In the middle of one of the coldest Northeastern winters on record, I’m taking off all my clothes in a room full of strangers. It’s hardly a sexy striptease. I’ve just arrived at the Young Naturists America headquarters, a Long Island City luxury condo shared by co-founders Jordan Blum, an Israeli who moved to New York after a stint in the Israel Defense Forces and now manages an antique-carpet gallery, and his fiancée, Felicity Jones (not their real names). I step through the doorway shivering despite being layered in fleece-lined black leggings, wool socks, snow boots, a long-sleeve thermal tee, a black cashmere sweater and a goose-down parka.
It’s Naked Movie Night for YNA, a New York–based organization for social nude-friendly people with a focus on advocating for tolerance, acceptance and positive body image. Sex and seduction are beside the point. At most of their larger events, a folding screen is set up in a corner, behind which nudists can disrobe discreetly. (The printed paper sign taped to the front reads UNDRESSING ROOM.) Here at their home, I undress incrementally, nervously. First my leggings, then my sweater, shirt and bra a few minutes later. It is my first time being socially naked, and I’m not yet comfortable baring it all. Eventually I get down to just my undies (pink boy shorts), my long brown hair arranged strategically to cover my breasts.
Naked on their couch (a towel spread for guests, for obvious reasons), surrounded by an outgoing group of proud naturists most comfortable when they’re least dressed, I try to put myself in the mind-set. I also try to keep from ogling the buffet of bodies before me. When have I been nude before? Mainly at home with my boyfriend. But there was also the time I went to a Korean spa in downtown Los Angeles and found myself naked on top of a pink rubber massage bed next to several other women in the same position. And the Turkish bath house in Manhattan that I went to with my cousin Natasha when we were both in college. Any other time I’ve been naked has been in an intimate or institutional setting, necessary for one reason or another. I can’t remember being naked just because—and never for movie night with a group of strangers.
Here at Jones and Blum’s apartment, the coffee table laden with mixed nuts, chips and dips and bottles of wine, it could be just any other movie night. A 30-year-old special-effects makeup artist, affectionately referred to as Painting Paul, rings the doorbell, and Jones greets him in blue-and-lavender-plaid pajama pants and plush bedroom slippers, topless in the wide-open door frame. Later, a married couple arrives whose last name sounds similar to another word for person. “The Persons are here!” shouts Blum, shaking his shoulder-length sandy-blond hair. Once all the guests are accounted for, the discussion centers on which movie to watch. Blum suggests Gravity, but Painting Paul vetoes it: “That’s too heavy to watch naked.” We ultimately settle on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, though it mostly plays in the background as we talk about the naturist lifestyle.
Naturism, as compared with nudism, is about more than just not wearing clothes. To hear a room full of naked naturists tell it, the main difference is one’s state of mind. Nudism is the practice of going naked in a nonsexualized setting. Easy enough. “Naturism isn’t just about going naked,” Jones explains. “It has ideals and values behind it, like respect for oneself and others, respecting nature, the environment, accepting people as they are.”
Jones is a third-generation nudie raised at the New Jersey naturist resort Rock Lodge, where her grandparents raised her father and where he brought her mother to live in the 1980s. Jones’s parents are now divorced, but her mother remains a year-round Rock Lodge resident, helping run the place when it’s in season. She and Jones’s father live in separate cabins on the grounds.
When I first met Jones months earlier, she was jazzed about a new business venture she, her fiancé and a few of their nudie friends were starting: a nude spa in New Jersey. Terlam—a combination of the French words terre, meaning “earth,” and l’ame, meaning “the soul” (“Like ‘soul of the earth,’ ” Jones explained)—would offer all the usual spa and fitness-center activities within a safe, nude-friendly setting, no Lululemon leggings required. Unfortunately, after being open less than six months, the spa was forced to close. Unexpected repair costs and a slow summer season were in part to blame, but the underlying feeling was that much of the community around Fords, New Jersey just wasn’t ready for a nude business.
Now Jones, fully nude but for a pair of ankle socks, sits cross-legged as she updates the YNA Facebook page, solemn face, pale eyebrows, little mouth scrunched in concentration. She worked briefly as a receptionist at a French school in Manhattan, but these days Young Naturists America is a full-time job. Jen, a 30-year-old nurse with long, straight dark-brown hair and a lanky young body, passes around her iPhone: It’s February 14 (I promised my boyfriend we’d celebrate tomorrow; I have to be nude with other people tonight) and someone has just texted her a photo of a pair of hairless testicles shifted into the shape of a heart with HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY written below.
Sitting in a room of young nudists raises a lot of questions. How do you know you’re a nudist? Are nudists always naked at home? Do nudists care about fashion? Jen does; she’s into it. Jones says wearily that she “doesn’t give a shit anymore.” I can see how nudism may come easier to a person like Jones than to others: She bears a resemblance to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—cinched waist, pert breasts, romantically unkempt strawberry hair, young taut skin. Saggy old hippies these people are not.
“One thing about being naked,” says one of the Persons, “is that it forces everyone to confront themselves. It’s like, Okay, I’m naked. Now what?”
“Now let’s get high,” someone says.
“Okay, we’re naked and high. Now what?”
Someone points out that the brownies are vegan but also special.
“Shit, I just got salsa on my penis,” says Painting Paul. Everyone laughs.
Yes, nudity has a whole new look. Once a subculture stereotyped as droopy baby boomers baring all at Indiana retreats, nudism is attracting a hipper, perkier audience. This new generation of nudists meets up in cool New York City neighborhoods for clothing-optional art openings and “Naked Meditation With Crystals and Raw Vegan Chocolate.” The happenings are designed to cater to naked-friendly 20-somethings who may choose to skip Burning Man or Coachella and attend nudie events such as Bodyfest and Nudestock or run a naked 5K in Florida. If they need something more challenging, this June nudies can attend the second annual Mud, Sweat and Boobs, a clothing-optional 5K obstacle course in Burlington, Wisconsin that promises to be part Tough Mudder, part nudist resort. Proceeds benefit breast- and testicular-cancer charities.
But getting naked isn’t as easy as it sounds. Laws vary drastically from state to state and involve a jumble of terms and definitions that occasionally fail to differentiate between illicit lewd behavior and something as benign as nude sunbathing. For example, since 1992 it has been legal in New York for women to go topless in public, while in Alabama a woman could be found guilty of indecent exposure and forced to register as a sex offender. Even legal toplessness has its problems, as women are often targeted by police officers clueless about the laws and charged with disorderly conduct or obstructing traffic.
At seven o’clock on a Monday morning in 2011, artist Zefrey Throwell launched Ocularpation: Wall Street, a five-minute performance-art piece in which 50 naked men and women each acted out a Wall Street profession, from sweeping the street to sitting at a desk. The piece was intended to be a social critique “in the spirit of a Freudian nightmare and to draw attention to the absurdity of the modern economic model.” Three participants were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, including Jones.
“I didn’t think I was going to get arrested,” she tells me over a lunch of vegan quiche as she sits perched in the loftlike seating area above a Williamsburg yoga studio’s veggie café. “We had meetings beforehand and Zefrey brought it up, but it didn’t sound likely.”
Jones’s assignment that day was dog walker, and she came equipped with a joke dog leash attached to an invisible dog. She took off her top and began walking. “I was totally topless and barefoot, wearing only capri pants,” she says.
An officer immediately confronted her and, after she’d put her shirt back on, handcuffed her. “I tried telling him it was legal for me to be topless,” she says, “but he wouldn’t listen. He didn’t know. He had no idea.”
Jones spent a few hours in a holding cell. “I was really upset. I’d never been arrested before,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought they might send me to Bellevue. It wouldn’t be the first time they sent a topless girl to Bellevue. They’ve done it before”—to Phoenix Feeley, who was arrested after going topless for a walk in New York City. “The guy thought I was nuts.”
It’s not just law enforcement that has nudists feeling persecuted. Social media websites including Facebook and Instagram (which was acquired by Facebook in 2012) routinely remove images containing nudity and have been known to deactivate accounts of users who post photos of topless females, even those breast-feeding or sunbathing. The practice has spawned minor protests, including the #FreeTheNipple hashtag. It has also attracted a growing number of celebrity supporters such as supermodel Cara Delevingne and Miley Cyrus, who posted a topless photo with the caption “Some lame a—— deff gonna (flag) dat (s———) but f———k it #practicewhatchupreach #FreeTheNipple.” Instagram promptly removed it.
Scout Willis, the 23-year-old daughter of actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, whose Instagram account was deleted last year due to “instances of abuse,” took to the streets herself. Topless, Willis strode through lower Manhattan wearing nothing but tan flat shoes, a knee-length skirt patterned with flowers and a black purse slung over her bare shoulder. Paparazzi captured her bare-breasted jaunt. Google “Scout Willis nipple” and you’ll see her bent over in front of a bodega, casually smelling a bouquet of roses.
Willis explained her motivation in an essay published on the website XO Jane. “What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body—and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.”
A few months after Naked Movie Night, freezing winter blizzards having given way to another balmy New York summer, the Young Naturists gather in Columbus Circle to celebrate New York City Bodypainting Day. The festivities include more than 40 nude models and a crew of body painters coming together for a live demonstration of the art and a celebratory open-air exhibition.
In 2011, Andy Golub, the artist and preeminent body painter who dreamed up the event, and several of his models were arrested during a public body-painting session. With the help of his lawyer Ron Kuby and the New York Civil Liberties Union, Golub forced the NYPD to acknowledge that live nude body painting is a valid performance art and not a criminal offense. Bodypainting Day now stands as a minor victory for nudism and a cause for celebration.
We’re gathered in the garden patio of the POP Bar in Astoria, Queens. It’s daytime and the bar (owned by a friend) is closed, so Golub is using the outdoor space as a makeshift studio. He’s painting Jones and another nude model, Stacey Lunin, for a follow-up segment about Golub and Bodypainting Day that Fox News will air later in the week.
“It was insane. The vibe was like this vibe I’ve never experienced anywhere,” Golub explains about the 2014 event. He wears a T-shirt featuring a printed copy of his signature style of body paint, expressionistic faces swirled together in shades of blue with hooked noses and wild, cartoonish eyes. Parked out front, his sedan is wrapped in the same custom print. For this year’s Bodypainting Day, Golub rented a double-decker bus to haul his living canvases around the city, stopping for a public display in Times Square. “And it wasn’t just me; it was this vibe that was, like, crazy,” he says.
But is nudism really attracting a younger crowd? A growing number of nudist and naturist events take place across the country each summer, including Naked Spring Bash, hosted by the Florida Young Naturists. This one, targeting 18- to 35-year-olds, features nude volleyball, an inflatable slide, body painting, midnight skinny-dipping and yoga workshops.
I decide to attend a similarly advertised summer weekend, Bodyfest 2014, a nudist and nude-freedom event at Lupin Lodge in Los Gatos, California. Bodyfest advertises contests both physical and creative, plus music, dance performances, yoga, massages and more body-freedom fun. Nomad, the organizer behind Bodyfest, also runs PhotoNaturals.com, which hosts and promotes year-round nudist activities. He has promised the biggest Bodyfest yet, with lots of young people.
That’s not exactly what I find when I arrive at Lupin Lodge, a tired, clothing-optional campground crowded with trailers for year-round living, a pool and a main lodge with a small cafeteria kitchen that raises a few questions about rules regarding naked food prep. The crowd of about 100 at the resort this day are mostly older, and some have lived here for many years. But about 30 young people are here, many of them first-time nudists who learned about Bodyfest on the social-event network Meetup.com and drove up from San Francisco to give it a go. Maybe young nudists just haven’t found their place yet.
“My friends in the area weren’t too keen on joining,” says a young Southeast Asian man in Crocs and rimless glasses who has just relocated to San Francisco from Massachusetts. “But I figured everything’s worth a try. Well, almost everything.” He wanders alone, drifting in and out of conversation circles, for most of the day.
At a lunch table in the main lodge I meet what seems to be the core group of young nudists in attendance. Maris is a curly-haired blonde raw vegan who, despite living a nude lifestyle on communal acreage in northern California, has never before used conventional sunscreen. Her tan is wheaty and beautiful, her body trim. She sits with Mia and Jonathan, a polyamorous couple who look like siblings, complete with the same long rusty ponytail, plain face and stomach paunch. They wear matching necklaces: a sterling-silver heart with an infinity loop coiled around it—the international symbol for polyamory. Their girlfriend Rose wears one too.
There is also Laura, gorgeous with fair skin, shiny dark hair and bright blue eyes. She looks like a bigger-breasted nude Liv Tyler. She’s involved in the Burning Man scene and found out about Bodyfest through a friend on OkCupid. Her boyfriend isn’t into nudism but doesn’t mind Laura participating. She wears combat boots in the baking sun. When it comes time to take the big Bodyfest 2014 group photo, Laura retreats into the lodge. “If I’m going to be naked on the internet, I better get paid for it,” she says.
Fair enough. Photos uploaded from nudist events are easily spread across voyeuristic porn sites, where they’re passed from site to site. Laura isn’t the only one concerned about the public sharing of her private socializing. Another man I meet, Chris, bald and shaved from top to toe—and everywhere in between—tells me about the time he was forwarded a link to a voyeuristic porn site, where he and a female friend could be seen frolicking on a naked beach, the camera quite obviously hidden out of sight in a dune.
Not that there aren’t plenty of young people willing to get naked on-screen. In the past year, tiring of the de rigueur cat fights and forced love connections, reality television has brought us such nude programming as Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid. Each week the show places a pair of total strangers (a man and a woman) in the middle of a remote wilderness, Survivor-style, without water, tools, food—or clothes. Last summer VH1 premiered Dating Naked, on which total strangers are brought to paradise (a seaside Panama resort this time) and paired off for various prefabricated dream dates in the buff: horseback riding, zip-lining, spearfishing, all sans clothes. “When I met you I saw everything / I know you now,” trills the theme song’s chanteuse as two pairs of tan legs skip toward the water, pants and undies flung into the sand.
“I was surprised, pleasantly, that so many people were interested enough in the genuine aspect of the social experiment that they were willing to be naked,” says executive producer Rob LaPlante.
The premise of the show was no secret during casting, but LaPlante wanted nude newbies, not people for whom it was “second nature, no big deal.” Ultimately, some contestants found it difficult to disrobe when the time came. Others found themselves surprisingly comfortable, proving you don’t really know what you like until you try it. Like all dating reality shows, this one has its share of cat fights, and the dates themselves range from disastrous to promising. It was never the plan, but after filming wrapped, one couple decided to get married. Their wedding was filmed and broadcast as an hour-long special this past September. The bride and groom wore nothing.