Even if you’ve been staying at a nudist resort for days or weeks, “It’s still shocking to see naked 80-year-old people in the omelet line,” admits Mark Haskell Smith, author of the new book Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World.
While researching his previous book on high-end marijuana growers, Smith, a 58-year-old journalist from Los Angeles, “became interested in people who break the law or do things that are quasi-legal to explore their passions,” he said. Like the pot farmers, nudists “are true believers in what they do. It’s just a simple pleasure they’re enjoying, but they’ll risk everything to do it.”
And their ranks are growing. The American Association for Nude Recreation claims over 40,000 members and nude tourism is a growing industry, raking in over $400 million a year. Devotees say forgoing clothes is healthy and relaxing, even if they risk getting arrested for public indecency; their gatherings are mostly restricted to private properties.
Smith’s research led him to the naturist resorts of Vera Playa in Spain and Cap d’Agde in France, a naked group hike through the Austrian Alps and a 2,000-person-strong Caribbean cruise. He spoke with Women in the World about learning the etiquette of nude retreats, keeping nakedness non-sexual and persuading his wife to join him for a “nakation.”
Women in the World: Were the nudists welcoming to you as an outsider?
Mark Haskell Smith: I didn’t really tell them that I was writing a book. At some of these resorts, they aren’t that keen on having single men; they like couples. But generally, I found that nudists were some of the nicest people you could ever meet. Once people see that you’re in it with them, they couldn’t be friendlier.
WITW: So what’s it like to be naked with a bunch of strangers?
MHS: It takes a little while to get used to, and then it becomes kind of normalized. There are just naked people everywhere you look. You’d think there’d be an erotic charge on a boat of people without clothes, but it isn’t so prevalent when everyone’s naked. Though sometimes it’s still shocking to see naked 80-year-old people in the omelet line.
WITW: Did you learn anything about bodies—others’ or your own?
MHS: A lot of people talk about this level of body acceptance that you get. When we see naked people in our normal life, it’s usually a model or an actor or someone in a movie. You get this really skewed idea of what a nude body looks like. So then you feel inadequate, right? You go to a nudist place with normal people naked and you start to feel, “Oh, I’m actually not freakishly overweight or freakishly underendowed” or whatever it is. For a lot of people, women especially, it becomes this really liberating experience.
WITW: What drew most of the people you met into nudism in the first place?
MHS: I think skinny-dipping is the gateway for a lot of people. They swim naked in the pool or in the ocean and they notice how good it feels and it just goes from there: “I wonder what it would be like to walk down this trail naked, to play croquet naked.” People start to relax and ultimately understand that there’s this body acceptance in nudism.
In a lot of the couples I met—9 times out of 10—the woman says, “He was really into it, so I got into it too.” It’s just like if you met someone who enjoyed tennis.
I met people who would, if they could, be naked all the time. The hardcore nudists are naked in their houses, they’re naked in their yards. They build fences in their backyards so they can be naked without bothering anyone.
Nudism is way more accepted in Europe than it is here. You go to these places in Europe and see whole families—little kids, teenagers, grandparents—everyone’s doing their thing, nude. It’s not considered a big deal; it’s part of the holidays, especially in Germany. When I was in Austria hiking, I was the only American there. The others were British, German, Italian, French, Spanish.
WITW: Is it hard to hike naked? With an activity like hiking, clothing does sort of serve a purpose.
MHS: The thing about hiking naked is that your skin has a mechanism that keeps you from overheating and keeps you from getting cold, too. I have a whole chapter on skin in the book; I’d learned this theory on how skin is this amazing thermostat. I was hiking up some steep hills and I realized I wasn’t sweating, and it was because my skin was regulating my temperature really efficiently. A couple days later, I actually put on some clothes for another part of the hike and I was soaked with sweat.
I thought I was going to get bug bites and poked by thorns and all this stuff. I did get cut by some rocks, but that probably would have happened even if I had pants on.
WITW: Would you say there’s an even ratio of men to women on these resorts?
MHS: There are more men, but they really make an effort to make women feel comfortable. This is an environment where it’s not cool for people to hit on you or stare or gawk or make you feel uncomfortable. If a man does that, they’ll ask him to leave. The women I met who were nudists really liked it. And the whole body acceptance thing really resonated with a lot of women.
WITW: How do nudists prevent this from turning into something sexual?
MHS: They call it “non-sexual social nudism.” There’s really not a lot of flirting. I actually found it a bit strange; if people had been dressed they would have been flirting and joking around, but they were all being careful where they looked. Erections are forbidden. If a man gets an erection, he’s supposed to cover it with a towel or roll over or jump in the pool.
WITW: Do all these groups follow that rule? Are some more lenient?
MHS: It’s a pretty universal rule, until you get into the swingers. But that’s a whole other thing.
WITW: How did your wife feel about this project?
MHS: She was really bemused by the whole thing. When I was first doing it, some of these nudist resorts wouldn’t let me come without a partner and she was like, “[expletive] no.” Ultimately, she came with me on the Caribbean cruise. Once she got on the boat, she got used to it and realized no one cared. She ended up walking in a naked charity 5K for breast cancer on the deck.
WITW: Did writing this book change how feel about nudity?
MHS: Did I become a nudist? No. But if I saw a naked person on the beach or at someone’s house, I wouldn’t be uncomfortable. It’s made me realize that there are areas I need to be more tolerant about. We all have bodies and we’re all naked for at least some part of the day. The fact that people can’t walk in a park or sunbathe on a beach without clothes is absurd. They’re not hurting anyone. I have a lot of sympathy for the plight of the people who want to be naked.
This interview has been edited and condensed