Day 6

The naked truth about nudists

Novelist Mark Haskell Smith's non-fiction book 'Naked at Lunch' is both a history of organized nudism and a gonzo tale about his own adventures through the clothing-optional world.
The American, French and United Kingdom covers for Mark Haskell Smith's latest work of non-fiction, Naked at Lunch. (Grove Press)

If you want to be nude in public in Canada, you can generally only do so on designated beaches or hiking trails. Nudist clubs can be found across Canada, with Vancouver's clothing-optional Wreck Beach alone boasting up to 14,000 daily visitors each summer.

Novelist Mark Haskell Smith wanted to find out what the attraction to nudism was all about, so he lived inside the world of "nonsexual social nudism" for two years.  His new book, Naked at Lunch, is a history of organized nudism combined with a layman's guide to the clothing-optional world. He spoke to Brent about his experiences, from nudist cruises and beach resorts to buying groceries in the buff.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was it like the first time you got naked with a group of strangers?

It was fairly terrifying. I was actually at a nudist resort in Palm Springs and I was in my room trying to get my courage up to go out by the pool and see what was happening. Basically I stayed inside and I just kept putting on more and more sunscreen. I would start to go, and then say, "You know, maybe one more layer." By the time I walked out around the pool, I was actually so lacquered I looked like a disco ball.

How long did it take you to get up the nerve to talk to someone?

Nudists are actually very friendly and welcoming. Maybe an hour into it, I was walking around and checking out the facilities. There was a little library there, so I walked in to see what books they had, and there was a woman there who was also looking at books. We just started talking about what thriller writers we liked. It was like what you would have done if you had clothes on.

So why do people do this? Why do people like to be naked with other people?

It's different for different people. Some people like it because it gives them a sense of body acceptance and for other people it just feels good.

Did you come to enjoy it?

There were a couple of things that I found really great. Skinny dipping is really nice, and hiking in the Alps with a bunch of naturists turned out to be a really fun and pleasurable experience. You really feel connected to nature in a way that you wouldn't if you were wearing a bunch of Gore-Tex.

Is there a typical nudist in your experience?

It depends. In the States, a typical nudist is a retired person who just enjoys drinking a beer around a pool and barbecuing with their nudist friends. Where in Europe you get people who are more active. They like to hike, they like to ride horses, and they do a lot of family activities.

You describe a lot of older nudists in your book. Do you think there's a connection between age and being open to this?

It could be that some of them are are old hippies. But the original birth of the nudist movement, particularly in North America, came after WWII. During the war, the Pentagon gave the soldiers nudist magazines to keep them happy because they couldn't give them pornography. And when they came back from the war, there was a boom in nudist resorts.

Do you think it's easier to let go of self-criticism when you're older?

Yes. During the whole two years of my research, my favourite memory was of a woman, probably around 70 years old, on a cruise ship with 2000 other nudists. She was on the dance floor with her walker at a disco, just having a great time. For me, that's inspirational.

Looking back over the two years you spent doing this, were there any experiences that you still have a hard time believing actually happened?

I spent a week in Cap d'Agde in the south of France. It's a nudist city of about 60,000 people. There's grocery stores, patisseries, butcher shops, even a dry cleaner. There's everything you would find in a city, except everyone's naked. I actually grocery shopped and discussed the finer points of local wine in the nude. Once you're in it, you just sort of surrender to the ridiculousness of it. It's like, 'Ok, let's go.'

It seems surreal, but these are normal people doing normal things, minus the clothes. Why does it feel so weird to us?

The Puritans left Europe and came to North America because Europe was too liberal, and I think that we are still really hung up on this idea that the naked body is offensive in some way. But the fact is, we all have one. So I don't know where we get this idea that it's somehow bad.

But there is a sort of Puritanism to the nudists' rules to keep sexuality out of the practice. In fact, they call it 'non-sexual social nudism.' Do those rules work?

I think they do to a large degree. They needed to have these rules where there's no leering or flirting to make it a safe place for women, so that people on the outside would understand that it's not just a bunch of men doing weird stuff.

But there must be men and women in nudism who are also very sexual. Do you think they're completely sincere about those rules? Or is the atmosphere still somewhat sexually charged?

Well, I agree that we're sexual animals. But to make the actual resort safe, at least in the public areas, they really do follow these rules. If people had swimsuits on they'd be flirting, they'd be joking, they'd be doing all the stuff people normally do. When they're naked, they're a little more restrained. But then, who knows what goes on behind closed doors?

What's the biggest lesson you learned from your time in the nudist world?

I think it's the idea of tolerance. One nudist said to me, 'There's no law that guarantees you the right to not be offended.' If something offends you, you should just look away. Nudists are just normal people that like to do this, and it doesn't really hurt anybody at all. I started to feel like if society in general had the kind of tolerance that nudists have, we'd actually have a better society.