Mark Haskell Smith’s recent book, Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World (published June 2015), may be the best book on naturism – and the most persuasive argument for naturism – ever written by a non-naturist.
However, the book does not begin in an especially complimentary or auspicious way, even though the author eventually comes around to a (much) more respectful point of view. From some of the earliest paragraphs:
I’m especially fascinated by subcultures that are deemed morally suspect or quasi-legal: the people who pursue their passion even if it means possible imprisonment or stigmatization by society. I can’t help it. I like the true believers. The fanatics. … It wasn’t much of a leap for me to become intrigued by the world of nudism.
The book is a pleasure to read, whether or not you’re a naturist yourself, since Smith is a professional author and journalist, with five published novels and another nonfiction book (on marijuana farming) to his credit. And he’s an assistant professor of writing with U. C. Riverside, to boot. He has an impressive vocabulary (which is well-employed), and an entertaining way with lively, colorful metaphors.
As already noted, the author does not consider himself a naturist or nudist, either before or after doing the research for the book:
I wasn’t a nudist when I started this journey and, if I’m being truthful, I’m not a nudist or a naturist or an anti-textile now. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with any of those labels. They’re just not my scene.
And that’s fine. Nudism/naturism isn’t always a comfortable, convenient philosophy or lifestyle. To fully enjoy naturism it’s necessary to feel more satisfied being naked than not, to have a special sense of connection with other nudists/naturists, and also to be willing to put up with occasional (or frequent) disapproval and inconvenience meted out by the multitudes in most societies who are not especially appreciative of the unconventional.
Both naturists and non-naturists will have good reasons to be glad to have read this book. Even though Smith disclaims the label of naturist for himself, he has clearly learned (from both extensive library research and participatory research in the field) much more about the subject than most naturists themselves know. The author’s accounts of many aspects of contemporary naturism will richly reward most seasoned naturists with facets of the lifestyle they haven’t explored themselves. And non-naturists will get a clear picture of a number of things about naturism that its adherents especially enjoy – as well as credible refutation of misconceptions harbored by most people who’ve never experienced naturism.
Here are a few chapter titles and summaries to provide a taste of what’s in the book:
- Interview with a Nudist: The nudist is Mark Storey, a college philosophy professor as well as an editor and frequent contributor to The Naturist Society’s N magazine. Storey opines that “If we [humans] do have an essential nature of being social, and clothing does do something towards alienating us from each other, nudity helps break down alienation. I think that’s why so many people like it.”
- Gymnophobia: This is the intense trepidation felt by most people who’ve had no experience with social nudity just before the first time they are naked around naked strangers. The author’s first visit to a naturist resort is a case study in how this fear dissipates fairly quickly.
- Vera Playa: The author visits the town of Vera (population about 15,000) in Spain, and its nearby beach area on the Mediterranean coast. The beach is more than 2 kilometers long and was designated by the local government as naturist in 1979. It may be the largest naturist development in the world, is not located behind gates or walls, and consists mostly of condos, stores, bars, and restaurants. Nudity is accepted everywhere in the development. People in the nearby town of Vera mostly have no problems with the beach nudity. Smith observes that the typical extreme uptightness about nudity in the U. S. is laughable by comparison.
- The Naked European Walking Tour: The author goes nude hiking in the Austrian Alps with a group organized by British “Naktivist” Richard Foley. The group comprised 21 men and women, all Europeans except for Smith, mostly individuals but with a few couples. Foley promotes his concept of “Naktivism”, which is based on 3 principles: (1) To support and encourage naked activities everywhere; (2) “To educate society that the naked human body is acceptable in all contexts”; and (3) “To decriminalize the naked human body”. Although the group walked naked most of the time, they met with very few negative reactions from non-naturists out on the trails. (Here’s a short documentary of this trip, and a longer version.)
- The Fall of Nudist Clubs: Organized nudism of the traditional sort in the U. S. is undeniably in decline. Membership in the two national nudist/naturist organizations (TNS and AANR) has been steadily dwindling for perhaps two decades. Long-established clubs are closing as their owners retire and cannot find replacements. “This generation gap [between nudists of the 60s and 70s and their descendants] is the principal reason that clubs and the AANR are in decline. That and the fact that people get old and die.” Felicity Jones, a founder of the youth-oriented Young Naturists America (YNA) puts the matter succinctly: “nudist clubs/resorts are not adapting to the times.”
- World Naked Whatever Day: Young people with an interest in social nudity are pioneering new ways of enjoying nudity, often in very public places, in contrast to the fenced-in nudist camps and resorts of yore. Richard Foley’s Naked European Walking Tour is one example. The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is held in many international cities (on a number of different days). U. S. cities are well-represented in WNBR; Portland, Oregon may have the largest WNBR in the world, with reportedly about 10,000 participants in 2014. Another example of this kind of “free-range” naturism is the Bodypainting Day in New York City, organized and promoted by bodypainter Andy Golub and YNA. (The most recent instance took place July 18, 2015, and involved fully naked participants in well-known, very public locations.)
- Caribbean Nakation: Smith finally persuaded his naturism-avoiding wife to join him in field research as a “research assistant”. “Nakation” is AANR’s portmanteau word for the “naked vacations” it promotes. In this case, the event was a clothing-optional Caribbean cruise on a Holland America Line ship, organized by the Bare Necessities Tour & Travel company. Eventually the author’s research assistant voluntarily gets naked. “I could tell my research assistant was suddenly understanding the pleasure of swimming without clothes. She could not stop grinning.” Although Smith continues to point out instances of quirkiness among nudists on the cruise (and elsewhere), his overall judgment is positive: “Nudists, or those who travel where clothing is not a priority or necessity, seem to be more laid-back, have a better sense of self, and are simply more friendly, compassionate, and easy to get to know.”
- Naked at Lunch: In his concluding chapter Smith disclaims the naturist label for himself, while still warmly endorsing naturism. He observes that “society just doesn’t get it.” And addressing readers who still reject naturism not only for themselves but for others, he concludes:
[W]e need to grow the fuck up. … Society needs to come to terms with the fact that some of us like pleasurable pursuits. A person shouldn’t feel guilty or shame for being naked any more than someone should feel guilt or shame for enjoying a ripe peach. … If it really bothers you, maybe you need to take a long look at yourself and figure out why it bothers you. Just because you’re offended doesn’t give you the right to keep someone from enjoying their own body and the environment.