MAY 28, 2015
WHILE VISITING the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort & Spa in Florida as part of his gonzo investigation into the nudist subculture, Naked at Lunch, Mark Haskell Smith suggests a slogan for the community: “Imagine never having to do laundry again.” This is certainly to the point, but the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense (“Shame to him who thinks evil of it”), could also work, even if nudists might object to being associated with any piece of clothing, however skimpy.
Prurience rather than clothing is the great enemy of nudists, naturists, and anti-textiles, as they variously refer to themselves. Adherents refer to their movement as “nonsexual social nudism” in an effort to dispel the notion that the naturist lifestyle is an immoral one. There is, in fact, a chivalric aspect to most of the communities Haskell Smith describes, an almost courtly attempt to sublimate sexual desire. Naturism, its advocates insist, has little to do with sex and everything to do with an ennobling freedom from consumerism, conformism, and from the “diet-industrial complex.” Shed one’s pants and one sheds one’s cultural conditionings as well.
But enough of lofty counter-cultural ideals. To borrow a phrase from Haskell Smith, let the “scrotum airing” begin.
During the course of his research, Haskell Smith, the author of five gleefully salacious but dark comic novels and a nonfiction book about an international cannabis-tasting competition, disrobes at a handful of nudist resorts and beaches in the United States and Europe. He also completes a grueling, 13-mile hike in the Austrian Alps with the Naked European Walking Tour. (We know it’s grueling because one hiker has an app that calculates that the climb burns 4,125 calories — apparently it’s easier to shed clothes than a smartphone.) Finally, Haskell Smith boards a one-week cruise in the Caribbean charted by a company called Bare Necessities, the one nude outing on which he persuades his wife to accompany him.
Before taking the plunge into naturism, Haskell Smith conducts a (clothed) interview with a prominent naturist writer in Seattle, Mark Storey, who sings the “lifesaving” praises of nudism from his Aristotelian perspective that humans are “fundamentally, essentially social creatures.” Clothing, Storey argues, is just another barrier separating us from our fellow man, and thus impedes the full expression of our true nature.
The chapter that follows, “Skin in the Game” begins promisingly enough. The fair-skinned Haskell Smith visits his dermatologist, who tells him a cautionary tale about a patient who liked to do nude handstands in his backyard, so much so that he developed “squamous cell carcinoma on the underside of his scrotum.” But then comes a primer on the functions of skin, “the most interesting organ”; a detour on clothing, from baby swaddles, “our first barrier to intimacy and connection,” to Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress; a brief editorial on blaming victims of sexual assault because of their outfits (“a fucked-up kind of thinking”); an anthropological section on the evolutionary advantages of sweating; and, finally, a brief history of rickets, which can be caused by not getting adequate sunshine. Would it be losing my critical cool to shout out, “Take off your clothes already!”
Haskell Smith first strips down at a Palm Springs resort frequented by an older crowd of “sun-ravaged retirees.” Taking his dermatologist’s warnings to heart (or to groin), the author applies so much suntan lotion to his nether regions that his penis throws off light like a “solar flare […] I could’ve sent a distress signal to a search and rescue team.” Our knight in shining lotion, while obeying the resort’s injunction not to gawk at fellow guests, nonetheless makes some stealthy observations. Partly because of the imperative to act as if there is nothing remotely sexual about the situation, these nudists are “strangely prim.” Haskell Smith eloquently describes the “strained Kabuki stateliness [of] people’s demeanor,” highlighting the surprisingly unnatural behavior of naturists.
Interspersed with his naked adventures are fascinating, if brief, glimpses of nudists throughout history. Most strange is a Dark Ages Spanish sect called the Priscillianists, who “believed that Satan, like an all-powerful and evil Karl Lagerfeld, invented clothing to prevent the healing power of God’s sunlight from reaching our human skin.” Less fanatical was Charles Crawford, a Bombay-based British civil servant, who in 1891 started the Fellowship of the Naked Trust, “the first organized social nudist group in history.” (It had three members and lasted two years before Crawford’s death in 1893.)
Nudism became something of a fad in post-WWI Germany, promoted in manifestos by radical writers like Richard Ungewitter, a “young health food freak” for whom “nakedness was a panacea, a cure for almost every physical ailment, spiritual turmoil, and societal problem that afflicted humanity at the turn of the century.” Ungewitter’s febrile diatribes against what he saw as a culture plagued by physical and moral rot had a eugenicist flare, a “dark underbelly” that came to light with rise of Nazism. In a chilling aside that stops the lighthearted account in its tracks, Haskell Smith describes how a young Hitler was torn between what he saw as the vile decadence of Weimar nudist clubs and the opportunities these clubs presented to “identify otherwise well-assimilated Jews.”
Haskell Smith also covers the legal challenges to nudism in the United States, from 1930s New York, where a “watchdog group called the Legion of Decency was […] formed to monitor nudist activities,” to the controversial 2013 ban on public nudity in San Francisco spearheaded by the deliciously named Supervisor Wiener. (The ban was upheld by a district court judge who dismissed the claim that nudity was a form of speech by arguing that “nudity in and of itself is not inherently expressive.”) We hear, too, of Lura Glassey, the owner of Fraternity Elysia (a Los Angeles nudist camp), who in 1947 “became one of the few American citizens to ever serve prison time for nudity.” A double punishment, confined as she was to a jumpsuit as well as a cell.
Haskell Smith is a congenial guide to the world of nonsexual nude recreation, which, by and large, seems to be a congenial world. (Unless, that is, one gets an erection at one of these resorts, in which case one is likely to be immediately set upon by golf-cart enforcers of community standards.) However, all this congeniality poses a problem for the book, since its subjects are primarily “friendly people who just want to enjoy the sensual pleasures that life has to offer.” As a result, drama is in short supply. One of the more tense moments involves a brief spat with a tetchy member of the nude hiking group over whether a bird is a house martin or a swallow.
As two recent reality shows Naked and Afraid and Dating Naked demonstrate, nudity, after the initial frisson, is not inherently interesting. Haskell Smith comes to the same conclusion. After a few days lounging around the Hotel Vera Playa Club in southwestern Spain, he notes that “the nudity is so commonplace it’s almost boring. I never would’ve thought seeing a hundred naked people around the swimming pool would be dullsville, but it is.” A jaunt to the kinkier resort of Cap d’Agde in France is certainly spicier — at night it becomes a “sex-fantasy fantasy camp” — but this is the kind of libertinage that true naturists deride.
The generally placid, nudist subculture means that Naked at Lunch lives or dies by its author’s voice. Haskell Smith can hit the David Sedaris humor sweet spot. Before beginning his research at a clothing-optional resort in Palm Springs, he examines himself in a mirror, looking for a reason to “call this whole thing off for humanitarian reasons.” When he does some naked shopping at a nudist grocery store in France (I imagine the frozen foods aisle isn’t a heavily trafficked area) he claims to be most embarrassed by having to speak French to the cashier. However, the humor occasionally feels forced — oiled Greek wrestlers are, “depending on your point of view, awkward or kinda hot,” — or the tone overly informal: “Even in the Bible it says that Adam and Eve ‘were both naked, yet they felt no shame.’ So, like, what happened?”
The other problem is that Haskell Smith has a tendency to cede the floor to his interview subjects for too long. One chapter is devoted to a fashion designer who reveals that clothing “becomes like a sack” if you don’t study the human body; another consists almost entirely of a desultory Skype conversation with a friend about some of her nudist experiences growing up in Los Angeles.
These criticisms aside, Haskell Smith concludes wonderfully with a couple’s cruise, or “nakation.” This puts me in the delicate position of writing about the author’s naked wife, who has been skeptical about the project from the beginning: “First you’re stoned all the time,” she says, referring to his book on cannabis, “and now you’re going to be naked? Why can’t you write a book about cheese? You like cheese.” Even so, she ultimately agrees to join him on the clothing-optional Caribbean vacation. Unlike her husband, she has no book to write and deep reservations about taking off her clothes in front of strangers; thus, unlike her husband’s story, her toe-dipping entry into naturist waters is both tentative and affecting. She delights in a quick skinny-dip, a nudist’s “gateway drug,” sips post-prandial drinks naked on her private veranda, and begins making “quick sorties” about the boat. By the end of the cruise, she’s walking “topless in a 5K cancer charity walkathon around the decks.” Her journey, fondly narrated by her Haskell Smith, finally reveals the intoxicating appeal of nudism that goes beyond never having to do laundry again.