Although every one of us enters this beautiful, ruined world naked, sometimes it’s hard to believe that nudity is our natural state. Being born is the one true leveler, the last time most of us will ever arrive in a room lacking the social signifiers that clothing confers. For a few heady moments we’re free— free !—before they bring in the onesies and the teensy beanies and booties and swaddle our shame in respectability.
From then on, being naked is reserved for a few sanctioned occasions in life: bathing, sex, maybe sleeping. But some people demand more liberation from the shirts and pants and ties that bind. Last summer, my husband Adam and I decided to join a few thousand of those people on vacation. Call them naturists, nudists, exhibitionists, perverts—the guests at Koversada, one of Croatia’s largest nudist resorts, don’t really seem to care what labels the outside world chooses to place on them. They’re too busy working on their all-over tans and disconcertingly harmonious relationships.
There was nothing anthropological about our decision to stay at the resort. Adam and I had already had a few brushes with the nudist subculture on occasional summer jaunts to some of Sydney’s gorgeous clothing-optional harbor beaches, which are loosely segregated by sexual orientation and reproductive status—gay, straight, family-friendly—and at a nude yoga class in New York, which was most notable for how brutally difficult the poses were.
We’re definitely what you’d call casual clothing refuseniks rather than passionate devotees, yet I’ve always felt defensive about society’s attitude towards the naturist way of life. There are two standard questions (with minor variations) that people ask whenever the question of nudists come up, reliably accompanied by a smirk or snigger:
1. “Why is it that the people on nude beaches are always the people you least want to see naked?”
2. “Why are nudists always playing volleyball?”
To the first, has it ever occurred to you that maybe not everything other people do is for your personal gratification? So you don’t personally get off on that person’s specific body type? Maybe their body isn’t exclusively for your gaze. To the second, I don’t know, because a certain subset of people at nudist camps like to do sweaty outdoorsy activities at about the same rate as the general population?
There’s a distinct whiff of good old-fashioned body-shaming about our culture’s attitude to nudism. Hey, how dare that person parade their body around when it doesn’t happen to conform to my exact sexual specifications? How dare they not be ashamed of being overweight, or old, or rippled with cellulite, or too flat-chested, or with a dick that doesn’t measure up to society’s expectations? There are overtones of the kind of body policing that women (clothed or otherwise) experience every tedious moment of every day, the notion that if you don’t live up to some kind of idealized body norm, then you should cower in a darkened room for the rest of your life, lest other mortals have to look upon your hideousness.
I get some of the gentler ridicule. There is something faintly ludicrous about performing tasks naked that you’d usually do clothed: walking a dog; eating ice cream at a cafe; wearing a hat and shoes; the aforementioned volleyball. But it’s funny how quickly you shed those shackles of embarrassment once you enter a nudist resort. (Almost as quickly as you shed actual clothes.) You tend to be surrounded by Europeans, who are famously less prudish than their cousins across the Atlantic. Once you’ve seen a few people walking dogs, tying shoes, driving boats, and barbecuing in the buff, it ceases to be a wonder and becomes so commonplace as to be unremarkable. For all the sexualization of the human body, there’s something strangely innocent about a nudist resort. What it most suggests is a child’s attitude to their body, the unthinking delight in their own self that kids revel in when they’re freed from the stifling confines of clothing.
That said, I’m not a natural nudist. Clothing is both costume and armor. I love dressing up, changing my height and silhouette and the image I project. Nudity strips away the ability to transform, to try on another version of yourself. Without clothes, you’re left defenseless, exposed to both the elements and the world’s scrutiny of your unexpurgated self. So I entered this little vacation of ours with apprehension. Secretly, I preferred a fancy resort where I could dress up for dinner, throw on a frock and a pair of earrings, and experience transfiguration.
Instead, we checked into a condo-style hotel room with a kitchenette and thin towels, set in a block among many identical blocks. It was as though someone had plonked suburbia down next to a medieval town amid the incomparable beauty of Croatia’s rocky Adriatic coastline. There was a section in the sprawling property for campers and RV owners, along with several restaurants and convenience stores. (Clothing was a requirement in these, as if some bureaucrat had decided that nudity was antithetical to commerce.) There were paved roads and paths for bicycles and pedestrians, flanked by neat lawns and cypress trees. It was neither tacky nor sexy but utterly, almost disconcertingly, bourgeois.
We quickly established a routine of rising early, having coffee and fruit, then walking down to the beach for a swim. From what I could glean, most of the other residents were Germans of Caucasian descent. It never ceased to amaze me how brown a white body can become. Some of the resort-goers were burnished so dark their skin resembled a piece of rich mahogany furniture. (Had they been here for years? I would have believed it.) They were mostly couples, many of the younger ones with small children. The children were clothed and the adults naked in a curious reversal of the usual beachside etiquette. I tried to imagine what it must be like to have a childhood in which nudity wasn’t invested with shame, but my imagination failed me. I grew up Catholic, in a society that viewed nudity as either something to be ashamed of or fetishized, and sadly I still live in that society, where mass shootings are shrugged off while sex tapes and costume malfunctions are considered morally dangerous.
Through the first few days at the resort, I would leave something on, a subtle refusal: a pair of knickers; a gauzy cover-up; a hat; sandals; a necklace; a hair tie. On day four, Adam issued me a challenge: walk down to the beach wearing nothing at all, not even a pair of shoes or a hair tie. I protested: What about my feet, they’ll get hot on the pavement! I need my sunglasses for the glare! He just shook his head and smiled. “Nothing. Take it all in your bag, which I’ll carry. Just see what it feels like to be completely undressed.” I was dubious, and resisted a bit before caving in for the sake of marital harmony. As soon as my feet hit the already hot tarmac I flinched, ready to grab for my sandals and fail the challenge. I took a few more steps and realized it wasn’t that hot; my feet quickly acclimated. We walked to the beach and I understood what he meant: Without even a band to tie back my hair, there was nothing between me and the elements. My feet exposed to the ground; my hair to the breeze; my eyes to the sunlight: It was glorious and infused with a strange innocence. I was reintroduced to that long-forgotten, uncomplicated childhood joy.
If you’ve never been to a nude beach or resort before, you’re probably curious about the level of ogling and leering and general perversion. That wasn’t the case at Koversada; if anything, there was less scrutiny. Perhaps there was the occasional, lingering glance between two strangers. It’s natural to notice a beautiful body, whatever your definition. But I’ve seen more leering on the streets of New York on one morning in winter—when the bodies of the city’s women are camouflaged beneath acres of down and black nylon—than I ever saw on the beach.
The arcane concerns and dictates of women’s and fitness magazines—thigh gaps (essential), six-packs (desirable), cellulite (unspeakable)—felt so distant in that place, where literally every body type was on display. In this environment, some physical characteristics take on more prominence; others fade into the background. You tend to notice scars and tattoos more but other features that might stand out in a clothed situation—like huge breasts, for instance—blend into the general mosaic. One mahogany-tanned blonde woman lay on the beach with her prosthetic leg beside her. I didn’t see even one person look at her with anything more than the standard glance.
I won’t claim that every body in that place was beautiful—beauty is famously subjective—but I’ve rarely seen people in the appareled world carry themselves with as much confidence and lack of self-consciousness, regardless of their age, shape or size, as the people I encountered there. Their bearing seemed to declare, Here I am, in all my flawed humanness, and I am content. Of course it’s likely this was a self-selecting group: The kind of person eager to spend their vacation naked in front of strangers might just be the type who’s already made some progress on the journey to self-acceptance.
I’ll probably never be that kind of person. By the time the trip was over, I was glad to disappear into my clothing again, to fix that armor safely back in place. (Even if that first act of dressing did feel cumbersome and quaint, like climbing into a medieval costume.) But if that fleshy utopia taught me anything, it was that the naked human body doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual or political or freighted with social judgement. Sometimes it’s OK for it to just be .