The naked truth about the American nudist movement is its failure to live up to the ideal that everyone is treated the same, despite social standing or the shape of their bodies, a new University of Florida study finds.
Nudists Discriminate As Much As People With Clothes
Especially revealing is the inconsistency toward women, who are told looks don't matter but are exposed to nudist art portraying so-called perfect and impossible-to-match female figures, said Ellen Woodall, a practicing nudist for more than 15 years who did the research for her master's thesis in anthropology.
Woodall worked two summers as a housekeeper at a nudist resort as part of her study.
"I observed the formation of cliques, men commenting on or joking about the obesity of certain women, women giggling about the size of a man's genitals, sexual comments and harassment - all activities one might commonly witness of larger society," she said.
Nudists tend to think of themselves as progressive and open-minded, said Woodall, who spent two years researching and observing full-scale nudist resorts. Nudists' sense of moral and intellectual superiority stems from their belief in body acceptance in an age of prudery, even to the extent of being able to see the body as non-sexual, she said.
"Essentially, they're mocking the belief that the body is dirty," Woodall said.
An outgrowth of various 19th-century social movements in Germany, American nudism, which traces its foundations to 1929, initially was a cooperative venture with everyone pitching in money and labor to build and maintain the resorts, she said.
All that changed as entrepreneurial nudists saw the possibility of big profits and governments relished the tax revenue and boost to local economies, Woodall said. With 1998 revenues estimated at more than $400 million, nudism today is hardly counterculture, she said.
Actually, nudism is a middle-class activity with an influential Washington lobby, Woodall said. The American Association of Nude Recreation's 1997 figures show 92 percent of members are age 35 or older, 47 percent have a family income of at least $50,000 and 83 percent have a college education.
Nudism also is overwhelmingly white, Woodall said. Of 230 people clearly visible in photographs in the 1997 North American Guide to Nude Recreation, 227 are white, she said.
"It seems clear that social class distinctions are not only visible, but (are) sustained by the practice of nude recreation," Woodall said. "Participants are by no means a cross-section of American society. While the notion of social equality has long been a part of the American credo, it is not practiced."
Nor are nudist resorts "natural," except perhaps for a few nature trails, Woodall said. Most have saunas, nightclubs and all the usual amenities, with older townhouses selling for nearly $140,000 and new ones approaching a half million dollars, she said.
Laws outlawing public nudism have only made it more exclusive, Woodall said. For the nudist movement to continue, organizers must buy land and build accommodations, passing on the cost to consumers in the form of expensive membership dues, she said.
Stripped of its intellectual veneer, nudism is like the rest of society with its share of sexual hang-ups, social distinctions and backbiting gossip about weight, breast augmentation and the size of personal endowments, Woodall said.
"To me it speaks to the fact that people aren't actually internalizing the rhetoric of nudism, they're only buying into it in an economic sense," she said.
At these resorts, female nudists often must walk by art of "perfect" female bodies, said Woodall, who found that all body types are seen but only the beautiful are celebrated.
"Nudist painting and sculpture reveal an endless series of idealized female bodies -- bulbous, gravity defying breasts, tiny waists and perfectly round buttocks," she said. "Nudist art on the whole idealizes the same image of the female body that's glorified in Hollywood or in 'Playboy.'"
Woodall said women who venture into these resorts feel relatively safe, thinking they will be among social equals and apparently buying into the unpracticed precept that nudism transcends sexuality and gender.
But she said she doesn't want to appear overly critical. "Nudists are like everyone else in that they have certain biases toward various types of bodies," she said. "They will repeat rhetoric about body acceptance but in the same breath chuckle at an obese woman." - By Cathy Keen
[Contact: Ellen Woodall, Cathy Keen]