By Jennie Orton
CALGARY — I remember the first time I visited Wreck Beach, the famed “clothing-optional” beach on Vancouver’s University of British Columbia endowment lands. The top came off and the free air hit parts of my body that only saw the light of day when I was just out of the shower or entertaining some lucky fella in my wee apartment. To be exposed in an arena that didn’t carry with it some amount of objectification or expectation was a profound feeling, indeed, one that a person can certainly get used to. It is this feeling of equalization and natural freedom that nudists celebrate and practice on a daily basis and not just at a beach that has been deemed appropriate for such things.
While Wreck features an arena for people not often prone to public nudity to let their hair down, Nudist colonies and communities establish an environment where their members can enjoy their chosen form of existence in a more consistent way and with other people who choose to make it a more influential and constant element of their lives. What results is a real sense of belonging and acceptance within the group, one within which many feel confident raising their families.
Nudism, or the more-preferred term naturism, is gaining popularity and acceptance within North America where the moral code surrounding exposure of the human body has been crawling behind more liberal-minded European nations for years. Though it is not considered an indecent act to expose the naughty bits of contention in a non-sexual way in Canada, leaving nude sunbathing, swimming and toplessness exempt from most criminal liability, it is still rare to see people taking advantage of that freedom in a public place. Naturists most often will assemble in communities they have built that are slightly removed from the public where they can live their lives unencumbered by debate.
Debates linger, however. While preparing this story, I found the naturist community to be rather tight-lipped. Attempts to visit any local facilities were met with a great deal of resistance and requests for interviews were almost all politely declined. One official for a local community told me that there were many members who were not comfortable with being known as nudists due to a general misunderstanding in society about the lifestyle and the ensuing negativity that goes along with that misunderstanding, which is not an unfair fear: in 2012, for instance, a professor in London was arrested during a search for a man who was exposing himself to schoolgirls simply because, he alleged, it was known that he was a nudist.
The irony of the assumption of deviancy within the naturist community is that members are actually quite respectful and non-judgmental themselves. Not only that, but they are the furthest thing from exhibitionists. One could argue that if getting a high from exposing themselves to non-naturists was the goal for this community, they would be more than happy to host a journalist who was hoping to do a story on their practice. The opposite is most certainly the case: incidents like the one in London are isolated and this particular incident was extreme, but even something as simple as a raised eyebrow can make someone feel judged and therefore cautious, particularly if family is involved.
Bob Dixon, the VP of the Western Canadian Region of the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR-WC), is the sole member of the community who agreed to talk to me and he is a firm believer in the spirit of openness within naturism. Dixon has been a member of the nudism community for 30 years and raised both his children as nudists. He gives partial credit to the atmosphere for giving him a more open relationship with his kids.
“We decided to try out nudism, try it out in a social environment, found it to be absolutely fitting with what our family goals were at the time: freedom, the typical things with nudism where you park your clothing at the doors and kind of park attitudes at the door. You get into a whole different mix of people and it was exciting that way,” he says.
Dixon sees varying degrees of guardedness within the community, but says he feels the judgment naturists have been dealing with has been steadily improving.
“That’s society. Most people don’t have a problem with it,” he says. “Most people say they’re not offended by it, it’s just ‘not for me.’ There are those who take offence. It’s unfortunate, but that does happen.”
All in all, Dixon believes the atmosphere is quite live-and-let-live: “I don’t see the threats to nudists being as big and as concentrated as they were 30 years ago. They still exist in pockets and there are both real and perceived threats out there by people who don’t appreciate our choices, but it’s not as real as it was 30 years ago.”
Nudism today is all about getting together and celebrating and enjoying those choices. The AANR-WC in Alberta plans events all summer, which include potlucks, BBQs, picnics and organized sporting events. Most of the summer activities focus around camping, either for days at a time or for the season, at the naturist facilities in and around the Calgary and Edmonton areas. In the winter, when outdoor nudism carries with it a very real threat of frostbite, the events are moved indoors to city pools that are booked for a few hours for a hosted swim so members can assemble and catch up during the long, dormant winter months.
Dixon says of the 100 or so applications the association gets every year for new members, only about 10 to 15 on average end up becoming members. The reasons stem from the people not being a good fit for the organization or “sometimes it’s distance, sometimes it’s other priorities in life, sometimes it’s the mosquitoes.” The low intake keeps the community small but keen, though Dixon hopes that it will grow and overcome the geographic sparseness of Western Canada to become more of a presence and develop more of an understanding amongst non-nudists.
“I would hope that it would grow, that we would have more opportunities in more places and greater gatherings of people. And, ultimately, that it becomes a non-issue: whether you’re topless or nude, to be more European, more liberal rather than uptight.
“I do what I can to make it happen; talking to you is one of those things.”
One would hope that, with obscenities such as violence, political unrest, corruption and various forms of hatred and opposition still present in the news, a small group of people who wish to gather in all their glory, stripping themselves of preconditions and appearances and image to just be real with each other wouldn’t carry with it such a threat to the moral fabric of those not involved. I, for one, can promise them they are missing out: while spending time nude on Wreck, the joys of having a conversation with someone and not having to be aware of whether I was wearing the right brand of skinny jeans was freeing to say the absolute least. We were just hanging out being humans — what a concept.AANR, AB, Alberta, American Association for Nude Recreation, Bob Dixon, naturism, naturists, nudism, nudists, nudists in Calgary