How to Wear
By Ellen Meder
With my heart racing and my mind banally screaming,
“What are you doing?” I strip out of my clothes. I hold them
to my exposed body as I fold them neatly, very aware of their
comforting, familiar textures. As I emerge from the small,
slightly cluttered bedroom, every miniscule movement cause
tiny sensations on my skin that make it impossible to ignore
the fact that every inch of it is bare. Walking into a bustling
kitchen full of egg rolls, pot stickers, fried rice, heavenly aromas — and, oh yeah, naked people — I cannot shake the
surreal feeling that I am in a dream. There is no waking up
from this reality, though. Suddenly, I snap out of my guarded
“You’re more likely to leave with a recipe than an angle,” says Cheri Alexander, the founder of the Travelites Nudist
Club. “We eat well. The best part about being a nudist: no
belt to loosen.”
For members of Columbia’s Travelites, getting together au
natural is an event to look forward to, not only because of the
food, but also because of the complete comfort and ease the
group’s relaxation takes on. Whether gathering for a Chinese
New Year Pot Luck, like the event I attend; an annual spring
canoeing excursion, lovingly dubbed “Ca-nude-ing”; or simply a Super Bowl party, all people are truly welcome.
“We’re all naked under our clothes,” is the most obvious
cliché that most people think of when it comes to the typically laughable prospect of shedding their clothing. For the
same generally “modest” public, the first and only time in
their lives that they will be naked in a crowded room is at
birth, before society tells them the human body should be
under clothes when not in the shower.
Alexander, 61, who has been a nudist for 22 years, founded
Travelites in 1987 so that she could still get her nudist friends
together during winters when landed nudist clubs (generally
called “nudist colonies” by non-nudists) typically close. For
Alexander, the bottom line of nudism is getting back to nature and completely relaxing.
“You know how good your feet feel after a hard day at
work or school and you take off your shoes?” Alexander asks.“That’s how the rest of you feels when you disrobe. You get
rid of the anxiety, the tension.”
Though she admits that in public she is “very vain,” using
her three closets full of clothes to always appear well-dressed,
some of that poise can be attributed to the self-acceptance
nudism has given her.
“It does give you self confidence,” Alexander says. “Before
I found nudism and became and active nudist, I was shy.
Now I can talk to people; I’m not shy, I’m not afraid to open
my mouth and meet new people.”
Other than leading events at national conferences, Alexander has narrated a Turner South Broadcasting feature on
South Carolina’s first nudist enclave and also guest speaks
at a friend’s sociology courses on nudism at East Carolina
Though always averse to constrictive clothing and a constant clothes shedder as a child, it was only after a Club Med
vacation in the Bahamas that led Alexander to a nude beach
that she opened up to the lifestyle.
“I guess I’ve always been a nudist, just never a social nudist.”
Back at the pot luck, the seven members in attendance get
so wrapped up in socializing that eventually you barely notice the nude aspect. Barely. With the arrival of each new
friend Alexander squeals with delight as she ushers him or
her into the house. They discuss the food. She doesn’t waste
any time getting their opinion on the new lavender paint in
the bathroom. Then, each member would duck away for
a second and come back without a stitch of clothing. The
first time you see someone nude it’s a bit stunning for just
a second until you regain your maturity. Until actually seeing a random assortment of people nude and in the flesh as
opposed to on a movie screen, I, like many, am under the
false impression clothes conceal a lot. At the end of they day
though, there are no real surprises — everyone looks precisely as you expect them to look. The only real shock is how
personable everyone is and how rapidly I am able to grasp
As far as nude etiquette goes there only two real rules. For
hygiene, sit on your own towel. And “you can look, but don’t
stare.” You don’t realize how much eye contact your everyday conversations lack until you feel like you constantly have
someone gazing into your eyes. Honestly, the steady attention
my baby blues receives contributes equally to my occasional
feelings of vulnerability, as does my nakedness.
The conversations flow like they would with any group of
friends, with an abundance of frolics in detour. From the nationality of Pope Benedict XVI to boating, work and travels
in Germany, no topic is left uncovered. Occasionally the conversation comes around to the body shame the media and
society have imposed on people. The Travelites really are
like any other close-knit group with the one — OK two— exceptions: they are totally unfazed by each other’s bodies
and they are fairly diverse.
“We are just a family that has stuck together,” says Alexander, who admits that her own kin has become distant over
the years and miles.
The crew, who are mostly over 40 years old, represents an
interesting social and economic cross section. A real estate
power couple in their late thirties, a retired Army serviceman
and a couple of information technology gurus are just a few
of the profiles. Alexander herself works in the USC School
of Medicine. Though the members with families do involve
their children, making their youngest member nearly a year
old, there is obviously an age gap.
Travelites has occasionally had graduate students for members and some groups of twenty-somethings have joined
them from Charlotte in the past, but the youth and young
adult aspect is a bit missing. Through regional youth leadership camps the nudists hope to nurture younger people’s
penchant to go without clothes.
“We need to groom our next generation of leaders,” Alexander says. “Who am I going to leave Travelites to?”
Many people are shocked to hear that nudism is a family
affair, but after being in a group of nudists it makes sense.
The genuinely good nature, maturity and respect for the human form held by the group makes perversion the farthest
thing from anyone’s mind.
In fact, as member Steph Mount points out, the rates of
teen pregnancy, child molestation and, more comically, theft
and concealed weapons violations are much lower with nudists than in the general population.
“Demographically, as far as the ills of society, you just don’t
find it [with nudists]” Mount says.
He jokes that happy people don’t commit crimes. Depression is harder to come by within nudists partially because of
the self-acceptance and probably because of the additional
sun exposure. Logically, with the Bible belt breathing down
the lifestyle’s neck, nudists are extra careful to keep those
with prurient interests out of this organizations.
The group eventually jokes about Florida’s former U.S.
Rep. Mark Foley. In 2003 Foley made a huge stir attempting
to shut down a nude youth camp in Lake Como, Fla., saying
it subjected teens to exploitation and ogling.
“Funny who the real predators are,” Mount laughs, referencing Foley’s sexual misconduct with a House page in
Safeguarding the legal protection that allows nudist lifestyle takes a surprising amount of attention. Especially in
South Carolina, where every couple of years a lawmaker
tries to change the definition of “nude” in order to take aim
at strip clubs. Only through vigilant scrutiny and help from
the American Association for Nude Recreation has Alexander been able to get congressmen to see the full effects of
“A couple of years ago we lobbied to kill a bill in committee that would have effectively made family nude parks close
between midnight and 6 a.m.,” Alexander says. “Where’s
the resort in that?”
Of course, the state’s lack of nude beaches, which have
been proven to stimulate lagging tourist economies in Florida and California, is also something for which the Travelites
The politics within nudism are almost more pronounced
“It’s just like a political party,” Mount says. “You can be
democrat and have a million different types of democrat.
There are huge numbers of nudists who are terribly admirable all the way down too,” he rolls his eyes with an exasperated sigh, “you’re like ‘Ugh! Are they really a nudist?’”
Recounting conferences with nude fashion shows gives everyone a hearty laugh at the absurdity, but in reality some are
really bothered by the corruption of their way of living.
“You see these women around the pool in their high heels
and $65 of stainless steel piercings and I’m like ‘Come on.
Why don’t you just go textile, lady. Just put on a whole bunch
of clothes and entertain us.’ It becomes comical to a point.”
Mount, who is firmly on the naturalist side of nudism, considers himself a bit of a “rouge nudist.” Until the Travelites,
he had never been part of a club and, after being dismissed
from the service with Multiple Sclerosis, moved back to S.C.
and retired on a piece of land, where he is a “24/7” nudist.
“It’s a good lifestyle for people with MS because of the
skin, head and touch stuff.” Mount explains. “Not that I
needed an excuse.”
It becomes apparent that Mount is not kidding when he
confesses to being a nudism snob and begins calling me a “clothie” and referring to clothes-wearing people as “textiles” with a self-admitted condescending air.
After an extensive discussion of the trends including piercing, tattooing and shaving (“We’re not even to get going on
shaving,” Mount says as he contoured his face in disgust), everyone concludes that unfortunately nudism is like anything
else: some people try it on as a trend.
“Real naturists are dying. Nudism is a business,” Mount
As a full-time clothie and total virgin to nudism outside my
own bedroom, the hardest part about being naked is not seeing others, or even being seen, but simply loosening up with
myself. My heightened sense of awareness is simultaneously
enlivening, exhilarating and terrifying.
Once I am seated, though, the task of not freaking out
gets steadily easier. Initially I tightly cross my legs and sometimes fold my arms across my torso. I slump and make every
effort to cover my breasts with my long hair a la Lady Godiva. Eventually, as I loosen up in the conversation my tense
muscles begin to relax and I simply enjoy myself. Standing
up and moving, feeling the air tickle every bit of my skin is a
momentarily horrifying reminder that there is nothing there.
Being someone who is typically aware of my body placement
when, say, walking past someone who is sitting on a cramped
row of seats at a sporting event, walking past someone nude
is utterly insane. But just as quickly, determined to remain
mature about the situation, I let the qualms pass.
Ultimately, Alexander is perfectly right about how at ease
you can become when you wear nothing but your own skin.
“Nudism is about de-stressing, relaxing and getting back
to innocence; accepting yourself and others for who you are
and what you say rather than what you look like, own or
wear,” Alexander says.
But after an excellent and rejuvenating soak in the hot tub
I grab the lilac towel Alexander has graciously allowed me to
borrow. Instead of drying off and letting any residual moisture evaporate from my skin, my instincts to tightly wrap
myself up kick in, as if I have somehow washed off whatever
audacity has been keeping my inhibitions at bay. Though
everyone tells me I should stay and jokingly make fun of my“clothie” ways, I know that my skin had received its fill of
fresh air for the day.
Knowing that nudism is one of the nation’s biggest taboos
as far as lifestyle choices seems nothing short of absurd now.
Almost as absurd as I initially felt when naked in a crowded
room. Given the ills of society however, it does seem ridiculous that the human body, one of the greatest works of art,
is really viewed as something impermissible.
Sitting on the Horseshoe in shorts in perfect 75-degree
weather, the sun tenderly warms my skin. Before I remember that not all people are as pure at heart and accepting as
those welcoming members of the Travelites, I quietly wonder to myself “Why not?”