Yes, I know that every kid is a nudist. But I really was one. Like, officially. As in, card carrying member of the ASA (American Sunbathing Association.) As in going to special places — nudist camps, or if would want to make them sound really creepy and culty, nudist colonies — which were created for no other reason than so people could walk around naked.
This was the Shameful Secret of my childhood, like having an alcoholic mother who hit or an uncle who touched you in the areas where the bathing suit covers. No one was to know. As you may recall, I grew up in the 1970s, the time of hippies, macrame owls and mushroom decor, but I grew up in 1970s Georgia, a place of macrame owls, etc..., but also a very conservative, uptight place. It was a place where every white family had a black maid named something like Mavis, vegetarians were suspect and you sure as fuck weren't supposed to be something as whack as a nudist.
Nudism, then as probably now, was considered to be something weird, at the very least, and at the worse, probably sexual. Not sexual in a particularly nameable way but just...wrong. Naked = sex, end of story.
The reality, which would become apparent to anyone who spent 2 minutes at a nudist camp, is that they are about a sexual as any average RV park. Picture the folks in line at your Target store. Now picture them naked. Now picture them naked and running for a tennis ball, their own balls flopping in the wind. Feeling sexy? Exactly.
Every nice weekend in the summer, my dad would load up the car with camping equipment and we'd be off to a campground in nearby Florida. It was run by a sweet old man named Uncle Davey who was also, incongruently, incredibly racist. And, if you must know, he had rather large testicles that were kind of a blueish hue.
My two sisters and I hated going. HATED it. And it wasn't because of our unfortunate kid's eye view of Uncle Davey's literally blue balls. Being nudists was the thing that made us different. Made us weird. Made us wrong. "How was your weekend?" our neighbor Mrs. P would leeringly ask me when we got back. "Did y'all go camping?" She knew what she meant and I knew what she meant, but both of us were loathe to acknowledge it. "Yes," I would admit, mumbling. "Oh, reeeeeeally?" she would smirk triumphantly.
It was this sort of insinuating attitude about nudism that was what was so shameful about it to us. The actual nudism was no big deal. Really.
People find this really hard to believe. Even today, if I mention it to someone — I mean, people who know I write this blog, friends who know me well — they get that Mrs. P look on their faces. It's a mixture of judgey, sort of aroused, completely intrigued, yet put off at the same time.
"It's like a KOA, but everyone's naked," I say, lamely. They never believe me and press for more details. Because surely—surely!—there's more to it than that. But really that's it. Here's what people do at a nudist camp: swim, play old-school sports like horseshoes, ping pong or pool, sit around and play cards, sit in saunas or whirlpools, lie out in the sun, eat dinner and so on. All of this is done naked. Or naked but wearing the appropriate gear like tennis shoes. (If the idea of a bunch of your average Appleby's customers walking around naked isn't non-sexual enough, seeing those same folk naked but for a pair of socks and tennis shoes should do the trick.)
BTW, if you were wondering, the cliche about nudists and volleyball is totally true. Nudists love their volleyball — love it! Every camp has a court, no exceptions. Another nudist thing is the Importance of Towels. Nudists have an inordinate faith in the power of towels as all-purpose protectant. Every nudist carries a towel so that can put it between their sweaty naked ass and whatever surface they put said ass upon. The towel, you see, magically protects everyone from...well everything. I'm not sure why no one considers the "towel flipping factor," that is, once you re-use the towel, can you really be sure you're putting the butt side on your butt? Nonetheless, it seems to work. I don't know the science behind it, but to my knowledge, nudists don't suffer from any greater incident of butt-transmitted disease.
Because everyone is naked there probably are some things I've seen that most people haven't seen. I have seen flaccid penises covered in tanning oil (it was the '70s, remember). I have seen very obese men walking around naked, their genitalia tiny and cowering under the massive flap of their bellies. I have seen boobs hanging down to stomach level, all kinds of scars, varicose veins, sunburned boobs, flat wrinkly bums, prodigious bushes ('70s, ditto), and balls that hang down nearly to knee level. I have seen women walking around with a tampon string hanging out their wangs (the accepted nudist procedure, by the way, is for a menstruating woman to don a pair of underpants. Why they couldn't just tuck the string inside and try to "pass" as a non-menstruating woman remains unexplained to me. Perhaps many women of the day still had the whole belt and pad apparatus?)
What I did not see includes: orgies, sex of any kind, an erect penis. (As a child, I read a Q&A pamphlet for new nudists featuring naked cartoon "Love is..." looking folks. For the question "What if I get, you know, aroused?" naked cartoon man was advised to take a quick jump in the pool.)
When teenage nudist kids start rebelling against their parents they do so — seriously — by wearing clothes. Every nudist camp has kids in their awkward years Fighting the Power by wearing a long t-shirt or—fuck it! — even a full pants and shirt combo.
As I said, my sisters and I hated our nudist secret. It wasn't the actual nudism so much because, in truth that was kind of fun. Not the naked part, which we really didn't care one way or the other about, but going on adventures — running wild, exploring woods and creeks, water skiing, climbing trees and getting to play grown-up games like pool. Nudist camps are like a secret club. They are all over the country and—at least at the time — you had to know where they were (invariably down a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere), the secret code to unlock the gate or who to ask for at the intercom when you pulled up. When we pulled up to the gate at a new club, we'd ask for whoever — Martha, say — and Martha would come to the gate, bronzed, wrinkled and wearing only a terry cloth wrap around skirt. The Marthas always seemed to smoke and had a vague white-trashiness about them. The Marthas always had the nicest mobile home in the place, but nudist camp nice, which is not really that nice.
For my sisters and I, it was the secret part that was so bad. We weren't supposed to tell anyone about it. Knowing that I had a thing about me that people couldn't know gave me a sense of shame that took years to shake. I thought if anyone ever knew this horrible nudist thing about me...well, that'd be about it. I, seriously, didn't even tell my husband until we'd been married several years. I still haven't told my children, or many of you guys. I don't think either of my sisters have told their husbands. (uh, til now. Sorry! Hope you enjoy your Big Talk tonight.)
It is not right to make children keep secrets and, well, let's just say that perhaps the situation could have been handled differently. Though I don't know how. There really was no good way to present the whole nudist family idea to my Georgia neighbors. And I still think there's something a little weird about needing to be naked in public, among other naked people. Couldn't people be just be fine walking around naked in their house without formalizing it, building camps, forming the ASA and whatnot? Was there something sexual about it that I wasn't getting?
That said, as an adult, I can see some of the advantages of the whole nothing-to-hide aspect of it all. I recently went to a Korean spa with my friend Janet. It was hardcore. Old Korean women were squatting down by these sort of low faucets scrubbing the bejesus out of their nether regions. (For a really long time too. They are either really really clean or there must be some sort of pleasure in taking to your crotch with a scrub brush that I'm not aware of.) Everyone was naked because you had to be — sign on the door said so. As I soaked with Janet in the hot tub (making, like, constant eye contact so I wouldn't appear to be staring at her boobs in an unseemly manner*), I looked around.
Everyone looked bad naked, and yet everyone looked good. That is to say, we all looked human. Clothes give the illusion that other people have perfect bodies and that, plus general media bombardment, etc... gives us the idea that most everyone else looks fucking amazing. Of course we "know" that's not true. We know models are genetic rarities, culled from millions of others, and that they are strategically posed, photoshopped, etc... But seeing these regular bodies made me really know it, in a deep way. The chick with the amazing boobs had a bit of a wide ass going on. The trim woman was also a bit gaunt. It was incredibly liberating to realize that we all looked...well, okay enough.
The other day I had the experience of being on the other side of the naked generational divide. I was pet sitting for friends who have a pool. I invited my husband and two daughters over to swim. When they got there, I shouted, "Woo! Let's go skinny dipping!" I peeled off my clothes and dove into the pool. When I surfaced, my three family members were staring at me in semi-horror. "Woo!" I said, again, defiantly. I swam around briefly, to prove my point that they were missing out — big time — but it was half-hearted. I felt foolish and suddenly way way too naked. Soon I climbed out and grabbed my towel. I was half-embarrassed, half-hating their prudery.
Despite that, at 47, I think I've pretty much come to peace with my supposedly sordid past. At least enough that I feel fine telling you, Dear Internet Stranger, and who knows who the hell you'll tell. The good part is that I don't really care any more.
In an interesting coda to all this: My nudist connection which had always been the Worst Thing of my Life also turned out to be one of the best things. When I was looking for an idea to pitch to Rolling Stone, my dad told me that a local nudist camp was hosting bands like Foreigner and Loverboy for a concert, a two-day Nudestock festival. This, anyone could see, was comedy gold. My piece on Nudestock (thank you to my RS editor, the amazing Jancee Dunn) was my first national story.
So what have we learned here? Here are your takeaways: Things are never all good or all bad, they just are. Keeping secrets = bad. Some men have really really long balls.
Now you know the worst.
*For the record, Janet has an incredible ass.
This post originally appeared on the blog In Bed With Married Women. Republished with permission. Before she got all smutty and started writing In Bed With Married Women, Jill Hamilton wrote for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Mad and Games magazine and heaps of other magazines, newspapers and an embarrassingly high number of boring reference books.
Image by Nymph/Shutterstock.