The rain falls slowly at first, dripping from the pine tree branches one drop at a time as if taking turns making the plunge toward the soft dirt road. Drip. Drop. As dark clouds huddle together above the forested landscape, the rain begins to fall more quickly and heavily. Muddy pools form at the base of the white cardboard sign at the edge of the road, smudging the three-word message in navy blue letters:
LOSE YOUR CLOTHES.
Farther up the well-trodden road, nestled on a densely wooded hill in Marcola, Oregon, a colorful gate stretches across the path, blocking the entry. Carved from metal and painted in various shades of yellow, orange, and green, the gate depicts three ethereal figures floating peacefully around a central sun. Slick with rain, the figures seem to shine through the biting February air. Together they welcome both newcomers and longtime members to the Willamettans Family Nudist Resort.
“We’re just one big family,” says Sue Ott, current president of the Willamettans. “We come here to play and have fun—even in the crummy weather.”
On the other side of the multihued gate, past the main office and through a neighborhood of weathered mobile homes, the club’s members gather around an in-ground fire pit, chatting, laughing, cooking hot dogs, and roasting s’mores. And they’re all clothed. A toddler waddles from the shelter of the overhang in a puffy pink jacket, while older members mill around in robes, sweat pants, Oregon Duck sweatshirts, and Oregon State University Beaver beanies.
“For most of us, it’s a matter of convenience and comfort,” Ott says. “We’re not crazy. When it’s cold, we wear clothes. But others are die-hard nudists, even if there’s snow on the ground.”
Bill Balfour, Willamettans membership committee chair and longtime nudist, says he wears clothes under three circumstances: when the law requires it, when the weather dictates it, and because a job necessitates it.
“I’m not exactly going to tackle tree-trimming in the nude,” Balfour says. “But in general, yeah, clothes are overrated.”
Founded in 1953, the Willamettans is one of nine nudist clubs in Oregon. The group operates year-round, often experiencing higher membership in warmer months. The Willamettans grounds include a swimming pool and tennis court, a restaurant called “Rest-ur-Rump,” a gift shop called “The Bun Marche,” and plenty of wide, open spaces for activities like the hot dog roast. There’s even a chapel where Ott says marriages are a regular occurrence.
“Three of our members are ordained ministers,” Ott says. “I remember one wedding we had where the bride was wearing nothing but a veil and a garter, and the groom just had a bow tie.”
There is a strong sense of community in nudist clubs, where members come from a wide range of backgrounds. According to Ott, members can be as diverse as little old ladies to high-class executives.
“Nudism isn’t an art. It’s not a science, a religion, or a sport. You don’t have to study it,” says Jerry Niehuser, president of the travel nudist club The Central Oregon Tumbleweeds. “That’s why nudism doesn’t attract one specific group of people.”
But it does attract controversy. The morality of nudism in mainstream society has been an unfailing source of scandal in American culture. Through the centuries, the act of baring it all has been accepted as the divine subject of exalted art, pigeonholed as an activity reserved for hippies, scrutinized as inappropriate for public viewing, and acknowledged as an important step toward body acceptance. Ultimately, nudity has been misunderstood by the general public, commonly leading to a sense of shame and awkwardness around the subject.
Starting with the early Egyptians in 1385 BC, nudism was recognized as necessary for spiritual growth and physical advancement. Grecian athletes commonly trained in the buff in gymnasiums, a word that originates from the root word ‘gymnos,’ meaning ‘naked.’ According to Dr. Aileen Goodson’s book Therapy, Nudity and Joy, the Indian religious figure Ajivakas “demanded complete nudity from his disciples as part of their spiritual discipline.” The human body was often chosen as the subject of fine art, such as with Michelangelo’s David.
The Reformation period of the 16th century marked a decisive change in attitudes toward nudism. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, “early Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discounted depictions of nakedness.”
Religious ideologies pushed the idea of constrictive clothing and limited skin exposure
well into the Victorian era. Body shame was now deeply ingrained into mainstream culture. The 1950s and 1960s saw a rise in nudism as a method of protest and rebellion until the movement eventually died down. Today, nudists say their open lifestyle is a return to the rituals of their ancestors.
“It’s about being yourself,” says BJ Kinman, who is married to the former president of the Willamettans Family Nudist Resort. “Whether you’re rich or poor, you learn with your heart. If you’re nude, you can’t tell if someone is rich or poor, but you can see their heart and you can see who they really are.”
Still, the peaceful practice of modern nudism isn’t without strife. In January of last year, ABC International reported that a man from London was charged with public nudity. He later appeared in court, still naked. Eight months later, in September 2011, a “Nude-In” took place on the streets of San Francisco, protesting a city law that would require nudists to place a protective covering such as a newspaper on a chair before sitting down in public. Jim Trenary, founder of the Bare Spirits nudist travel club in the Oregon Willamette Valley, says that one of the basic rules of nudist etiquette is to “always bring a towel to sit on,” rendering the California law unnecessary.
When not in the news for political reasons, nudist activities still appear on the media circuit. In a 2010 episode of Oprah, a Chesapeake, Virginia woman said she preferred to clean her house naked. In a later segment on the show, an audience poll found that 20 percent of viewers sometimes preferred to perform household chores while nude as well.
Niehuser says he’s surprised that nudism receives as much attention as it does, as “there are limited subjects to talk about.”
“It’s just a natural liberty,” he says. “But it’s worth talking about to let people know that it’s not weird or unusual.”
According to the American Association for Nudist Recreation (AANR), there are more
than 260 nudist resorts in North America alone. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2003 that nudist vacations are a burgeoning $400 million industry. Oregon hosts ten nudist clubs and resorts, including the Central Oregon Tumbleweeds, Bare Spirits, and the Willamettans Family Nudist Resort.
Located on a forty-acre parcel of land, Willamettans is registered with the state as an RV park. While members are allowed to bring camping supplies such as tents and trailers onto the grounds during weekends and vacations, the group cannot build new cabins on the land. The few cabins that currently exist on Willamettans grounds were “grandfathered in through past zoning laws,” says John Kinman, who previously served as the president of AANR and the Willamettans Resort.
The club is governed by a nine-member board consisting of a president, first and second vice presidents, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a certifying office, two members at large, and a treasurer.
“Together, they do the same business any other club would do,” Kinman says. “Like any other organization, we have to abide by Oregon insurance and tax laws, [Oregon Liquor Control Commission] regulations, and health department inspections. There’s nothing particularly special about our club except that we’re naked.”
But that element alone is reason enough to develop a scrutinizing screening process for new members. Prospective members must complete an application and an in-person interview before current members vote on admittance.
“We meet with applicants to figure out if we like them or not,” says Niehuser, who uses a similar screening process for the Central Oregon Tumbleweeds. “You can tell if a person is decent or not pretty darn quick when you meet them in person.”
Both the Willamettans resort and the Tumbleweeds travel club perform applicant background checks. If an applicant was previously removed from a nudist club for inappropriate behavior, the action is recorded in an AANR database.
“And then I can’t think of a single nudist club that would let them in,” Niehuser says.
Nudist resorts take measures to prevent uncomfortable or inappropriate behavior by following the general rules of etiquette established through AANR, as well as the rules established by each individual club.
“The rules are really just common courtesy,” Kinman says.
Jim Ternary, founder of Bare Spirits, says these rules forbid taking photographs without a person’s explicit permission, promotion of “swinger” behavior, and behaving in a way that could be construed as overtly sexual.
That last rule is one that frequently worries first-time nudists.
“The first question every man asks when he calls about the club is, ‘What do I do if I [become physically excited]?” Kinman says. “But that just doesn’t happen. Around here, it’s relaxing, not stimulating.”
Children’s participation in nudist culture is also a common point of concern, but according to the AANR website, “Children are natural nudists.”
“I think kids raised in a nudist environment are less likely to ask awkward questions because it’s all so natural to them,” says Kinman, who has practiced nudism since he was a child.
Evelyn Clements, who frequents the Willamettans club with her husband, James, and eleven-year-old son, Kaleb, agrees that communication is key when practicing nudism as a family.
“It’s very important for us to talk,” Clements says. “We want to make sure that Kaleb knows people come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all beautiful.”
Kaleb says he loves the children’s activities offered at the club.
“I was nervous at first, but then I started to make friends,” Kaleb says. “I don’t care what people say—it’s awesome here.”
To an outside observer accustomed to wearing clothes for every occasion, the practice may seem bizarre.
“People are usually nude only at certain times of their lives,” Niehuser says. “They’re nude in the shower and during sexual activity, which is just practical. So to be nude at any other time than that seems impractical to most people.”
Despite the impracticality, nudists are wholeheartedly secure in their choice to hang loose. Like Kaleb, who proudly stripped down in the chilly weather with his mother and a dozen other members to participate in the club’s water volleyball tournament, members of these nudist clubs promulgate a sense of confidence, self-assuredness, and personal freedom.
That is exactly the message they hope to perpetuate.
“I don’t know whether to use the word ‘relaxation’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘confidence,’” Kinman says.
“Being a nudist is about being yourself and openly experiencing the world. I want to be able to wake up, grab my cup of coffee, and walk out on to the deck with nothing on and greet the morning sun.”