An otherwise "clothed minded" reporter takes it all off
at NudeFest '99 and gets a tan where the sun doesn't shine
by Chris Wright
I'm leaning my elbows on a bartop, sipping Fosters Lager from a plastic cup.
Nothing unusual about that. Two middle-aged guys beside me are having a
boisterous conversation: "He shoulda kept his damn mouth shut!" Just regular
guys talking regular guy stuff.
Less regular is the fact that the two guys are naked. Come to that, so am I.
Usually this realization would mark the point where I'd wake up, sweat beading
my brow. But not today. The really strange thing is, it's okay.
By this point, I've already been hanging out (literally) at Berkshire Vista
for a good few hours. Berkshire Vista is a nudist resort located in Hancock,
Massachusetts; I'd arrived early that morning, eagerly anticipating NudeFest
'99, the 52nd annual convention of the Eastern Sunbathing Association (ESA).
What I hadn't anticipated was my initial discomfort at the sight of the
teeming, tawny nakedness all around me -- or having to stand around waiting for
my hosts, studiously averting my eyes, making small talk with a partly clad
"Are those T-shirts for sale?" I ask. The vendor smiles and nods.
After 10 excruciating minutes, my hosts arrive: Susan Weaver, public-affairs
chair for the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), and Linda Pace,
AANR marketing director. Both are wearing sarongs. The big question comes
almost right away: "Do you want to take your clothes off?"
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In the interest of journalistic integrity, I'd already decided to say yes. So
I do it -- shirt, socks, shorts -- and there I am, standing in the middle of a
field, wearing nothing but a pair of red Converse sneakers and carrying a black
briefcase. As if I don't already feel awkward enough, a passing woman points at
my ass, proclaiming, "Look! A cottontail!" Great.
Laughing, Weaver and Pace strip, and the three of us jiggle down a small hill,
on our way to my first stop of the day. I'd been hoping for something a bit
racy to start with -- the convention agenda includes Olympic training, a
seniors' swim, and nude bacon and eggs -- but those had taken place earlier.
What I get is an ESA membership-committee meeting.
About 50 people in various stages of undress sit and stand under a wooden
structure in a section of the resort known as the Ghetto. I honestly don't know
where to look -- or, more important, where not to. Particularly unsettling, for
some reason, are the guys who aren't quite nude, their todgers peeking out
below the hems of their T-shirts.
As Susan introduces me to the meeting, announcing that I am a "first-timer,"
the delegates give me a big round of applause, which is actually more
disconcerting than the cottontail incident. Clutching my briefcase before me, I
scamper to the nearest table and settle down to watch the proceedings. For the
next hour I nod thoughtfully, gaze intently into the face of each speaker, and
scribble notes such as "the power of public advertising" and "Jesus, they're
When I think nudism, I generally tend to think nude beach. So how did I
come to find myself in the middle of the Berkshires, attending a legislative
assembly, listening to talk of budget proposals and outreach strategies? Well,
for one thing, aside from Moshup Beach on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
doesn't really have any nude beaches to speak of. Of the two AANR-sanctioned
nudist clubs in this state -- Berkshire Vista and Sandy Terraces, on the Cape
-- neither is a seaside resort. Still, even if a sandy beach is your ultimate
goal, AANR resorts are guaranteed safe, clean, and hassle-free, so they make
great primers for neo-nudists like me.
Since its inception in 1931, AANR has grown into a massive organization
boasting 50,000 members, 236 clubs, and seven regional branches (ESA being the
Eastern branch). In fact, the organization is experiencing growing pains. At
the meeting, discussions about where to put the proliferating legions of
nudists generate almost as many solutions as there are delegates.
The task of bringing all this diversity together falls to Greg Smith, the
AANR's national president. Smith has something of a young Hunter S. Thompson
look about him. Slim, tanned, with a shaven head and sunglasses, he
serial-smokes mini cigars and presides over the meeting with cool authority.
Even though I am still in the omigod stage, when Smith speaks it's quite
possible to forget the pecker beneath the mic. And Smith speaks quite a lot. At
one point, as the president takes center stage yet again, a delegate sings
under his breath: "Here he comes to save the daay!"
After the meeting, Smith sits across from me, rests his elbows on the table,
and says, almost immediately, "I have nothing to hide." Quite. A retired naval
officer, Smith currently drives a school bus in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. He's
less interested in talking about his professional life, however, than in
touting an annual nudist volleyball tournament he arranges. "Last year," he
says proudly, "we had 95 to 100 teams, 2000 people."
As with many of the people I meet today, nudism is not merely an interest for
Smith, nor even a lifestyle. It's a vocation, a creed. He seems particularly
proud of his record as AANR's leader, speaking of how nudism is "becoming more
and more mainstream every day," how he has helped the organization "enter into
the 21st century," of the constant barrage of e-mail and faxes he receives, the
twice-weekly meetings he must attend.
Smith admits that the logistical headaches of bringing a nation of nudists
together can make the president's role a tough one. "You can't afford to get
upset," he says. "If you do, you're in the wrong job." The AANR has
presidential elections slated for the year 2000, and I ask Smith who his main
"When the president is doing a good job, there is no competition," he says,
lighting up another cigar. "I expect to be re-elected."
And so there we are: two men, buck-naked, discussing institutional politics.
At one point, Marci Lott, Smith's fiancée, glides over. The couple are
planning a nude wedding sometime this year, they say ("at least the bridesmaids
will all match"). Lott -- a trainee flight attendant -- is blond,
large-breasted, and wears a sheer white wrap around her waist. I am mortified
-- helplessly so -- to note that she is very sexy.
Sex, however, plays little part in your average nudist camp. And that's not
only because many nudists resemble your grandparents.
When you come down to it, the symbolic link between nudity and sexual
intercourse rests on a pretty banal concept: I'm ready. But when
everyone is nude, that link is somehow broken. Sex has no place at a nudist
resort precisely because the guests are naked. As the saying goes:
"We're nude, not lewd."
Indeed, the only hint of prurience I get the whole day is from a guy who
admits to having gotten interested in nudism when, in his teens, he bought a
copy of Sunshine & Health. Which doesn't necessarily mean that sex
is far from the minds of nudists -- at least in an institutional sense. While
the terms "respect," "acceptance," and "wholesome" are thrown about by AANR
representatives like rice at a wedding, the word "sex" is tirelessly avoided.
But, as always, it looms all the larger for its absence.
Aware that many people view organized nudity with a suspicious eye (or worse,
think Wey-hey-hey!), the organization goes to extreme lengths to project
a socially responsible, clean-living image. It organizes blood drives, clothing
drives, and beach clean-ups. So conscious is the organization of its public
image that Weaver runs media-training sessions during which AANR workers learn
to fend off salacious and cynical media inquiries with quotable epigrams ("Shed
your cares with your clothes"). Weaver will also turn down media requests from
potentially unfriendly sources. "Why would we deal with someone who's going to
make fun of us?" she asks, admitting she had the Phoenix checked out
before agreeing to my visit.
What is most surprising about today's gathering, however, is that
despite all the wholesomeness, most of the nudists are far from being the
crunchy, touchy-feely bunch I had anticipated. When I arrived at Berkshire
Vista, I tucked my cigarettes away, fearing a lynching if anyone saw them. But
fellow smokers abound, and the clubhouse bar does a thriving business. There's
barely a hint of sanctimony. Indeed, rubbing elbows with the guys in the bar
feels like being back in Somerville -- that is, if elbows were all we were
rubbing. Some of the nudists even indulge in saucy banter when Linda Pace
gingerly steps into the club's swimming pool. "It's cold!" she says. "Love
"So do we," replies one man, arousing bursts of laughter all around.
To say that Linda Pace is a good sport would be to understate the matter. A
full-figured woman far too young-looking to be the mother of three
twentysomething children, Pace is energetic, witty, and as prolific a smoker as
I am. As a group of us sit on a deck having lunch, Pace laments the fact that
she can't finish her burger. "My eyes were bigger than my stomach," she says.
Then, without skipping a beat, she looks at her stomach and says, "I guess you
can only say that when you have clothes on."
Pace used to run a halfway house for troubled teens; now she is a full-time
nudist. I knew I was at ease with the AANR's marketing director when I stopped
not noticing her breasts, when I was able to run my eyes over them as
easily as I would a lapel. Many people espouse the old "body acceptance" nugget
during my time at the convention, but Pace really brings it home for me. "As a
woman who has three kids," she says, "my body is a road map that leads back to
my children. Me without clothes on is not going to make the cover of
Cosmo, but with this group I feel beautiful."
So do I. As one who enjoys the odd pint, my body is a road map that leads back
to the Sam Adams brewery. But here -- and not only because the majority of the
people are in worse shape than I am -- I feel completely comfortable. Or at
least I'm beginning to. Most of the time. Nearly.
During a game of volleyball, every now and then I think, "Hey, that person who
just spiked me is naked." Or worse, when saying hello to a passing kid:
"Hey, I'm naked." At one point, a guy says something about the
government being "hard on" nudists and I think "Hard on!" as if the very words
could trigger a disastrous bout of tumescence. And it does feel a little
weird to be showering beside Susan Weaver. Then again, after you've soaped up
beside a publicist, you're pretty much ready for anything. As the day draws to
a close, I'm very nearly at ease, dangling my tackle in a variety of settings
like it's the most natural thing in the world.
And, of course, it is.
As I prepare to leave my newfound nudist friends, a poolside wine-and-cheese
reception is in full swing, and I feel a little stab of regret. Later tonight
they'll be having a disco dance, complete with DJ. I have visions of a hundred
nudists doing the Macarena. But I have stuff to do back in the city and a long
drive ahead of me, so I decamp. People I've met over the day hug me, give me
little presents, assure me we'll meet again.
I'm a sentimental guy -- I hate goodbyes -- but there's something else
bothering me. It's strange, but after a day in the buff, I am appalled by the
prospect of putting my clothes back on. Then again, maybe it's not such a bad
idea. As I stand beside the pool, a guy comes over to inspect my backside,
bending slightly for a better look, and inhales sharply through his teeth.
"Put some tea bags on that," he says. "Or some vinegar. You're going to need
it." I twist and take a look. He's right.
According to people I've met today, Thoreau was a nudist. Ben Franklin was a
nudist. FDR was a nudist. Jesus was a nudist. As denizens of Martha's Vineyard
know, Alan Dershowitz is still a nudist. Now, it seems, so am I. And I
have the sunburned butt to prove it.
Chris Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Berkshire Vista Resort and other nude
resorts nationwide, consult the AANR's North American Guide to Nude
Recreation. Call (800) TRY-NUDE for details.