Exposed!

After announcing ourselves at the gate (we had purchased a yearlong AANR membership for eighty dollars and contacted the club’s membership director in advance of our visit), we were buzzed through. About a quarter mile down the driveway we began passing Winnebago RVs and Airstream campers in a necklace of connected roads with names like Jaybird Lane and Barebutt Crescent circling the main grounds. There were a couple of slightly dilapidated trailers available for rental. The privately owned trailers ranged from top-of-the-line behemoths with handsomely arranged flower beds to skeezy, sad-looking little numbers on blocks. If Oakwood were a city, it might be a miniature version of St. Paul: down-to-earth, haphazard, a little dumpy, but with affluent areas, and full of civic pride, activity, and good spirits. We were met by a cheerful camp official riding an aging, canopied golf cart whose bouncy progress jounced her considerable bosom. She quickly established that we were first-timers and ran through the basics of nude etiquette with a brisk efficiency Miss Manners would envy.

Social nudism is a complex mix of gregarious exhibitionism and scrupulously maintained privacy. Our guide explained that Oakwood is a friendly place, but probing personal questions were discouraged. Visitors might exchange last names by mutual consent, but we should not feel offended if our fellow sun worshippers kept matters on a semi-anonymous first-name basis. There were strict rules of decorum. Sexual remarks or advances, staring and voyeurism, excessive or unwelcome touching, or even inappropriate public expressions of affection between couples would be boorish and inconsiderate. “If you kiss, make it a kitchen kiss,” she instructed. The goal was pleasurable coexistence with the other campers. We could feel free to wear clothes or not in all the common areas, from the athletic fields to the communal kitchen and dining hall, but the in-ground pool was strictly clothing-free.

Most important, she continued, on all occasions we must carry our own towel to sit on. In his account of a visit to a nudist camp, “Naked,” the essayist David Sedaris portrayed this rule as a laughable triviality in the psychosexually charged environment of a nude resort, as if your bungee jumping instructor pestered you to tuck in your shirttails before leaping off a bridge. I saw it differently. Having picked up a wretched case of psoriasis from the slimy sauna in the Detroit YMCA some years earlier, it struck me as laudable common sense.

So there we stood, my wife serene, myself deeply ambivalent. I had already learned from the AANR membership magazine that nudist resorts don’t discriminate based on race, creed, age, class, gender, or physical attractiveness. Especially not on physical attractiveness. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, any nudist club with aesthetic standards low enough to accept me as a member, I wasn’t eager to belong to.

But one of the big selling points of the nudist lifestyle is its emphasis on health. In recent years, as skin cancer has become a significant medical issue, the focus has shifted from soaking up sunshine to the psychological benefits of shedding inhibition and learning body acceptance. Clothes are in many ways more threatening than a nude body, my wife pointed out. “Clothing is a shield, isn’t it? We use clothing to make a power statement, to intimidate, to seduce.” Well, exactly. What would I do without it?

I saw “stripped,” “naked,” and “nude” as synonyms for “diminished.” Even the term “nudist colony” sounded ominous. What else are there colonies of? Undesirables, that’s what. Termites. Lepers. Artists. Not the kind of places you’d want to visit; best to keep them walled off and enclosed. I was aware that I had my issues.

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