I firmly believe that if you want to experience euphoria sans drugs, all you have to do is take off your bra after a long workday. And post-shower, you can often find me wrestling my freshly-lotioned legs into a pair of jeans, muttering questions like, "Why can't I just live my life naked?" The thing is, I can. And some people do. Nudists and naturists participate in plenty of normal activities like swimming, camping, and karaoke without clothes. The degrees of nudity vary—some people are naked pretty much all the time, while others reserve it for social events every so often. But to hear them tell it, life is much better in the nude.
While you may have heard of nudists, chances are you're a little less familiar with naturists. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, some people believe certain nuances classify them as two different bodies. "We define nudism as being more about the actual nudity, while naturism has more of a philosophy behind it," Felicity Jones, 27, a resident of Long Island City, N.Y. and co-founder of Young Naturists America (YNA, and like many other links in this story, that one's potentially NSFW), tells SELF. "It’s about accepting people as they are, and also promoting the values of respecting other people and the environment." Of course, most naturists can't be naked all the time, because laws exist and being naked in jail doesn't sound particularly comfortable. But when they can, they do, and they enjoy the hell out of it.
Let's clear one thing up: Naturism's not about sex.
Sometimes it's easiest to define naturism by describing what it's not. "A lot of people imagine that it’s this amped up sexual environment, like people are having sex in the open or having orgies," says Felicity. "It’s not like that at all. There’s a time and place for everything," she says, while noting that YNA has "very rarely" had to kick people out of events because they're acting inappropriately.
Stateside nudism and naturism have their roots in the American Association for Nude Recreation, which was founded in 1931. With an spotlight on "wholesome nude family recreation," the organization's mission is "to advocate nudity and nude recreation in appropriate settings while educating and informing society of their value and enjoyment," according to their website. Similar institutions cropped up after, like The Naturist Society, which was founded in 1980.
If you're like, wait, record scratch, people are advocating me getting naked with my family...?, you're not alone. But as someone who grew up in a home where bodies weren't a thing to be hidden—we weren't naturists by any stretch of the imagination, but I wasn't taught to fear or shame nudity—I can see why this is worthwhile. So can Felicity, who grew up with a nudity-embracing family in New Jersey and laughingly calls herself a "third-generation naturist." She co-founded YNA in 2010, and to date, they have around 400 members in the States and internationally. In addition to raising awareness about naturism, they put on events like the nude, public Bodypainting Day this coming July 9 in New York and Amsterdam, which they're currently raising funds for on Kickstarter.
Misconceptions about the naturist lifestyle can have far-reaching implications. "When I post naked photos of myself online, I have to deal with sexual harassment, dick pics, and people assuming that because I’m naked I must be looking for sex," says Felicity. And while running YNA is her full-time job, her partner and co-founder works in sales. "His boss and coworkers all know [he's a naturist], but his boss wasn’t comfortable with him using his real name because people will Google before doing business with him," she says. Even though naturism's intentions are innocent, it can be hard for people to see it that way.
So, no, naturism isn't a cover for massive, wild orgies. Felicity and her co-founder started it in the hopes of filling a void in modern nudity-focused communities. "We didn’t want it to be just about getting naked, but creating a body-positive environment and combatting body shame," she says.
Lose the clothes, gain self-esteem?
Naturism fits beautifully into a society that's increasingly open to the idea that "perfection" doesn't exist. "Being a naturist forces you to accept who you see in the mirror," Serenity Hart, 26, a naturist and nude model in New York, N.Y., tells SELF. Growing up as a black girl, she loathed the color of her skin and the texture of her hair. "I wished I could change who I was every day until I found [nude] modeling," she says. "It challenged me to look past the things I couldn't change, but also learn how to embrace them. Nudity has changed my life." A big fan of naturism's confidence-boosting effects, Serenity wants to spread the message. Like basically everything else in the 21st century, she's using the Internet to do it.
Serenity offers Naked Skype Sessions for $30 an hour, or a package deal of $120 for five sessions. She stumbled upon the idea when she answered a friend's Skype call while in the nude. "At first she was uncomfortable and embarrassed for me even, [apologized], and covered her eyes," says Serenity. Then, they got to talking about where this deeply ingrained negative reaction to nudity comes from. "I asked her to join me [in being naked], and she did. So, Naked Skype was born," Serenity explains. "There is nothing more vulnerable then being completely present with a friend or stranger in the nude. No labels, no facade, no judgments, just openness and embracing your true self." She currently has 10 sessions per week with men and women around the world, usually talking about self-love and how to foster positive body image. "The sense of empowerment makes it all worth it for me," she says.
That emphasis on healthy self-image is a cornerstone of YNA's philosophy. That's largely because Felicity realized how beneficial nudity had been to her growing up when she and her family attended the Rock Lodge Nudist Club in northern New Jersey. "I saw the human body in so many different forms," she says. "I wasn’t so influenced by this culture that says if you don’t have a certain body type, you shouldn’t be taking off your clothes."
This is especially important for women. "A lot of the [nudity taboo] is about female breasts and genitals. People don’t see those parts on actual average bodies, so they can have a lot of anxiety," says Felicity. Growing up as a naturist, she was able to appreciate how broad the private-part spectrum is. "You see that they come in all shapes and sizes and can be as unique as a person’s face. That alleviates a lot of body shame and anxiety," she says. Given that American teenagers are more frequently asking for their labia to be trimmed, this message is more crucial than ever. (Especially because in general, women's labia are perfect just the way they are.)
Another essential part of naturism is bonding with the environment. "For me, it's about being able to connect with nature in a way that is impossible while bound in material," Sheila M., 31, a naturist in Northampton, Mass., tells SELF. "It's a chance to be wild and forget all the artificial day-to-day things that people fill their lives with." But one of her other favorite parts of naturism is that she can engage in recreational activities with people who hold the same feelings about how restrictive clothing can be. "My first time playing pool without a top was interesting," she says. "I never knew how boobs can get in the way when trying to play!"
Diversity and the changing face of naturism.
Although naturism celebrates acceptance, it's not as diverse as some would like. Serenity has called the dearth of varied racial representation in the naturist community "daunting at times." "I've traveled to beautiful countries like England, Croatia, and Australia where naturist communities are widely popular, but I still saw low numbers of women of color, if any at all," she says. Instead of letting that feeling edge her out of the lifestyle, she's working to make it more inclusive. "I educate other women of color about naturism and help them explore it," she says.
As a trans woman, Sheila is also navigating what it's like to be a minority in the naturist community. She's on hormone replacement therapy and is hoping to get gender affirming surgery, but since insurance often considers it optional, for now it's too expensive. Although she says "mostly everyone" has been accepting, she has still encountered some prejudice. "Like any group, we have our bad apples. I have run into a few transphobic people on and offline," she says. To fuel their ideas, they call upon misguided notions, like that trans individuals are hypersexual. Some people have also been resistant to Sheila's trans status, as they believe her true gender is based on her genitals.
Luckily, Sheila's made good friends who stick up for her whether she's around or not. And the prejudice isn't common enough to run her off—if anything, she's more likely to get confused reactions that fade into acceptance. "My guess is that people expect others to appear cisgender [when a person's gender identity matches their genitals], so seeing someone who doesn't fit that makes them double-take," says Sheila. "But eventually it becomes a non-issue, and I blend in like anyone else there."
Even before talking to these women, I considered myself extremely accepting of nudity. But after digging deeper and discovering the lifestyle's confidence-related benefits, I see that nudity can solve so much more than the fact that pants can feel like leg prisons. I have to admit that when Felicity invited me to participate in the upcoming Bodypainting Day event, the opportunity sparked some temptation. But in the end, I had to say no. Even though my self-esteem is quite solid, I'm not brave enough to show the world everything I've got. Although I'll be keeping the rest of my clothes on, my hat's off to anyone who is.