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Ellen Meder and Cheri Alexander

How to Wear NOTHING

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 trance.

“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 University annually.

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 individuals’ personalities. 

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 2006.

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 their actions.

“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 lobby.

The politics within nudism are almost more pronounced though.

“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 says.

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?”