What is “naturism”?

Although most serious discussions should begin by defining terms used, it’s often not a good idea to spend too much time in such activity. Words are just means to an end (namely, conversation and communication), and disagreements about which are the “right” words to use for something can easily get in the way of actually discussing that something.

But let’s have a little discussion about “naturism” and its alternatives, such as “nudism” and “social nudity”, so we can make that somewhat independent of other conversations. There are certainly controversies among naturists themselves about the proper terms to use. Such controversy is not a new thing, not new at all. Historically, there seem to be two streams of naturist thinking, and they often seem to be in conflict with each other to some extent.

Many naturists, especially in the United States, seem to think that the terms “naturist” and “naturism” are relatively new. Many European naturists know this isn’t so, but they regard “naturism” as something fundamentally different from “nudism” – instead of seeing both as what they are, namely slightly different forms of social nudity.

The term “social nudity” is certainly accurate and descriptive enough when referring to the well-known practice of enjoying being naked with other people in a social, nonsexual context. Unfortunately, the term is awkward to use as a description of a distinctive set of beliefs or body of ideas that underlie this practice. It’s unfortunate for two reasons. First, simply because it causes difficulty in talking about this practice. And second, perhaps more importantly, because people lose sight of the fact that there really is a distinctive set of ideas that people who enjoy social nudity have in common. Either term, “naturism” or “nudism” is easier to use instead, but has the drawback that people sometimes insist on using each term for more circumscribed views about the fundamental ideas of social nudity.

The modern practice of social nudity had its origins in Germany in the early 1900s, pioneered by such people as Richard Ungewitter and Paul Zimmerman. It grew out of even earlier ideas in Germany that were sometimes described by the term Lebensreform (“life reform”). This was all about healthy living – the benefits of exercise, healthy diet, fresh air and sunshine, etc. Also avoidance of unhealthy things like alcohol, tobacco… and clothing (which interferes with exposure to fresh air and sunshine).

However, there was also skepticism, among people who embraced practices of social nudity in the early days, towards certain aspects of the Lebensreform ideals. This was apparent when social nudity spread to England in the 1920s. For instance, the Englishman Maurice Parmelee’s book, Nudism in Modern Life, published in the U. S. in 1927, discussed “naturists” somewhat ambivalently:

We have all heard of so-called “naturists”, who insist that man should “return to nature” in every sense of the phrase, that is to say, should discard everything artificial such as tools, machinery, clothing, books, cooked food, etc. This is manifest folly, for by means of tools and other inventions mankind has made life easier and more comfortable. But there is a measure of truth in their protest against the degree of artificiality which has crept into human life, and the extent to which man has become divorced from nature.[1]

Parmelee’s book was actually first published in the U. S. because of reluctance of British publishers to become involved with such “radical” ideas. The original title of the book (which circulated privately) was The New Gymnosophy. Parmelee himself referred to his beliefs as “gymnosophy”. But, obviously, the term never really caught on among English speakers who enjoy social nudity.

Parmelee was not particularly hostile to some of the more “radical” ideas stemming from Lebensreform. He recognized that people who enjoy social nudity, whom he termed “gymnosophists”, embraced a number of disparate attitudes. Later in his book he wrote:

A heterogeneous variety of ideas and principles are to be found in gymnosophic circles. Some are influenced by principles of freedom from convention and other restrictions. Others wish to simplify life and return to nature so far as possible. They sometimes call themselves “naturists”, and are very likely to be vegetarians as well. Communistic ideas influence some gymnosophists. Humanitarian and democratic ideas also have an influence and manifest themselves in the desire to bring the sexes closer together, and to give each individual an equal chance in a free democracy. All gymnosophists influenced by these ideas share the opinion that sex relations are on the whole more normal and healthy in gymnosophic than in clothed society.[2]

Now, the point of all this is that the terms “naturism” and “naturists” have been in use for quite a long time, and continue to suggest some of the same ideas, as a specific adjunct to social nudity. Even today, these ideas include concern and respect for the natural environment. Some naturists go farther and embrace things like vegetarianism, veganism, raw and locally-grown “organic” food, as well (in some cases) as opposition to scientific medicine, vaccines, “genetically modified organisms”, and so forth. Reasonable people who embrace social nudity don’t all agree about such things, and these controversies should not be allowed to become divisive within the family of people who enjoy social nudity. We will continue to use the terms “naturism” and “naturism” to encompass the entire family.

There’s certainly much more that could be said about these controversies, and we’ll surely return to them later. But something important to stress is that such controversies should be downplayed even more when interacting with people outside the naturist family than those within it. The discussion of this interaction with non-naturists, i. e. “textiles”, will occupy a whole thread of its own.


1. Parmelee, Nudism in Modern Life, p. 15

2. Parmelee, op cit, p. 36

This entry was posted in General naturism, Naturist philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is “naturism”?

  1. nat2020 says:

    Reblogged this on Caminhar ao Natural and commented:
    Um excelente artigo sobre a origem do termo Naturismo.
    Great articule, reblogged in caminhar

  2. Pingback: What is “naturism”? | simplenaturist

  3. Parmelee was not English. He was born in 1882 in Istanbul to parents who were Protestant missionaries. When he was 12, his parents returned to the USA and settled in New York state. He got his B.A. and M.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He also spent several years working for the U.S. government.

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