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?