You know that dream you have where you're in a restaurant, or the office, and you suddenly realize that you don't have any pants on?
Well, that happened to me recently -- only it wasn't a dream. I was sitting in a cozy dining room at a private members' club near Markham, Ont., entirely naked, interviewing a man whose only coverings were spectacles and a giant grey handlebar moustache.
He was eating peanuts and explaining the virtues of "naturism" as a way of life, while I took notes and tried, ever so subtly, to lower my chest below the table line. It wasn't the alarmed self-consciousness you feel in the dream, so much as a feeling of ringing surreality. Naked people are strolling past me and chatting with one another as if the last thing they're aware of is that they have no clothes on.
Lest you think I do this all the time, let me explain that I was on assignment at Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park for Best Health magazine. I had been asked to test the theory that women can learn to love their bodies by casting away their shame.
"Are you freakin' serious?" I asked Bonnie, my editor, when she first broached the subject. I'd rather be stuck in an elevator with bees than show my private parts to random strangers. How about she volunteer to do it? Because I flat-out refused.
Then I started growing curious. I looked at this place's website, and noticed that female naturists were often plump or wrinkly. My teenaged daughter has been giving me a hard time of late for being so self-conscious about being in my 40s. How did these naturist women feel so comfortable? Did I dare find out first-hand?
Says Stephane Deschenes, the moustachioed 46-year-old owner of Bare Oaks: "Women don't see one another nude that often, so they don't realize the diversity of shapes and sizes. Their most common reason for trying naturism is that they want to find a better way to be comfortable with themselves. They get to be nude, but still feel powerful." He adds that it's not uncommon for women to be dragged along reluctantly by husbands or boyfriends (or pushed there by pestering editors) only to discover that they actually enjoy the experience.
Deschenes himself fell in love with naturism in his 20s as a liberating kind of rebellion, after being so self-conscious of his body that he regularly skipped gym class. "There's nothing more fascinating than nudity when it comes to how screwed up we are," he says. I can't remember if he made this observation while we were sitting naked in a hot tub, or earlier when I'd first met him and we were both wearing parkas and mittens.
Making the transition to naturism on one of the coldest days of winter added an interesting twist. I had finally relented to doing this story on the condition I didn't have to spend a weekend there; it would be a Saturday afternoon dash through the experience. Like doing the polar-bear swim.
Deschenes drove me to his 20-hectare camp, turning off the highway at a sign that proclaimed "Naked People Beyond This Point." He parked outside a brick bungalow and we tramped inside with snow on our boots, breath still visible, and were greeted by two nude staff members who ought somehow to have felt chilly, but didn't look it. (Upon reflection, the older gentleman working the reception desk was wearing thigh-high socks. And nothing else.)
Bare Oaks functions as a five-room guesthouse and club in winter, and a trailer park and campground in summer, when families come to frolic in the sunshine, splash in a small lake and lounge by a pool. I was shown to a guest room, where I was to take off my boots, socks, pants, scarf, sweater, shirt, bra and underwear, and rejoin my host for a tour.
Please note: The last time I was happy with my body was approximately 1989, and I have not worn a bathing suit without a sarong wrapped around me since Britney Spears released "Toxic." My son is at the pre-adolescent stage when, if he accidentally encounters me changing, he rears up in horror, as if beholding Medusa. My loving husband doesn't tend to comment, one way or the other, so I'm not exactly swimming in a sea of positive feelings about my body.
Under the circumstances, exiting the guest room at Bare Oaks with nothing to protect me but a six-by-four-inch reporter's notebook was almost impossible. Essentially, I had to go into massive denial: I am not walking naked down this hallway in a public place, it isn't happening...la, la, la....
Walking toward the hot tub area, with Deschenes following behind and prattling away about his renovation plans, I felt like my rear end was radioactively glowing. I placed one hand casually on my hip so that the towel he'd handed me could drape over my behind.
Although there weren't vast numbers of people around--on this cold day, a darts tournament appeared to have been postponed--Bare Oaks has more than 500 members and a rotating staff of 12, with 16 families on the waiting list for trailer plots. Deschenes says there are 16 other naturist organizations and clubs in Ontario, and many more across the country. As far as he knows, though, there are no entire communities of people living this lifestyle full-time (the so-called nudist colonies), often associated with '60s-era California.
Deschenes took me to the solarium and turned on the hot tub, so that I could ease my transition to naturism by lurking beneath the bubbles like a frightened reptile. He sat with his arms flung out, a man in his element, and gave me more details on the movement.
Patrons come from every religious background, including Muslim, he says, and from all age groups. "There is," he adds, "a slight correlation to higher education and higher income." Research commissioned by the Federation of Canadian Naturists suggests that nine percent of Canadians have either gone to or would like to go to a nude beach or resort. How many of those are naturists, as opposed to exhibitionists or swingers, is unclear. But at Bare Oaks, swingers are pointedly unwelcome.
Naturism's core values are "respect for self, respect for others, respect for the environment." The movement began in Germany in the late 19th century, an era when most Europeans went about thoroughly covered and pale. Naturism arose partly for health reasons, advocating exposure to sunshine and fresh air, but also as a rejection of Victorian-era body phobia. The first book on the subject was written in German by enthusiast Heinrich Scham and published in 1894. The title of the translated version, which Bare Oaks sells, is Naked People: A Triumph-Shout of the Future. (I had to buy a copy, because...what a fabulous title.) Naturism thrives in Europe, particularly France.
It has also found a fervent following among some American fundamentalist Christians, according to Deschenes. "There is something spiritual about this lifestyle," he muses, "especially outside in the summer. The breeze, the sunlight.... You feel closer to God." (Interestingly, one of the leading Christian naturists, Jim Cunningham, is blind.)
What made my own debut into naturism endurable, in the end, was the total indifference toward me of everyone else there. It wasn't because there were better-looking women for others to ogle. It was that everyone's body was neutral and commonplace, so nobody paid attention. At one point, I found myself chatting in the gift shop with a curvy, smooth-shouldered woman from Alberta -- who wore only a pretty necklace -- about living in Ontario, what bus her kid took to school, the weather. When a delivery man blew through the door fully clothed, I received my first and only curious look of the day; thankfully, it was fleeting.
In the hot tub, Deschenes told me a story that, for him, exemplifies everything he loves about naturism. One summer, a woman was swimming in Bare Oaks' pool in her bikini. Staff asked if she could be more discreet about her discomfort with nudity--maybe hang out in an area of the park that was less crowded. She removed her bottoms but wanted to keep her top on, explaining in embarrassment that she'd had a mastectomy. Assured by staff that no one would judge, she lost the top, and later thanked them for making her feel, in her words, okay about who she was.
Naturism is like a parallel universe, where all the social rules we know have gone upside down. Everyone is bare, but no one is leering. You offend others if you're dressed. And imperfection is the norm.
Driving home, it occurred to me that when I disrobed, I unlearned a few assumptions about how I felt I deserved to be viewed. It's an interesting shift in headspace. As my daughter points out, there are big women like Queen Latifah who basically own others' perceptions of how they look: They're sexy because they say they are, and their confidence shows it.
Now that I've survived being naked, that's an attitude I wouldn't mind trying on.
This blog is reprinted with permission from the May 2012Best Healthmagazine. Copyright (c) 2012 by Reader's Magazines Canada Limited. Further reproduction, distribution or internet posting strictly prohibited.