When you’re in high school, you are often assigned some of the most stultifying pieces of “lit-ra-chuh,” simply because they are considered “classics.” If you’re like me, these books contributed to a hatred of reading, at least of assigned reading. Think of Moby Dick and its countless passages about the minutiae of whaling or Silas Marner, which just sucked.
Well, sad to say, but that’s what reading our historical nudist “lit-ra-chah” is like. Stilted, austere, written through what seems to be fearful eyes; fearful, perhaps, that the days were numbered on the authors’ ways of life. After all, the story is about nudism, which while a curiosity, was probably not well regarded among what would be considered “respectable company.” And given decency laws, historial Puritanism, and (let’s face it) a country that nearly a century later for some of these books has shown little growth about the human body, they probably felt they had to produce books that read like scholarly articles.
These books were a slog. Often the authors treated “the nudists” as though they were anthropologists glancing in on a foreign society. However, each book has at least one author who was or became a nudist at the time of writing. In many respects, though, it seems as though these authors were scared to write from simply their first hand experience. I suppose there wasn’t much room for the authors to write, “Yeah, that’s right! I’m a naturist and it’s awesome!” So you get pages of examples and statistics, semi-scientific polls, and some pseudoscience about the benefits.
Nudism Comes to America by the Merrills (repackaged as Naturism in the United States) presents a survey of attitudes about nudity and in the U.S. when it first arrived on these shores in the 1930s. They interview psychologists, medical doctors, researchers, and artists, among other factions, which is a worthy enterprise. It is as dry as it is worthy, though, though it is nice to see that generally, the professional world didn’t find the pursuit condemnable.
Maurice Parmelee, a sociology professor at CCNY, wrote Nudism in Modern Life, a more intimate account of the nudists/naturists in his social circle. Uncomfortably to today’s eye, Parmelee writes about bodies being beautiful or ugly and about it having a eugenic purpose to create more beautiful people. The comments about ugliness typically apply to women and he even mentions that some should just keep their clothes on. Essential if you’re a completist, but crikey, it’s not necessary.
Nudist Society and Growing up without Shame also provide exhaustive surveys of nudism in this country. The former clocks in at more than 400 pages and you feel every one of them. Published in the early 1970s, the book takes into account the fact that the sexual revolution puts a new wrinkle into the discussion. They dip into history, look at sexual behavior, family nudism, and even people who left the movement. Very long story short, the authors basically find that nudists are pretty normal people in comparison to the rest of society.
Growing up without Shame looks at family nudism and the perspectives of those who grew up as children within the movement. Based on interviews with young people and their habits as they’ve grown up, they determine that there’s no greater chance at deviance than in the clothed world. In fact, one quote in the book is that a naturist venue was “like a church camp,” basically saying, “Hey! We have morals, too.” And really, isn’t this the intention of such a book? To show that we’re good people?
The latter books are more readable, but stuffed with surveys and statistics in an effort to show nudism’s legitimacy. The boredom they induce might be by design. See? say the authors. It’s dry; it’s stuffy, it’s lit-ra-chuh; it’s scholarly! Basically, there’s nothing to see here. These folks are normal. You might be curious, but the movement isn’t turning folks into marauding hordes. In fact, they could be your neighbors.
It’s nice to get a feel for our history, but as Journey might say, “It goes on and on and on and onnnnnnnn……”