Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism

Congratulations to Brian Hoffman, who has turned years of dedicated research and academic presentations into a thorough yet relatively succinct and well organized history of organized nudist movements in the United States, including an epilogue bringing us right up to the present. In Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, the author’s focus on legal decisions serves to articulate exactly how it is that organized nudism has influenced, and been influenced by, sexual mores in the US.

Hoffman gracefully traces a chronological trajectory from early 20th-century attempts at organized urban nudism in Chicago and New York, to the escapes to the countryside and the strengthening of the American Sunbathing Association (ASA), followed by the controversies over nudity in magazines and films, on through to the smattering of free beach movements in the 1970s that led to the formation of The Naturist Society.

In his acknowledgements, Hoffman clarifies that he was raised in a nude-friendly household and environment, only to learn as he grew older that not everyone had been raised that way. This discovery, he says, “sparked my interest in the cultural attitudes and anxieties that define nakedness in the United States” (xii), eventually spurring him on to conduct very extensive research at many archives, including the American Nudist Research Library. His study focuses on the on-again/off-again relationship that nudism has had (and continues to have) with eroticism, searching to identify positive aspects of this association (and, yes, there have been positive aspects) alongside the negative: “The coexistence of the erotic and the therapeutic put nudists’ claims to respectability at risk. However, it also allowed the movement to build on the natural settings of its camps, to grow its membership, and to sustain a place in American society and culture” (50).

One of the more obvious overlaps of the erotic and the therapeutic, which Hoffman covers in detail, is the popularity that Sunshine & Health, flagship magazine of the ASA, enjoyed among American troops overseas, and the consequent balance that ASA leader Ilsley Boone sought between promoting the health benefits of social nudity while recognizing the need to sell magazines. “Displaying more graphic images than most pinups but under the guise of a health movement, Sunshine & Health directed troops’ attention away from prostitutes while still maintaining the appearance of respectability” (116). Yet many soldiers who had learned of nudism through the magazine, upon returning to the US as WWII veterans, were rejected at nudist clubs for being “single males.” This, in turn, led the Sunshine & Health editors to begin featuring regular columns about nudism for women, in an effort to balance the genders in the nudist population. In fact, the middle third or so of Hoffman’s study reads like a history of Sunshine & Health and what it represented for the ASA (the American Sunbathing Association did not become today’s AANR until 1994). Another interesting reading of Hoffman’s study is as a history of the American Civil Liberties Union – its foundation and its repeated defense of nudist organizations form an important thread throughout the book. Hoffman deftly analyzes key legal decisions in a way that the reader can appreciate the pioneering liberal thought of justice John D. Voelker in Michigan v. Hildabridle, for example, or the contorted definitions of judge James Kirkland in Sunshine Book Company v. Summerfield.

Hoffman covers skillfully and in depth the contributions of well-known sociologist Maurice Parmelee, first to author a book-length interpretation of nudism in English (Nudism in Modern Life, 1931). Some nudists of his time “maintained that the interaction of naked male and female bodies of all age groups would make sex morally healthy” (74); Parmelee saw eroticism as another benefit of nudism, a movement which “had the capacity to redefine eroticism as a necessary component of a healthy relationship” (80). Parmelee’s “controversial” work was eventually defended in a decision by the US Court of Appeals establishing “that any work with scholarly or academic merit could legally display the naked body” (96).

There are some controversies explained by Hoffman that inevitably lead me to feel frustrated that nudists have to keep fighting the same battles over and over again. These include inter-generational strife, conflict among organizations working for the same end, and general disagreements about how to deal with erotic aspects of nudity (today’s “sex-positive” approach) – in other words, all of these polemics have been going on for at least a century. Another example: Sunshine & Health readers and editors of the 1940s and 50s debated what kinds of bodies to show in the magazine: “Many nudists thought that the display of [only] healthy, young, and athletic naked bodies in Sunshine & Health testified to the physical benefits of nudism and encouraged membership growth. […] By incorporating the attractive and unattractive, the magazine tried to balance its goals of presenting the health benefits of the nudist lifestyle, comforting apprehensive potential converts, and avoiding the ire of censors” (114). And just what, exactly, is attractive, and to whom? In fact, the “support of a gay readership furthered the nudist goal to frankly display the naked body of both sexes and pushed the nudist movement to challenge the heteronormative boundaries of modern sexual liberalism” (119). But nudism continued to provoke controversy, and Hoffman illuminates the often painful yet important-to-acknowledge conflicts of its history. Particularly regarding the inclusion of gay and lesbian nudists, and of nudists of a phenotype other than “white,” “American nudists protected themselves from legal troubles by conforming to homophobic, racist, and domestic heterosexual ideals” (132). At least, arguably, there has been as much progress in the early 21st-century on inclusivity among nudists as there has been among the general US population.

Although the ASA was less willing to accommodate diversity–whether of population or of venue–The Naturist Society under the leadership of Lee Baxandall welcomed a multiplicity of viewpoints and approaches toward the legalization of nudity at public beaches and parks. Hoffman shows how the two initially opposing organizations eventually learned to work together while maintaining different areas of concentration, at least officially, in the wake of the 1958 Supreme Court decision that was a win for nudism but “unintentionally created a market of nudist magazines that promoted sexual display far more prominently than they promoted the movement’s principles and ideals” (202-03), coinciding with the beginning of the Southern California porn industry.

Ultimately, “The growing public acceptance of the naked body at newsstands and in theaters meant that the movement’s continuing promotion of health, nature, and family no longer seemed necessary or relevant to the general public. Nudist leaders nevertheless continued to cling to the image of respectability that had helped the movement defeat the censoring of its magazines and films” (207). The sexual revolution’s relation to free beach movements was fundamental, yet difficult to locate in official nudist dogma. Even Baxandall, initially aligning The Naturist Society ideologically with organized feminism, showed resistance to adopting stances he felt to be too radical, such as an approach to nude rights bolstered by the Fourth Amendment. One caveat here is that while Hoffman does devote attention to nudist films and their approximations to the exploitation genre, he does not cite Mark Storey’s work Cinema Au Naturel: A History of Nudist Film, which I think many would argue to be a fundamental source on that topic.

Where does Hoffman’s work stand in relation to other scholarship on nudism? Mark Haskell Smith’s recent Naked at Lunch travelogue, which I reviewed here, is what’s called a “trade book” – Smith conducted plenty of research, but in a trade book the research doesn’t have to be handled or amassed in the same way as in an academic treatise, which is what Hoffman’s work is. Yet Hoffman’s style is also very readable, with his salient points made very clearly, and his topic – limited basically to the 20th-century US – is not as sprawling as what is covered in Cec Cinder’s massive The Nudist Idea. Hoffman’s study is more akin in style to Ruth Barcan’s Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, perhaps, and other academic books that address representations of the “body politic” that challenge societal, legal, governmental, and ecclesiastical structures.

Hoffman has written THE cultural history of United States nudism, and I highly recommend his book for its entirely cohesive, thorough, and illuminating historical portrait of the topic. 331 pages, 29 illustrations (b&w).

2 thoughts on “Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism

  1. Another book you've made me want to read. My two cents:1. As a member of a drawing co-op dominated by baby-boom women, I've noticed some very \”naturist\” notions in our discussions, and it seems like a group of sixty-year olds getting together in people's living rooms once a week to draw naked people owes a lot to nudism.2. Representing ideal figures versus representing ordinary ones is a dilemma for most art, although naturist art ought to favor the latter. One way I try to resolve this in life is by keeping my own oddly proportioned body as toned as it seems to want to be.3. The idea that the co-existence of the erotic and the therapeutic is putting nudist claims of respectability at risk seems to assume that the erotic is not respectable. It would be less than charitable for erotophiles to force their sexuality on other nudists, and I have seen a tiny, tiny bit of nudist sexual harassment. But naturism is \”nature\”-ism not because it happens out in the countryside, but because it reduces our alienation from that part of nature that's under our clothes. Some of what naturists expose is tissue that's very sensitive to tactile pleasure, and is part of what we're alienated from.

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