Robbe White is a 27-year-old with a head of cherubic, golden curls. His girlfriend, 24-year-old Anna Phillips, is pretty and sun-kissed, with long, chestnut hair. Phillips is eight months pregnant, but otherwise, these two look like the stereotypical, All-American boy and girl next door.
Except for one detail: They spend most of their time naked.
White and Phillips both come from conservative Christian families. White spent childhood vacations from school as a missionary in tropical foreign lands. Phillips has seven siblings and was raised to believe that birth control is evil. So these two might seem unlikely leaders of a nudist revival movement. But they run the Florida Young Naturists, a group of 18- to 30-year-olds who gather throughout the year to spend weekends au naturel, slipping down water slides, squatting in yoga poses, and beating drums around bonfires.
Being naked, White says, is "really freeing... As far as why I've started [FYN] and how it's paid off with me — there have just been so many positive stories that have come out of this. People have come for the first time and left the weekend crying. So many people have said, 'Wow, this was really great.'
"People that have self-image issues, weight issues, stuff like that... naturism really does kind of break down walls, and people feel loved and accepted and free in their own skin," White says. "It's really a community experience."
It's hard to quantify exactly how many nudists there are in the United States today. The American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), which was founded in 1931 and is now based in Kissimmee, currently has 48,000 dues-paying members. AANR focuses on advocacy and tourism, connecting naturists to nudist resorts, nude cruises, and places to spend their "nakations." The Naturist Society (TNS), the country's other main nudist organization, is based in Wisconsin and has 25,000 dues-paying households. Its focus is on promoting body acceptance through education and outreach.
Spokespersons for both organizations suggest that the cold, hard membership figures don't even come close to representing the massive numbers of people who like to frolic sans clothes. Carolyn Hawkins of the AANR says that several thousand people can be found on nude beaches any given weekend. Nicky Hoffman of TNS points to a 2006 Roper Poll (commissioned by TNS) that found that one in four Americans — roughly 70 million people — have skinny-dipped or sunbathed in the nude.
Nudism, or naturism (the latter term emphasizes the connection with nature), was practiced by ancient societies before Puritanism took over. Though guys like Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau reportedly liked to take walks naked ("air baths," they called them), nudism didn't really gain steam in the Western world until the advent of clothing-free spas in Germany in the 19th Century. In the U.S., nude recreation began to take hold publicly in the 1950s, but the first nudists in the U.S. feared discussing their habits for concern over being thought of as perverse and losing their jobs. The lifestyle would not grow to be accepted more widely until Woodstock, and it remained relatively strong into the 1980s. Today, however, says TNS' Nicky Hoffman, "the majority of our members are 45 and up." So the clothes-free lifestyle could be in danger of dying out — unless younger generations keep it alive.
Hoffman says groups like FYN play "a very important role" in sustaining the culture.
Hawkins echoes that sentiment, lamenting that "the younger generation — they're not joiners. That's unfortunate because we're protecting their right to be nude, to visit a nude beach, to go to a club when they want to." Her grandson runs the Florida chapter of Vita Nuda, a young-adults offshoot of AANR. He performs outreach by speaking at colleges and bringing photography and psychology classes on tours of the Orlando-area nudist resort.
Of course, current laws and social mores dictate that it is rarely possible, and in many cases illegal, to go about one's day-to-day business in the buff. In New York, courts have made clear that women as well as men are allowed to bare their breasts in public, and in Miami-Dade County, publicly funded Haulover Beach was officially recognized as clothing-optional in the 1990s. But most of the nation is far more restrictive. Some municipalities even have pages-long definitions of the human buttocks in city code to criminalize their exposure. Law-enforcement officers have the latitude to charge naked people with a variety of offenses, like lewd behavior, indecent exposure, or disturbing the peace.
Tasked with researching the whole young nudist scene, this New Times reporter decided there was only one way to investigate: in the buff.
I had a few obvious concerns: Would I need sunscreen? Where would I keep my keys? As a skeptical "textilist," or clothes wearer, I also wondered about the potential downside: Is naturism safe? Is it just a cover for sweaty, patchouli-scented bacchanalia? Or worse, a hideout for pervs?
As the FYN's website states, "Naturism is a beautiful way of life that can be enjoyed at locations across America and the world. Lucky for us, Florida is a particularly great climate to practice this natural lifestyle."
One Friday in August, I met White and Phillips at Sunsport Gardens, "South Florida's most scenic family naturist resort."
A former tomato farm that was converted into the resort in 1965, Sunsport is located in Loxahatchee Groves, in northern Palm Beach County. It includes a host of amenities on its 40 acres: sprawling orchards and meandering trails, RV hookups and pool tables, tennis courts, a heated swimming pool, a library, a café, and a fitness center. It's both technologically forward (Wi-Fi!) and ecologically sensitive (solar panels!). Activities include tarot circles, game nights, and a youth camp. During peak season, in January and February, some 150 families call Sunsport home.
As the sun set and mosquito clouds emerged from muddy puddles, White and Phillips, already disrobed, seemed as free from shame as Adam and Eve before the Fall. I extended my hand. They responded with enthusiastic, full-body hugs.
White said that when he was growing up, his parents taught him to be afraid of the body — that it was sinful, something to hide. He never understood that, he said. As a teen, he went on a mission trip to Jamaica. His Christian group went to a beach. A local family, who was also at the beach, went into the water naked.
"They just seemed so free, and I thought: Why can't I do that?" he said.
"When I finally ventured my way into the naturist world and didn't keep my love for being naked a secret anymore, I realized that something was missing: young people. They were few and far between. When I did come across a young person in the naturist environment, almost always the conversation would be about the fact that there aren't more of us around. What I realized is that young adults are actually very interested in social nudity but feel more comfortable when there are other people their age around. There just needed to be some organized planning to get these people to one place at the same time. So I started FYN on Valentine's Day in 2009."
Club dues for FYN are $15 yearly. There are several hundred card-carrying members, hailing from many states and Canada. Their next event is a winter gathering December 9 to 11.
"It originally was just going to be a small group of friends," White continued, "but those friends invited friends, and they invited more friends. I was shocked that the first event had 60 young people come out. Since that time, FYN has attracted close to 500 young adults when you combine the events. At the End of Summer Bash this year, we tallied the guy/girl ratio, and it was almost exactly 50/50."
Phillips said that her interest in naturism stems from a cousin. He kept encouraging her to come to naturist gatherings in Florida, and one year, she decided to take him up on the offer. Immediately, she was hooked by the sense of liberty.
Phillips and White met at FYN's Spring Break Bash in 2009 and now live together in a modest apartment in North Palm Beach, where they have a picket-fenced yard that's overgrown with sunflowers. Phillips works at a chiropractor's office and White at an organic grocery store. For extra cash, they both model nude for art classes.
"You should see the looks they give me at the Gardens Mall," White says. "It's like, everyone judges everybody on their clothing."
As we chatted, a sinewy, white-haired club manager, whom I later learned was Sunsport owner Morley Schloss, pointed at my sarong.
"If you're at the pool, you can't wear anything," he said. "Not until it's dark or if it's under 70 degrees; then you can wear whatever you want. Until then, if you're on the deck, you're expected to be naked."
Off came the sarong.
Since at least 1385 B.C., people in the West have been using their birthday suits as their gym clothes. Back then, Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh, and his rather attractive wife, Nefertiti, were said to have swum naked in the royal pools, according to Aileen Goodson, author of Therapy, Nudity & Joy. But the old guard of Egyptian priests wasn't down for the poet king's alleged cult of the body. After Akhenaten died and his son, King Tut, took over, nude sport fizzled out in the West for hundreds of years — and wouldn't take hold again until the rise of the Spartans.
As it turns out, the wily, warring Greek city-state gave us nude running, a practice that persists to this day. At the Streak Sunsport Gardens' 5K run at 7 a.m. Saturday, August 27 — said to be South Florida's first clothing-optional race — it was apparent that the simple easygoingness that Spartans saw in exercising au naturel is probably just as simple and easygoing today. Other nude sporting activities include swimming (in 2010, the AANR organized 14,110 swimmers to set a Guinness world record in skinny-dipping), volleyball (the nude national championships are a big deal), and surfing (you can get lessons at Black's Beach in California or a beachfront nudist colony in France).
Of the 50 or so participants who showed up, some appeared health-minded, others entertainment-minded. Hard-core runners with shoes the price of a car payment stretched their muscles, while Hashers (a group of distance runners who describe themselves as "a drinking club with a running problem") swigged beer at dawn.
The runners were a true mix of young and old, tan and pale, taut and doughy, sculpted and schleppy, sagging and pert. Some were longtime naturists who wanted to streak. Others were hard-core running enthusiasts who wanted to try their favorite sport without clothes. Since the event doubled as a clothing drive for area charities, some runners disrobed and donated whatever duds they'd arrived in. One young man reported that he'd injured his ankle in a bar fight in January and that the run was his triumphant return to physical fitness. The young man needed to shape up, he said, so he could work for the FBI.
Almost all stripped down to the barest sartorial essentials of athletic competition — shoes, socks, wristwatches, baseball caps. None of the nude male runners appeared to wear any form of support. A few of the more buxom women opted for sports bras. Feeling awkward as one of the last clothed people standing, I stripped down too.
The run was not an FYN event but was organized by Daniel Phillips, Anna's 25-year-old cousin. The run was open to the public of all ages. Any lone males, however, were checked against a sexual predator database before being allowed on the campus. And, as always, gawking was strictly prohibited.
Before the race started, a bald man in his late 20s (not a regular at FYN events) struck up a conversation.
He seemed to make a lot of jokes about penises.
We then took our places in line, and I politely bid him adieu.
The race alarm sounded. Turns out, running a 5K naked was a lot like running with clothes on: a sweaty, dirty enterprise that is probably most fun when you're done with a run or taking a break from a run or talking about a run — but not actually on a run itself.
Right into the first lap, a young woman bemoaned that "my breasts are never, ever going to recover." The woman, a seasoned runner, regretted not having used plastic wrap for support, which race organizers had suggested to women above a B-cup.
Other than bodily flotsam and jetsam and a measured amount of flopping, the vibe was similar to any other athletic competition that lends itself to being easily dramatized in a movie. On the boggier and woodsier portions of the trail, tree roots sneaked up and wide leaves smacked runners in the face, but water-station staffers and race organizers hooted and hollered until everyone made it across the finish line. Every time I chugged around the track, Phillips cheered — just like a textilist friend would have.
The race took contenders 20- to 40-some minutes. Afterward, the flush-faced participants chatted about stride and posture and strategy while eagerly awaiting the award ceremony and raffle. Parched and nutrient-starved, they crowded around water coolers and lined up for a table's worth of grapes, apples, pineapple, and orange slices. The crowd favorite was bananas, on account of the potassium.
As things wound down, the bald man asked for my phone number so he could "find out about the story." I gave him my email address. "Oh," he said.
As I got into my car, another runner called out to me. This man, who had a half-shaved head with a long, black ponytail, came to the race clothed but had become naked within the past hour. He was not part of FYN, it appeared, nor a member of Sunsport.
"Wait up!" he said, holding out his cell phone.
"Can I get a picture of you?"
"For me," he said.
"I don't think so."
"Yeah, I mean, don't worry about it," he said, uncomfortably. "You seem hesitant. No big deal."
Nudists seem to enjoy simply hanging out naked more than any organized activity. However, they also seem particularly fond of playing music and dancing.
On the weekend of August 14, about 150 clothes-free campers under age 30 — some of whom had come from as far as New York — did all three of these things when FYN hosted the Naked End of Summer Bash at Sunsport.
The under-30 campers, of every body type, ethnicity, and level of tanness and hairiness imaginable, paid $11 to wander the grounds at various levels of undress throughout the weekend . Some were completely naked, while others sported tie-dyed sarongs, which were on sale next to the inflatable water slide.
On Friday night, mellow, funky, folksy music by the band Grassy Waters, its members in various states of undress, lured attendees off of picnic tables and onto the sand volleyball court. There, some people twisted Hula-Hoops around their wrists and into the air while others square-danced. Phillips stepped softly in circular patterns, her henna-painted belly casting a dramatic shadow in the night. Nearby, at a picnic table, friends and strangers painted suns and moons and peace signs on one another with acrylic paint. Every so often, a distant kerplunk suggested that somebody had just done a cannonball into the swimming pool.
Some munched Papa John's pizza while others slipped into Sunsport's poolside restaurant, the Naturally Nude Cafe. Others swigged Coronas and PBRs, yet curiously, nobody seemed drunk. Far into the night, the grounds were busy with the pitter-patters of bare and aqua-socked feet as friends and strangers walked to and from tents, always stopping to greet and chat with whomever they met along the road.
The Soul Birds, a rock 'n' roll band from Orlando, said that performing naked, in front of an unclothed crowd, was easier than traditional venues.
"You don't have stage fright," said Kenny Faj, the band's frontman. "That whole 'picture the audience naked' thing really comes to fruition."
When not dancing, the naturists had full hands. Naturist protocol requires that everyone carry a towel so that no genitals touch public seating surfaces. Also, they carried armfuls of mosquito and ant repellent. Strangers joined the fight against bugs, sharing calamine lotion and American Spirits, like comrades in a trench.
Arlette Opazo, who interns with a shaman and had been to several FYN events, smoked a cigarette beside the pond. "Out there in the world, it's always, like, what do I have to do next?" she said. "Time stops existing here."
"Naturism has also helped me to accept my body," she said. "As a bigger woman, I have felt like there's something wrong with me. But here, everyone is accepting — you learn that body types vary and that they're all normal."
Just then, a skinny, paint-covered guy with a mop top and suede loin cloth wandered over.
"Hey, so, uh, we can smoke out here, right?" he asked.
"You can smoke cigarettes in the designated areas," Opazo says, flicking away a cylinder of ash.
"No," the guy says. "Smoke."
"Oh. Oh, no! Not at all," she clarifies. "If you're going to do that, you have to do that in private, in your tent."
Another attendee, let's call him "James," agreed to show me around the grounds. So off we went — James with a towel in hand, me with a plaid scarf around my hips.
"Do you mind holding my keys?" he asked. "No pockets."
"What's that tattoo?" he then asked, pointing at my chest.
James, a 23-year-old student majoring in history at Palm Beach State College, came to the weekend's festivities by himself and planned to sleep in his car. It was his first event, which he'd heard about on Facebook. He hadn't told his parents, whom he lives with, because they're very strict Christians.
"Hey, are you hungry?" he asked. "We can grab some food."
"Oh man," he said, in a slight Southern twang as we arrived at the café. "I forgot my wallet in my car. No pockets."
"I'll walk back to my car to get it. It's not that far. Unless..."
"Well, I mean, I hate to do this, but would you mind..."
"You know what, don't even worry about it, James. I'll get dinner."
"I'll pay you back right when I get to the car."
We get two plates of vegetarian spaghetti with meatballs and two iced teas, which all came out to a little more than 20 bucks. James was not supposed to eat spaghetti, on account of the gluten, but it was a special weekend. The food was a great price, considering the size of the portions.
Later, James asked, "Could you make sure to approve my friend request? But not to say anything about this on my Facebook wall? Please! I just don't want anyone to see or my parents to find out or anything."
"Great! Well, it's nice to meet you. I'll pay you back."
The next day, I noticed James on a chair by the pool, sunbathing. He looked up and wordlessly nodded. Later that day, he again barely acknowledged me. It was as if he'd completely forgotten about the spaghetti and meatballs.
It's easy to work up an appetite after a day playing in the sun, whacking volleyballs at Sunsport, or splashing in the ocean at Haulover Beach.
On the Sunday night of the Bash, a group of naturists hit swank Clematis Street, in downtown West Palm Beach, to forage. It was a "Naked Sushi Party." Men and women walked down the sidewalk in beach garb, towels in hand. One by one, they knocked on the front door; the restaurant's windows were blocked out with paper for the night. The door slowly opened, and they slipped in, unnoticed.
A little before 7, about eight people were here, all dressed. The room had the awkward vibe of a middle school dance: They spread their towels and sarongs out on the sofas and barstools before sitting, even if they were still clothed. The bar staff remained clothed in traditional black, the sushi chef in whites. (Bar staffers later reported that naked people are just as polite and as good at tipping as clothed people.)
"Do you think we're supposed to wait?" a young brunet whispered to her husband. "Nobody else is naked."
"I don't know; I guess it's fine," he said.
"Maybe when more people get here? It's cold," she said, rubbing her arms. A few minutes later, another attendee — an alpha male — appeared naked in the corner. The husband and wife glanced at each other, stood, and slipped off their shorts and dress.
The couple, attractive brunets in their 20s, reported that they had just come from Haulover Beach — described adoringly in nudist literature as "America's best nude beach." They'd been there a few times, they said, but this was their first FYN event. The husband, a computer technician, and the wife, unemployed but looking for a gig in human resources, asked not to be named, on account of her job search.
They enjoyed their naturist experiences thus far, they said, but had reservations. What if pictures of them wound up on the internet?
"We've heard stories from other people," he said. "I'm trying to keep all that stuff about naturism away from social networks."
"People would think that we're freaks and exhibitionists," the wife added, biting her lip.
As more and more partiers arrived at the restaurant, Indiana Jones played on the flat television screen above the bar and '80s music blasted from a DJ booth in the corner. The air grew warm with the presence of bodies.
A young male went to the door fully nude and creaked it open. He poked his nose outside and called to some friends on the street.
"We can't take him anywhere," his buddies laughed.
Do couples ever feel the pangs of jealousy in a naturist setting?
Twenty-six-year-old Chris Rosenhauer, at his fourth FYN event in two years, said no.
"It was something that my wife and I were interested in," said Rosenhauer, of Nashville, Tennessee. "We just like being naked, I guess. So we started looking for places." Rosenhauer wound up attending his first naturist event without his wife because she wasn't able to make it, but she didn't get angry or jealous. "If you know the people, you know it's not any different than hanging out with your friends. Robbe does a real good job making it just about having fun."
But what about single nudists who are into each other? How would a naturalist flirt or make a first move without seeming creepy?
A couple of nudists who didn't want to be named explained the bare essentials of nudist courtship to me: Eye contact is key, one said. When you're in a naturist environment, if you are there for the wrong reasons, you will stick out like a sore thumb.
"Staring at body parts is sure to turn anyone off," the guy continued. "If you want to genuinely get to know someone and take it from there, make sure to be respectful. This is not saying that there are never people coming into a naturist environment trying to find someone to hook up with. That being said, if you are one of these people — don't assume that's what everyone else is there to do. Most people are there to have fun without sexual expectations." And nudists definitely do not like being mistaken for swingers.
Does nudity ever get old? Is there still sexual attraction if you see your partner naked all the time? "Sexuality does not start with nudity," he schooled me. "Yes, most people are nude when they have sex, but most people use body language and touch to get to the nudity part before the sex even starts. Sex lives stay the same; you keep them private just as you would in any other environment. Seeing nude people all the time does not make sex less exciting; it allows you to create more respect for the human body. When you have more respect for people, your love life tends to be more fulfilling."
So, FYN is a group of tanned, naked, good-looking young people, but nobody appeared to be hooking up. Short of knocking on individual tents at night, this researcher had tried very hard to find the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll of naturism. Alas, these were just nice people who did things like share spring mix with strangers. Maybe the nudists were right. Maybe people could just get along without clothes?
If people like White and Phillips — and their on-the-way baby boy, Malcolm — are the future of naturism, maybe, just maybe, it could work outside Sunsport's gates.
Haulover Beach , which I'd been encouraged to visit, seemed like the perfect place to test this hypothesis.
On a recent Sunday, I decided to join the several hundred sunbathers congregating on this clothing-optional stretch of sand in Miami-Dade County. A lot of the sunbathers were males, many by themselves, and a lot of them kept their clothes on. A few had cameras. A few more stared, blatantly.
Still, the topaz-toned Atlantic sparkled invitingly. So, off came the bathing suit. Then on came the onlookers, it seemed.
One individual, a pruney, over-tanned man, neared my beach towel. Good time to get into the water!
A couple was already in the ocean, maybe twice as far from the shore as me. They were naked and laughing. It appeared he was trying to mount her, but they were having trouble — every time they got close to each other, a wave came by and pushed them apart.
My neighbor from the sand stepped into the water several moments after me. I swam about 20 feet to the left. Then he walked about 20 feet to the left.
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I paddled 15 feet forward. So did he.
I went right, then back; he also went right and back. He kept his hands hidden, below the water, while staring at me.
I swam to shore, hearing the couple's loud hee-haws and cracking waves fade behind me. A police officer happened to arrive just then, responding to a call about indecency, his radio blaring.
I put my bathing suit on.