Long before dreaming of nude beaches, when my afternoons were as a naked prisoner at home, I picked up the phone book and flipped to my favorite word in the English language. Well, my second favorite word, the first being naked. But since naked can mean just about anything, I searched under “nudist” and came up with Paradise Lakes Resort in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. I was around twelve at the time and the lady on the line must have thought me a crank caller. “Can you go naked there?” I asked her. “Really? Like . . . wherever you want? Really? The whole time? Awesome!” OK, maybe I didn’t say awesome, but that was how I felt. Only problem? I needed to be 18. Despite not being able to go, however, simply knowing that a place existed where people were free to go naked made me happy. But telling a twelve year old to wait six years is like telling an adult to wait 600.
Flash forward a decade, I am twenty-two, and I’ve just graduated from Saint Petersburg Junior College. Family life has drastically changed. My father, a workaholic since 1952, finally built his dream house. This, of course, had to resemble the Parthenon, with two story columns and an immense front door we could never open and a private backyard that looked like the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, my parents were old and tired and spent much more time at home. Other than sitting on my naked butt in front of my Amiga computer, the solitude I once enjoyed was no more. The only freedom I had to look forward to were summer trips to the islands.
If you would have seen my University of South Florida I.D. card, you would have thought I was trying to pass myself off as [insert dark skinned stereotype here]. Typically, I am more Germanic looking than Greek, but I’d spent about a month on the island of Mykonos risking skin cancer. I never cared for night clubs and there was nothing else to do on the island but go to the beach, so I sat under the sun from the morning until the afternoon, swimming and reading H.P. Lovecraft (an odd combination, I know). Free body tourism in Greece, however, was on the decline. Boobs became a rare sight and they even posted a “No Nudism” sign in Eos. All the while, I hated the constant secrecy, which became more of a burden than ties, church shoes or wet bathing suits. Returning stateside after so much sun where the “sun don’t shine” was depressing.
One night, while counting the months until summer, it occurred to me to type, “nudist resort, Florida” into my America Online web browser (anyone remember AOL?). Lo and behold, the resort I’d called ten years earlier popped up. Why I’d never thought to do this before is beyond me. I checked the address, assuming it must be located in some remote part of the Everglades, but God, it seems, really wanted me to remain a nudist. I commuted an hour to school every day, and the route was convoluted. What I hadn’t realized was that I was driving by the largest nudist resort in the country, for months, every damn day. A five mile detour and I was in Paradise Lakes Clothing Optional Resort.
The idea of joining a resort was a lot like taking that first shower without locking the door. For nearly a decade I considered myself a nudist, but never talked to anyone who could say the same. The people on the beaches spoke Swedish and German and were usually being intimate with their partners. What were other nudists like? I worried about this a lot. Were they all hippies? Rednecks? Or sex-crazed weirdos?
Driving up to the checkpoint, like those used in gated communities, a middle-aged woman checked me over like I was a spy. Without mentioning nudism, she asked, “Have you been here before?”
“Do you know what this place is?”
“Yes, of course.”
“O.K. Drive on through. But you’ll need to take the day tour!”
I was once again interrogated by the keepers of Paradise, who were fully dressed for some reason. They reiterated the day tour rule and I was happy to agree. Basically, it involved sitting in a golf cart with a man who probably met Abraham Lincoln in person, to be driven around the resort, which I discovered was more like a neighborhood. He seemed distinctly suspicious of me, however, probably wondering why a young guy like me wanted to visit a place full of retirees, remarking at one point, “You know, there aren’t many single women here . . .”
I figured too many guys my age were looking for the Playboy Mansion, a place full of giggling girls with bouncing boobs, and after taking the tour and seeing none of that, college students like me would surely be high tailing it out of there. But roaming about as God intended, sans shirt and pants or even underwear—on sidewalks, in front of peoples’ homes and across freshly cut lawns, from the crappy restaurant to the crappy gymnasium—was exhilarating. It was as if I’d stepped through the portal on Sliders to a dimension where body taboos did not exist. I could be naked wherever and whenever I wanted and nobody would care! One of my favorite things in Paradise Lakes was their open air shower, where I could soap my naked self in sight of dozens of people. My old classmates would never have believed it!
The main hangout included an immense pool with a number of smaller pools and hot tubs. But most of the people looked too old to enjoy the facilities, and it made me a bit sad, not because I didn’t like old people (I do!) but because I could not understand why virtually nobody my age appreciated nudism. Was nudism “out of fashion” as my sister suggested? How could that be? What young person could prefer clothing if they were free to be without? Tattoos and body piercings are so common these days nobody bats an eye, but socializing in the body you were born into remains, inexplicably, the ultimate taboo. Ever since I was born, I’d felt like an outsider, and here again I was made to feel like the outsider. In my dreams the resort was divided in two: on one side there were college age students splashing around, all in bathing suits, and on the other, naked bodies deformed by age.
Outsider or no, I loved the place enough to buy a yearly membership, and came to discover a fundamental part of nudism: volleyball. As any true nudist will tell you, volleyball is a must! And the best part is, playing against people three times my age, I wasn’t too bad! That was until I met a twelve year old girl named Britney. Clothed or not, I would never trust my daughter with some twenty year old stranger, but I guess her parents saw an innocence in me. Britney thrashed me at every sport you can think of. Volleyball. Ping Pong. Shuffleboard. Hide & Seek. Once, another guy joined me at tennis, her against us, doubles vs. single. The outcome was embarrassing. Britney was born at the resort and I was happy to have met her. She was smart and well-adjusted, not to mention exceedingly athletic, and unlike my “Brady Bunch” family displayed no signs of neurosis, despite her nudist upbringing. But her problem was the same as mine. There were simply too few people her age. I tried starting a Nudist Club at USF, hanging fliers around campus and making a website, but nobody responded.
When summer rolled around, I discovered that, just as on the Greek beaches, the nudist bird was migratory. Younger people flocked in droves from all over the country and a few from as far as Germany. Even on the islands, I’d never seen such a parade of body types, and it made me realize how impoverished our society’s definitions of beauty were. Beauty, I could see, came in all shapes and sizes. I met people my age and even—despite what General Lee told me—a girl my age.
Nicole came to spend the week with her sister and husband, which seemed a bit odd, since Paradise Lakes is advertised as a romantic getaway. If not for me, she would have had no one her age to talk to. Remarkably, she’d never been to a nudist venue before, but couldn’t have looked more comfortable. We did everything together—even canoeing in an alligator-infested lake—then reluctantly put our clothes on for dinner and a movie, “There’s Something about Mary.” Our date was strangely opposite the norm, because we both knew how we looked naked, but not dressed! Naturally, I found her much more attractive in nothing but skin, as I tend to find most people. Returning to Paradise, we couldn’t wait to take our clothes off, so we could go back to her room and . . . play Scrabble. Yes. That’s all we did. Did sex cross our minds? I think so. But neither one of us wanted a meaningless fling. Sadly, she went back to New Jersey in the morning and I never saw her again.
Those early college days were the happiest of my life. I remember spending time at Paradise between classes, and once came late to Ancient History, my clothes sticking to my still-wet body. Ironic, considering how I used to come wet and late to class for not getting naked. But having a secret continued to gnaw at me. I knew that to be fully free, everyone needed to know, including my parents.
With my blessing, they learned about it from my sister, and being Greek, my mother really amped up the melodrama. I thought I could use my writing and argumentative skills to prove that nudism was an innocent thing, but she wouldn’t hear of it. In her mind, nudists were “deviants” like people with tattoos and piercings. A week later, I came home to hear my parents talking, and to my father saying, “I’ll take him out of the will!” Since money meant everything to my father, he assumed it meant everything to everyone else, and so he used the “inheritance threat” often. We went up to my room to discuss my “being naked” and I started my usual pro-nudism speech. His argument?
“You’ll turn gay!”
“Dad,” I said, “the Spartans were nudists! Our descendants!”
“Yes!” he argued, “that’s why they all turned gay.”
Sadly, even my father had bought into the stereotype of Greek homosexuality. The truth is, my ancestors didn’t think in terms of gay or straight; it only mattered whether you were the “giver” or “receiver.” As long as you were giving it, it didn’t matter with what or to whom.
At some point during the discussion, I handed him a Paradise Lakes brochure, and he noticed something I hadn’t really bothered to mention. Girls.
“Wait, wait,” he said, “there are girls there?”
“Well, yeah, of course.”
For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to him that women would be allowed to frolic naked in front of men. I even told him about Nicole and after that he was sold. My father’s tolerant attitude eased my mother’s worries, and I am happy to say my inheritance is secure (not that it would have changed anything).
As of this writing, I am 39, too old for young naturist events, but I think I’ve finally figured out why nudism caters mostly to people over sixty. That’s just how long it takes to see the truth. In every aspect of our society, from parents to religion to the media, we are taught that the human body is shameful and obscene, a thing to hide and be disgusted by, but is sometimes, paradoxically, arousing. But this is a lie—the most prevalent lie in history. A great many more people never overcome the “shame of being human,” going to their graves fully dressed, in church clothes no less.
I am fortunate to have my own family now, where I can be free not only of shame, but of secrets. At home, I no longer need to listen for car doors and our shower is clear glass. Sometimes our kids join us for a bath.
It still seems inexplicable to me that something as simple as removing one’s clothes can bring such happiness and insight. Maybe in some ways, I never fully overcame my repressed childhood. My wife, who is tolerant of nudism, makes fun of me. “That’s your philosophy,” she says, “being naked?” But nudism, I tell her, isn’t about nakedness—strippers aren’t nudists, after all—it’s about being alive. At some point in our history, in our rush to evolve and separate from nature, we’ve forgotten that life isn’t merely to be seen and heard, but to be felt as well. We have forgotten that our bodies make us what we are—human—and there is no shame in being human, or in being without clothes, or being seen without clothes. To be naked is simply to be oneself. A breast or a penis or a vagina is no more embarrassing than an ear or an elbow. Body parts are only as significant as our society makes them.
I have often dreamed of a people born into a world without clothing taboos. And dreaming is what fantasy writers do. In 2005, I sold eighteen copies of my novel at a signing at Caliente, an even bigger clothing-optional resort a few miles from Paradise. The people in my book are named after the Finnish hero, Ilmarinen, because the Finns are known for body acceptance and for inventing the family sauna, where bathing suits aren’t allowed. Of my Ilmarin characters, one is named Nicole. The other is Brittany.
Missed Parts 1 through 4? Search “Least Likely to Become a Nudist”
Special thanks to Felicity Jones and Jordan Blum for first posting this story on their blog!