The nudist movement was established in North America in the early 1930s by German immigrants who believed nudism was healthy, a way to commune directly with nature. The movement flourished and waned, forever trying to distance itself from pornography. Brian Hoffman tells the story in Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Nudism is an outré subject for a history book. Your friends and colleagues assumed you were a nudist looking to justify a cause.
I didn’t grow up as part of a nudist group but my parents were part of the counterculture. Nudity in the backyard or daily life was ordinary. I lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and in my neighbourhood there were screenwriters and set designers. It was a funky upbringing. As I grew older I realized this is not how most people live and I kept returning to the question, why do people have such disparate ideas of nakedness? It is considered an immoral act or something that is completely normal.
Western culture focuses on the erotic connections. Nudism to me became a prism to understand how Americans thought about the naked body and how those thoughts and cultural assumptions changed.
It was German immigrants who first introduced nudism to America, but they were rejected by many communities. It was, after all, the early 1930s, and there was a lot of censorship of what were deemed pornographic films and books in Canada and the U.S.
In Germany it was very popular from the turn of the century. It was a reaction to urbanization, rapid industrialization. The idea was to go back to nature, to be healthy, to get exercise, have gardens and be a vegetarian. When they came to America in the 1930s, most German immigrants went to New York or Chicago, and when they wanted to practise nudism they ran into trouble. Going naked in a gymnasium in Berlin is whole lot different than going naked in a gymnasium in New York. Going naked in North America at the time was about eroticism, burlesque, the gay bathhouse, striptease. It wasn’t about health, fitness or recreation.
The way they were able to navigate this situation was to go outside the city. Nudist camps began to spring up in the country. In America and Canada nudist camps are always out in the middle of nowhere.
In the U.S., the rural areas have a long tradition of accepting nakedness, of the skinny dip, of going back to nature, the poets Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. You still got in trouble, they still got raided if they were too up front but, especially in the 1950s, they managed to set up communities that didn’t impose on neighbours, that were related to health, fitness, family and recreation.
The American Civil Liberties Union undertook the defence of those who wanted to establish nudist camps, but there were serious problems that I thought would have made the ACLU blink: black Americans weren’t allowed to join nudist camps; neither were gays, single men or, in the early days, Catholics. There was an emphasis on white Protestant married couples and their children.
The head of the ACLU in the postwar period was a man named Roger Baldwin and he was a casual nudist himself. He would often go naked near his country home in Martha’s Vineyard. That was one reason the ACLU was willing to help out the nudist movement.
There wasn’t complete agreement, of course, because the nudist movement was very out there in terms of American values, especially in the 1950s. The ACLU took a moderate approach and focused on the fact that it was about family and respectability.
The problem is you can’t tell who is a real nudist and who is doing it for other purposes. This is what judges struggled with when cases went to court. No one knew who the people were who looked at nudist magazines such as Sunshine & Health or looked at nudist films. It could be people interested in pornography or intergenerational sex.
The ACLU was cognizant of this. They, however, won a legal case in the early 1950s to allow Sunshine & Health to be mailed to subscribers. The post office had been seizing it and in 1955 they begin to accelerate seizing it from the mail. The irony is that this magazine that defined the movement in the U.S. and won its court case to show full-frontal nudity went out of business in 1963. It was no longer special. Any publication could then show full-frontal nude bodies.
Source: Toronto Star
Original publication 17 November, 2015
Posted on NatCorn 14th March 2021
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