though it was one of my favorite outfits.
I felt restricted and confined, bound by all these layers of fabric strapping me down, pushing me up and sucking me in. I immediately regressed back into the state of self-consciousness.
I was simply amazed at how fast clothing transformed from a vehicle of self-expression to a quasi-straight jacket. I could feel myself shriveling up, shrinking back into the woman hyper-aware of every imperfection she hides with her clothes.
Back on the farm, however, it took blessedly no time at all to shed my clothes and with it – the self-consciousness that seems always to follow.
3. Bodies are bodies.
In my second week on the farm I met a couple, who, by society’s standards would be considered hippies. He wore his hair in a ponytail that reached the middle of his back and she had lost both of her nipples in a surgery – both man and wife proudly sporting their unusual beauty standards. They were in their late 50s and had been together for over 20 years.
When I had the chance to speak to the man one-on-one about his delve into the nudist life and his relationship with his wife, he gazed after her lovingly and said, “she has the most beautiful soul.” This touched me beyond words.
I then began to pay closer attention to all the “souls” around me, encased in their various meat suits. I started to think of my transition into the nudist lifestyle as a peeling of layers.
First to go are the costumes -- the everyday dress-up we as members of society play as we go off to our respective duties.
Then our bodies -- the muscles and fats and rolls and skin that distinguish us from each other in the most creative ways.
As our vehicles in this life, I would never argue that our bodies have no importance. On the contrary, I believe that how we treat our bodies as well as the bodies of others is a direct reflection of our attitudes toward life. I will argue, however, that the determinations we make about people based on the way they look only distract from the person beneath these layers.
It is the importance we place on our bodies, and the meaning we attach to them that does more harm than good. For example, in the 19th century, a woman showing a man her ankle was one of the most erotic and scandalous actions of the time. Now, we see pictures of women, scantily clad in bras and underwear plastered 50 feet tall on office buildings.
Erotic zones on the body change when society changes.
In a place like a nudist farm, you are asked to leave your erotic zones at the door, so to speak. Private parts become just like any other part of your body, like a finger or a leg. You begin to see the similarities between the male and female body. He has nipples, she has nipples. One no more shameful than the other.
On the farm, I was able to peel back the layers that divide us from each other – the costumes, the body image and the shame – and discover a sameness. My thighs may have more cellulite than another’s, but in a place where the erotic implications of a silky smooth thigh is moot, there is nothing to be ashamed about.
4. An ode to pubic hair.
I know I just spent the last few paragraphs preaching love and body acceptance, but I hope you will permit me one little vain observation about my time spent on the farm.
I feel I cannot say this loud enough. I want to scream it from the rooftops and plaster it in my classrooms at Tulane. I want to litter the floors of sorority houses and picket outside of fraternity parties. I want every teenage girl flipping through Cosmo reading about the newest laser hair removal or some new take on the "landing strip" to hear one simple idea:
PRIVATE PARTS ARE MEANT TO HAVE HAIR.
I am not some radical hippie. I have never been to Woodstock. I am not a Wiccan. I was, however, once that teenager buying into the insane idea that paying some woman $50 a month to rip away my bikini line made me feel sexy.
Over the last two weeks I have seen more naked bodies than I can count and the only times I felt myself cringe or look away was when I saw the shiny, red, waxed pubic regions of both women and men attempting to pluck every last follicle of hair from that oh-so-sensitive area.
Hair is natural. Laser it, wax it, shave it away and the whole package just looks wrong. I promise.
Take it from someone who has (most likely) seen more naked bodies walking around than most of you reading this ever will. I am not asking the citizens of America to throw out their razor blade and go full Chewbacca everywhere (although that is a perfectly valid life choice).
This is just one vain woman’s opinion on the very vain subject of vanity.
5. The big Five-Oh.
Sometime in my second week, I had the honor of partaking in a lively discussion of aging – something I, at the tender age of 21, rarely think about. Surrounded by five women over the age of 50, we gossiped about everything from families to nudity, sex-life and death.
These women were from different backgrounds, ethnicities and states, but they all had one story in common – revival.
Each woman had done the whole Stepford wife routine, gone through raising kids and maybe a marriage or two. But all of the women had ended up here, alone, gossiping naked with a beer in hand.
And they had never been happier in their entire lives.
One woman who was the most outspoken of the bunch told me something I will never forget. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Honey, you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back to your age.”
I was perplexed. Truly. Could all the movies and rap songs and college administrators be wrong? Is this not the best time of my life?
I quickly took stock. The ladies in front of me were not in the best shape of their lives. Their hair was probably not as full as it once had been, and I’m sure judging from their bespectacled faces their vision was no longer 20/20. And yet, here they were, claiming that they were in the prime of their lives!
They may have disagreed on the best way to make a good kale chip, but these women were unanimous in their conviction that at 21, I was only just beginning to understand what I truly wanted from life. It would be another 30 years or so before I knew what I wanted from a career or my friends. Not to mention what I wanted from a lover.
I was horrified.
Here I was thinking I had it all figured out. That I am in the sexual prime of my life, that everything – my mind, my body, my sex drive – was all downhill from here. After all, women will pay just about anything to stop or reverse the aging process.
Getting older was simply a slow death march into the grave – leaving pieces of your healthy self behind as you aged. A good knee here, a working vagina there…
And then I met these ladies. The nudist lifestyle, they explained, had helped them rediscover their confidence. It showed them that counting the number of lines on their face or the amount of rolls on their stomach did not equal a happy and fulfilling sex life. Life experience did.
6. We do not need to fear each other.
This idea, very simple in nature, was the last and hardest won lesson I learned during my stay at the nudist farm. I admit that this idea of trust is one I will likely be working on for the rest of my life. I have been physically assaulted, sexually manipulated and taken advantage of in ways that only those who have been through it will understand.
For a survivor like myself to willingly put herself back in a potentially dangerous, possibly sexual, situation almost gave my therapist a heart attack.
Don’t get me wrong, I was nervous. Very nervous. I realized, however, that in order for me to move on, I needed to take a risk and follow my passion for research in this field or I would never forgive myself.
And not all risks pay off but, hallelujah, this one did.
I am not here to argue that anyone suffering from a traumatic experience need only go to a nudist farm and they will be miraculously healed. I can only speak for my experience.
As a college student in one of the biggest party cities in America, I am no stranger to sexual advances. I get catcalled walking down the street in sweat pants and a sweatshirt. I have not yet walked through a bar without having my ass grabbed or getting winked at by various men.
Before the argument of what I was wearing rears its ugly head, let me say that I have never been so sexually ignored in my entire life as I was for the two weeks that I was naked. Let that sink in.
No, go on. I’ll wait.
I was naked. For two weeks.
And no one stared at my breasts. No one grabbed my ass. No one licked their lips, called my baby, told me to smile, to fix my hair, be better, look prettier, or to come home with them.
As a 21-year-old woman, I was definitely somewhat of an anomaly. The majority of the people who frequented the farm were over the age of 40 and male. So, I often found myself at the center of conversations, but never at the center of attention. Most people just enjoyed discussing my unusual educational choices.
So here I was. A young, naked woman sitting right within the grasp of upward of 20 naked men at a time in the heartland of America, and I have never felt so respected in my entire life.
Slowly, I began to uncross my legs and unfold my arms and I learned to sit openly as so many men do in the clothed world. It was amazing how much more space I learned to take up – how much space I deserved to take up when I wasn’t hiding myself. I wasn’t some woman walking down the street that random men tried to undress with their eyes. Here, I was already undressed.
I stopped worrying that at any moment the men around me would suddenly lose control, pop a boner, and attack me. After all, that’s what society has been telling young women for decades – that men can’t control their bodily urges so we as women need to compensate for that and act accordingly. Don’t walk alone at night. Carry a stun gun. Cover yourself up.
Lo and behold, these magical male specimens were able to sit, eat, play volleyball, dance, drink and canoe with a naked young woman, all without turning into a rapist.
I wonder what this discovery does for the defense of rapists who say the women were asking for it based on what they were wearing at the time. If that argument were true, I may as well have slathered my naked body in fish guts and taken a dive into a shark tank.
What these two weeks on the farm taught me was that violence, especially sexual violence, has absolutely nothing to do with the victim. Nothing more you could have done or said or wore. Nothing you need to take responsibility for. That’s not your job.
Your job is only to learn how to trust people again.