Suburban Nudism As Normal: “Rethinking of the American [and Canadian] Suburbs”

In her published article entitled Naked Houses: The Architecture of Nudism and the Rethinking of the American Suburbs (November 21, 2015), Sarah Schrank of the Department of History, California State University [sarah.schrank@csulb.edu] argued that “the existence of suburban nudism forces a reconsideration of suburban conservatism while acknowledging how neatly alternative lifestyles fit into a postwar domestic ideology of atomized family life and consumer capitalism.”

Lifestyles, like everything else, are a function of time, place, and circumstance. Nudists (aka Naturists) are no exception of course and therefore can best be explained by when they live, where they live, and how they live. The nudist/naturist movement in the Western world goes back over 120 years, and has influenced individuals, families, and entrepreneurs in over 120 countries (see the current INF World Guide). There are now estimated to be over 30 million card-carrying naturists/nudists across the globe. Most are urban and middle-class. So although researchers have found them to be primarily white, middle-class, and living in Europe or North America, this does not diminish the growing numbers from the other classes and ethnicities worldwide. Most known nudists/naturists live in the nude in their homes, either totally or optionally whether urban or rural, and partake of social nudism recreationally at resorts scattered across, for example, the US and Canada. Here they can shed the “poisonous sexual and other hang-ups [about body acceptance] of mainstream society” (Schrank). The goal of accepted nudity as the ‘new norm’ is implicit in such well-known texts as Dr. Aileen Goodson’s Therapy, Nudity & Joy (Elysium Press, 1991), and has been acknowledged as a ” ‘must read’ for parents who want their children to develop healthy attitudes and behaviors about their bodies and their sexuality. The ability to understand nudity and sexuality as separate, but sometimes compatible phenomena will protect against sexual exploitation, guilt, and low self-esteem.” (Loretta Haroian, PhD, Department Chair and Professor of Child and Adolescent Sexuality, The Institute for Advanced Study of Human sexuality, San Francisco, California). In her chapter on nudist retreats/resorts, Goodson concludes that “there is ample evidence indicating that nudist resorts do meet all the qualifications for therapeutic communities” (p.341).

A representative study commissioned by the Federation of Canadian Naturists (2000; http://www.fcn.ca) found that:

  • a total of 20.5% of Canadian households (6.1 million people) have some interest in naturism;
  • people in 39% of Canadian households (11.8 million people) have or would walk around their house nude;
  • people in 59% of Canadian households (17.9 million people) have slept or would sleep nude;
  • the more people in the household, the more likely people sleep nude; and
  • singles sleep nude more than married couples.

In my article for Society (February, 1996; p.24. Newsletter of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association) I stated that “In their myopic understanding of social nudists, the uninformed may think quickly through the following syllogism:

  1. all social nudity leads to immoral behaviour;
  2. immoral behaviour leads to a bad society;
  3. ipso facto, all social nudity leads to a bad society.

The main logical error of course, occurs in the first premise. It is simply not true according to the evidence. And the second premise has its problems.”

Dr. Ruth Barcan, a senior Lecturer at The University of Sydney, in Nudity & Nudism – two essays (December 19, 2013) talks about nudism’s contemporary disconnect to “any form of radical philosophy or politics”; rather its major benefits are now “a relaxed lifestyle and a healthy body image.” She states “Nudism can be differentiated from the practice of spontaneous or private nude bathing (‘skinny-dipping’) in that it is an ongoing, self-conscious and systematic philosophy or lifestyle choice, rather than a spontaneous decision to disrobe. They frequently emphasize the importance of total nudity, arguing that partial concealment is more sexual [which is has been proven] than total exposure.”

In a seminal article entitled “Naked Beneath Your Clothing”, (http://www.parama.com/naked.htm) John Veltheim, MD, makes the following case:

“The philosophy and practice of naturism will not solve all of these problems [denial, guilt, shame, abuse, hostility) because they are so ingrained into a system that has too much dependency on the negative fruits of disempowering rules. However, those individuals who choose to embrace the openness, honesty, and vitality off nudism, can at least profoundly enhance the experience of joy, health and peace in their known lives and have a positive effect on those around them. By encouraging a healthy, positive attitude to our bodies, we are encouraging a healthy relationship with our mind, soul, spirit, and our environment. That will make a difference within our own lives and, if enough of us do it peacefully and responsibly, to the world.” (p. 15)

Finally, in my article entitled Naturism and the Family (Going Natural, Winter: 1989. Vol. 4, No 1: p. 6) I made the following conclusions from my own research and a great deal of participant observation in Canada and the US:

“I believe there to be three naturist family types:

  1. DABBLER Family. Here, nudity at home, vacation skinny-dipping, club visits, and the reading of naturist literature are rare occurrences. Naturism is not discussed even with close friends, and children may not be included in parent naturist activities;
  2. TRANSITION Family. Here nudity at home is quite regular, more-so with parents, regular club visits are made, naturist literature is subscribed to by at least one parent, at least one parent discusses naturism with close friends, and children accompany parents to most naturist events;
  3. PROFESSED Family. Here, nudity at home and wherever possible, is the norm for all members, naturism is freely discussed with all friends and anyone who asks, naturist literature is read by all members, parents may be involved politically with naturist groups, and children, even as teenagers, accompany parents to naturist events, and the family acts as a single unit.”

These categories are not mutually exclusive, having spillover in various ways, but rather briefly describe common and general features. The change from DABBLER to PROFESSED may never occur in a family’s lifetime, due to social risks real or imagined that are associated with altering core socialized values and norms. But trying often becomes its own self-reinforcement.

Living in the nude in suburbia is probably a long way off in terms of having complete neighborhoods taking part, and being within community policy rules. Nonetheless, a miniscule win might be for a by-law to be created allowing nudity in one’s own back yard. Nudity within one’s house has always been outside of Western laws governing public nudity, as long as neighbours who are not nudists do not complain from seeing you through a window. Nonetheless, Ontario for example, has passed a law in 1997 allowing women to go topless in public places, e.g., parks, beaches, and Toronto Island has a nude beach. So there has been some shifting going on at the civic level to support body norms of equity. It is also permitted within the criminal code of Canada (Section 160) for campers or vacationers to be nude in “remote areas”, such as Algonquin Park.

Social change takes time, but it may one day be possible for you to sit in your front porch, with a cup of tea, in the nude, and wave across the street or next door at your neighbours. Sarah Schrank’s point about nudity being a ‘neat fit’ within the contemporary capitalist and consumerist ideology is not specious but is within arms length at least of sympathetic politicians. And the stroke of a pen can then work wonders. Just imagine, no more body shame, guilt, and perverted sexual norms! Seriously.

Suburban Bird-feeding

T.L. Hill, MEd, MA, PhD

Co-founder and First President, of the Federation of Canadian Naturists (1985). Retired Professor, Healthcare Administrator, and Medical Sociologist

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