Wearing Only a Smile, Nudists Seek Out the Young and the Naked
by DOUGLAS BELKIN, online.wsj.com
May 2nd 2011
LOXAHATCHEE GROVES, Fla.—On a recent Friday morning, Jessi Bartoletti arrived at the Sunsport Gardens Nudist Resort here in a T-shirt and shorts.
By evening, the 19-year-old had stripped down to a string of purple Mardi Gras beads and was dancing around a bonfire with about 200 young nudists, many of them first-timers.
"I don't think I've ever felt this free," Ms. Bartoletti yelled over pounding drums.
That's good news to the nudist resort industry, which is desperate for young nudists like Ms. Bartoletti to augment its clientele of graying baby boomers.
Membership in the two big nudist umbrella groups has been flat or declining for years, prompting a youth-recruitment effort that includes reverse-strip-poker nights, volleyball tournaments, naked 5K road races and music festivals like Nudepalooza and Nudestock.
One new group, Young Nudists and Naturists of America, this month is having a naked dinner party in a loft in New York's financial district to recruit members.
"The whole lifestyle will just disappear unless we attract a younger crowd," said Nicky Hoffman, head of the Naturist Society, one of the two big organizations of U.S. nudists. "The problem is, most of these resorts aren't geared to young people. They've become like retirement homes; they've sort of calcified."
John Whitehead, 22, visited the Sunsport Gardens resort for the first time last year. He enjoyed being naked until he spotted a man his father's age he knew from work, then spent the day avoiding him.
"It's not that I have anything against old people," Mr. Whitehead said. "I just don't really want to hang out with them at the pool."
In 1929, six men and women in their twenties attended what is believed to have been the first nudist retreat, organized in upstate New York by German immigrant Kurt Barthel.
In Mr. Barthel's homeland, nudism had taken root among young people as an expression of physical fitness and harmony with nature. In the U.S., it found controversy.
Nudists meeting in private in New York were arrested and charged with indecent exposure. In 1935, a crowd beat up a dozen nudists in northern New Jersey.
In the 1960s, public nudity gained wider acceptance. Morley Schloss, now the 69-year-old majority shareholder of Sunsport Gardens, skinny-dipped for the first time at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.
"I stood there in front of Mother Nature and all those people and said, 'This is me! This is who I am!'" Mr. Schloss recalls. "It changed my life."
Nudist resorts sprang up across the country. There are more than 250 today, plus cruises and other events making up a $440 million business, says the American Association for Nude Recreation.
But AANR and Naturist Society membership stopped growing years ago, mainly because many people now in their twenties and thirties don't appear interested in joining.
Young people have largely turned their backs on nudist camps, favoring instead public nudist spots like Hippie Hollow in Austin, Texas, Baker Beach in San Francisco or Haulover Beach in Miami, a "clothing optional" stretch of sand at the city's northern edge.
One reason: Private nudist clubs tend to be geared toward retirees.
Pools close at sundown. Body piercings are prohibited. Some older nudists complain that younger ones keep them up with late-night cavorting. Mostly, though, youngsters appear not to be eager to socialize regularly with folks the age of their grandparents.
So the AANR and the Naturist Society have asked their younger members to reach out to their peers and think of ways to make them feel that undressing in front of strangers is wonderful. Florida Young Naturists, Vita Nuda and other young nudist groups have since formed.
Vita Nuda organizes most of the young people who attend Nudepalooza each fall at the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort and Spa in Kissimmee, Fla., said resort owner Ted Hadley.
"We've been looking for years to reach out to that demographic and it's been a lot of brick walls," Mr. Hadley said. "It took a group of young nudists to do it on their own."
Robbe White, 27 years old, attended a winter festival at Sunsport Gardens in 2009 and was one of a handful of people younger than 35.
"I thought, 'This is ridiculous,'" he said. "I wanted to bring people my own age in to see what it was about."
He founded the Florida Young Naturists, opened a Facebook account and organized the first Spring Break Bash at Sunsport Gardens for people under 30.
The inaugural Bash attracted 55 people. This year, 140 young nudists showed up for a free weekend on the grass-and-sand grounds of Sunsport Gardens, including a "midnight skinny dip and blacklight party."
One Friday morning, guests pulled off the dirt road that separates the Everglades from the rustic, 40-acre resort. A middle-aged man wearing only a ponytail and glasses sat behind a desk registering people. Signs informed visitors that there were seven types of poisonous snakes in the area and that photography was forbidden.
Guests under 30 were handed colored wristbands to give them access to an area separate from the rest of the resort. The idea was to keep them from feeling uncomfortable around older guests.
"No one wants to feel like eye candy," said Kathleen Kraft, a 27-year-old organizer handing out the wristbands.
Some young guests disrobed immediately. Others hesitated or covered themselves with towels.
Ms. Bartoletti said she felt a surge of anxiety as she prepared to disrobe in public for the first time.
At the pool, she saw a sign saying nudity is mandatory in the water. "Well, this is what I came here for," she thought. Off came the towel.
Pup tents went up. Several bands in various stages of undress began to play. Vendors sold tapestries, fruit smoothies and jewelry.
On Saturday, some of the much older residents and visitors joined the younger guests for volleyball, a mainstay of traditional nudist colonies.
"The barriers between people just fall away when you're nude," Ms. Kraft said. "It's like watching chains falling off."
Ms. Bartoletti, who is starting college in May, said she felt as if she'd known her fellow nudists for weeks. Her only complaint was the mosquitoes.
"I woke up this morning and put on a shirt to keep them off me," she said.
Original Page: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703856704576285653184636030.html
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