For Racked, Jamie Lauren Keiles spends a week at a naturist camp to learn “why people get naked.” As she exercises, sun tans, and square dances her way through a week garbed for the most part only in shoes, she gets stripped not only of inhibitions around her own body, but also of notions around naturist intent: most enthusiasts take off their clothes not for sexual reasons, but simply to feel free.
I was visible as a newcomer by the fact that I was at least 20 years younger than any other guest…I tried my best to answer their questions: How did you find this event? Why are you interested in learning about naturism? It was hard to feel professional with my bare ass on a chair. In my best journalist voice, I told them I wanted to learn why they got naked. This wasn’t really true, but it sounded okay. The leather-skinned woman turned in my direction.
“Well,” she asked, exasperated. “Have you ever been completely nude in the sun?”
After dinner, I walked to the lake, down an isolated trail in a thicket of trees. The sun was not scheduled to set for two more hours. The light came green and filtered through the leaves as I stopped midway to pull off my shirt, then continued down the trail, fully nude except my shoes. A breeze off the lake took stock of every fine mammalian hair on my body. Walking naked in the woods makes you feel like a real goddamn Homo sapiens. My posture looked stupid, like it had been formed in a time before women were dainty. My brain was a mass of electrical signals; I wanted to kill an animal, or maybe be killed by one.
But here, in stretching class, naked old people weren’t a secret. Aging bodies were taken on their own terms — not feared, but accommodated. Without the tell of age-betraying clothes (Costco sneakers, Reagan-era windbreakers), it felt easier to believe that their bodies could be mine. As I watched a woman lift her leg over her head, I wondered if I ever knew anything about time.
At night I walked to the canteen for a square-dancing lesson. I had never square danced before, but I was looking forward to learning something I could take with me out into the clothing-mandatory world. The canteen was a big, open rec room with old arcade games and bad fluorescent lighting. At the center of the floor, the rough shape of a square had already begun to form — three women, four men. It turned out that everyone else already knew how to square dance, with some having square danced their way into adulthood all the way from elementary-school gym class. They forged on with the lesson for my sake only. I felt the familiar flush of gym-class humiliation, except now I was also naked.
The first thing I learned was that square dancing is not the same as line dancing. Line dancing is a synchronized group dance where everyone faces in the same direction and nobody touches. Square dancing is an elaborate coupled dance with lots of touching and changing of partners. My partner was a shy man in black tube socks and a Casio watch. I did not feel eager to have him hold my naked body, but soon he proved a dependable dancer. Our first song was a wife-swapping routine called “Push Ol’ Pa, Push Ol’ Ma.” It opened with a jaunty fiddle and a move called “grand left and right” that involved shaking hands with different partners around a circle. As the ladies traveled clockwise and the men counterclockwise, I took extreme care to connect with each outstretched hand. I shook the hand of a 7-foot-tall man with back hair. I shook the hand of a gay man in pearls. When the song was over, everyone agreed that I was a really good square dancer. It is easy to learn quickly when the risk of failure is grabbing a stranger’s penis.