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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: September 12, 2009

We were all born naked and how we look when we meet our maker is not especially relevant. And in between, most people like to be covered, especially in public.

But not everybody. It’s summer, a time when even the prudish tend to doff their clothes, albeit in the privacy of their homes. It’s when naked bodies become public that the trouble begins.

By and large, nudists are seekers after freedom. “When I pop open the buttons on my jeans,” raved one middle-aged member of the now-defunct Topanga resort, Elysium, “and when I feel the sun and air on my unclothed body, I feel the pleasure of just being.” The mantra of Elysium’s founder Ed Lange was “nude is not lewd” even though many people believe the opposite.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that growing up around nakedness goes a long way to removing the inhibitions about the body that plague most of us from adolescence onwards. Elysium, like many nudist resorts, was a family place and many people brought their kids, some of whom — although usually unself-conscious — initially tended to be more inhibited about exhibiting themselves than did their parents.

But there’s little doubt that nudity is a healthy lifestyle, mentally as well as physically, so why do so many people get so upset by the sight of the naked body? The recent examples we have seen here locally, especially the furor over the promise by EarthFriend Gen and her cohorts to infiltrate last month’s Independence Day parade, contradict any suggestion that Ojai is a live-and-let-live sort of place. One knife-wielding objector even threatened to cut a naked participant.

Do men like him feel their masculinity threatened in some incalculable way? And do some of them blow their tops in public but take active pleasure from enjoying pornography in private? One reader of our local Ojai Valley News has accused Gen of “naked narcissism” commenting that Ojai’s tolerance was “not eternal.” Another countered: “Lighten up people. Enjoy the view or look the other way.”

Gen, 32, who calls herself a social artist and environmental activist, responds “It’s always adults moaning about how something might harm the children. But it’s adults who have poisoned the world. It’s a word of hypocrisy and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Nakedness represents freedom. America is supposed to be the land of the free but is actually one of the most repressed and obsessed societies. It’s in denial.”

   Many people have a peculiar antipathy to nudists, prompted by deep misunderstandings and probably some undefined fear. Their attitude manifests itself with feeble jokes and false assumptions that mask an underlying fascination.

California’s San Onofre beach, which had welcomed nudists for generations, slunk back into the news when a new Parks Superintendent said that nakedness would be banned following complaints from “shocked” visitors. The obvious question to be asked, again and again, is why people felt they had to go and be shocked by conduct that they could avoid by going elsewhere.

What’s with it with prudes? The old joke comes to mind about the woman who complained to the police about seeing her naked neighbor undressing in his home across the street. When an officer dropped by to check it out and said he couldn’t see anything, the lady replied: “Oh, you have to stand on this chair.”

      Last month, the New York Times devoted half a page to letters responding to a story about whether young children should stay covered up. Opting to raise their children and grandchildren “with an open, matter-of-fact approach to the human body” wrote one, had been very beneficial because “they respect the sensibilities of others but would prefer skinny-dipping to a sandy swimsuit… if given the choice.” Another claimed that, lacking any hang-ups about him being naked as a child, “my son is very comfortable with his own body and is very confident in himself.”

And a lady from Maryland got to the crux of the matter. “Commercial and pop culture fuels a paranoia about the naked human body,” she wrote. “Somehow, the normal and beautiful human body functioning as it should (swimming naked, breast-feeding) is dirty and offensive, whereas highly sexualized bodies (revealing bikinis, women draped over cars, fashion porn, Bratz dolls) are perfectly appropriate for children to see. It’s perverse.”

A few years back the Economist reported that “nudity is advancing on all fronts in America and that the percentage of Americans “who have tried nude sunbathing in the presence of others” had increased from 15 to 20% in the previous year. Fundamentalists had chased skinny dippers out of most Southern states, the story continued, but elsewhere the picture was bright: nude cruises were filled, the Naturist Association’s guide to nude beaches sold a quarter of a million copies, attempts by undercover policemen (wearing swimsuits) have “provoked more ridicule than fear” and nude sunbathing in Florida, once banned, was making a comeback. “Miami also permits top free bathing now; if it did not, it would probably lose many of the European tourists who flock to its beaches.”

Anybody who has spent time around nudists is well aware that they represent a fair cross-section of the population with all its blemishes, beauty, and imperfections. Aspiring nudists have well-charted fears — for men that they will get an embarrassing, unwanted erection, and for women that they are overweight. (I can’t remember ever meeting a woman who didn’t believe she was overweight). Both these fears are unwarranted because, apart from their desire to be naked, nudists are unfortunately just like every-body else. I say ‘unfortunately’ because many of the people we meet are boringly unimaginative, and nudists are certainly no exception. My personal opinion is that most folk are bizarre in at least one specific way and nudists, using up their quota on being nudist, are otherwise disappointingly conventional.

So, as we could hardly regard them as a threat, why not just leave them alone?

[John Wilcock is currently touring the Norwegian fjords]