As a child, I often found myself sitting in the plush avocado green shag carpeting of our wood-paneled mobile home in front of an enormous console television. Back then, television shows portrayed nudity as natural, healthy and altogether groovy. I guess we were living in the mind-expanding aftermath of the Age of Aquarius, but it seemed like free-spirited nude people were everywhere on television when I was a kid. There’s the episode of Three’s Company in which Janet and Mrs. Roper join a protest at a nude beach. Mrs. Roper without her trademark hallucinogenic-patterned muumuu? Oh, Stanley! Norman Fell, who played Stanley Roper, later appears as a nude beach preacher on an episode of Charlie’s Angels. On the Dukes of Hazzard, Bo and Luke have their clothes stolen while skinny-dipping, and when they run into their friend Becky May, she barely comments on their nudity. “A man ain’t truly been insulted,” Luke complains, until he’s stood butt-nekkid in front of a woman and she don’t even notice.”
Even more wholesome shows like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie depict skinny-dipping. I never much liked Little House on the Prairie. What a dark and morbid show! The show’s skinny-dipping episode is no exception. While swimming in a pond, Laura’s friend Ellen tragically drowns, and Ellen’s distraught mother has a meltdown, locks Laura in a windowless root cellar and throws her a deranged birthday party. Yikes! This episode isn’t as disturbing as the one where Albert descends into morphine addiction, or the episode where Walnut Grove’s typhus epidemic is traced to a corn meal shed that is squirming with hundreds of diseased rats, but it still gave me nightmares. I’d rather think about the episode of CHiPs where Ponch and Jon discover Julie Newmar operating her own nude beach. “Freedom from fabrics!” she exclaims. “Isn’t that a lovely philosophy?”
Society seemed a whole lot more causal about nudity back then. I guess we were earthier, grooving out to our John Denver albums and decorating our homes with handcrafted macramé owls and velvet paintings of magic mushrooms. There used to be a custom van in my town that featured an airbrushed scene of a nude man and woman overlooking a psychedelic forest populated by an unlikely menagerie of frolicking whitetail deer and tropical birds of paradise. Brown velvet curtains concealed the interior, but I was certain the van featured a minibar, deep pile carpeting, and an 8-track stereo system that played the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I remember standing with several childhood friends in the parking lot of our grocery store, mesmerized by the van’s hippy-dippy, larger-than-life Adam and Eve painting. “It might be cool to live out in the woods, all naked like that,” a friend pondered, and I nodded in agreement.
The seed had been planted.
Is nudism tougher to market nowadays, now that we’ve lost our back-to-nature sensibility? Now that we don’t daydream about living naked out in the woods? Now that we don’t macramé owls while humming along to Rocky Mountain High? Modern life seems so cold and austere. Look at our homes. I always think our sleek, modern kitchens resemble some sort of clinic where frightened patients undergo unpleasant medical procedures. I can’t imagine a mouthwatering meatloaf or a peach pie coming out of a stainless-steel oven. They look like they should hold test tubes rather than casserole dishes, and they’d certainly be out of place in the far-out Brady Bunch kitchen, that’s for sure. Come to think of it, even the Brady Bunch had an episode about skinny-dipping. It’s a sunshine day! Everybody’s smiling!
It seems like we’ve resolved ourselves to promoting nudism as some kind of self-improvement program that can address a variety of psychological issues we didn’t even know we had. I think this makes nudism seem about as appealing as that yogurt that promises to correct digestive issues by colonizing your intestines with “healthy bacteria.” I’m just not convinced that this approach inspires people the way I was inspired by my skinny-dipping childhood television heroes, or by the airbrushed Garden of Eden on that disco-era custom van.
How do we make nudism cool again? How do we remind folks that running around naked in the woods is a delirious celebration of human freedom? How do we pull people away from their smartphones and back into nature? I don’t know. We seem to be getting back some of our earthy sensibility. Folks are shopping for organic foods at farmer’s markets, installing chicken coops in inner-city yards, and twenty year-old men are sporting Grizzly Adams beards. There’s clearly been a surge of younger nudists in recent years, and I met countless newcomers at my camp during the last three or four years. Maybe nudism is one of those crazy ideas that goes out of style for a while, only to be rediscovered and reenergized by a new generation? I hope so, because I think nudism is pretty cool.
And I hope airbrushed custom vans regain their popularity, because I think they’re pretty cool too.