I was born with a cleft lip. If you’ve never seen pictures, let me just say it can get pretty ugly. Basically, it looked like a mugger took a knife to my mouth as I exited the womb. The doctors did their best to sew me up, but the scar remained. As a result of the surgery, my nose was lopsided, with one nostril higher than the other. I did not suffer any adverse effects except for some psychological damage, because kids can be assholes. “What happened to your face?” was a question I often got asked, but I played it up cool, which worked better in my teen years. “There was a gang! I fought them off the best I could.”
For years, I tried not to think about my looks, avoiding mirrors when possible, but then high school happened and a girl named Leah. She crushed me hard. I wrote her a long poem on reams of dot matrix paper and she read it to our entire 11th grade English class. I turned every shade of red with every tortured metaphor. The evidence was all over my face, literally. I was so embarrassed, I might just as well have been bare-ass naked. Of course, Leah didn’t exactly jump into my loving arms, for you see, at that time I had to worry not only about my cleft lip nose, but a terminal case of acne. Kids in the hall used to turn just to get a better look. “Shit, did you see that guy’s face?” I also wore thick-rimmed glasses and was about as plump as an animated Tim Burton character. And this was long before “I Love Nerds” T-shirts, so girls weren’t exactly lining up to ask me to the prom.
Then in Greece one year, my uncle called to me, “Hey, Hermes.” I was in my underwear at the time, and as any mainland Greek will tell you, this is the highest compliment you can give a guy. Hermes by Praxiteles is a statue from the Classical age, representing the messenger god, and like Michelangelo’s David, stands as an ideal of male beauty. Which got me to thinking. Me? Hermes? My uncle is quite the exaggerator, but he didn’t say it in an ironic way, I am sure. So I checked with the mirror and sure enough, I could find nothing hideous about me, other than my cleft lip. After that, I started to think that maybe I’d look better in the nude. At the very least, it’d draw attention away from my face.
By the time I was in my 20’s, now a frequent visitor to Paradise Lakes, my confidence shot through the roof. My acne was no more, thanks to a dangerous drug called Accutane; a surgery at eighteen corrected much of my disfigurement; and I’d even gained a few pounds. More than that, naturism taught me the illusory nature of beauty. But I still had a problem and it weighed on me heavily, more than my nudist secret ever did. Paradise was full of couples, but I was by myself, alone. I needed a girlfriend, someone like Nicole, or an older version of Britney, but like Mr. Lee told me, single women were a rarity. My only chance was to find someone from the outside, clothing-loving world and introduce her to the lifestyle. But what crazy girl would agree to such a thing? Keep in mind, this was before online dating and my wooing skills were nonexistent. I mean I wasn’t exactly a player. Thanks to my cleft lip nose, and extreme social awkwardness, due, in part, to being locked in my house for a decade, I’d never even kissed a girl. And the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that my nudist days were soon to be behind me. Did I really want to risk a potential relationship just to play nude volleyball in a nursing home?
Being a restaurant manager can have its advantages, especially if you’re looking for love. Is it legal to date your employees? I don’t think so. But I never really thought of myself as “the boss.” I was just a college kid looking after my parent’s business, and far from the pervert some people imagine nudists to be, I was like the Amish when it came to sex. My brother, meanwhile, who never showed interest in social nudity, hit the clubs every weekend looking for a one-night-stand.
I found it easiest to talk to hostesses, who had nothing to do but greet customers and roll silverware. That’s how I met Maria. She was Greek, incidentally, and a few years younger than me. Ideal marriage material, if you were to ask my parents. But she was a big time flirt. Now, if you’re in the restaurant business, you know when a girl casually eats from your plate or drinks from your straw, she’s not afraid of getting your cooties. We used to share food all the time and not just pizza. And as you can imagine, two forks and one- spaghetti can lead to some pretty Lady and the Tramp situations. Eventually, we ended up at my parent’s place while they were off in Greece. She was eager to toss off her pants and watch porn, and later expressed an interest in taking nude photos (of herself, not me, silly). Being ever the gentlemen, I did not think to press my advantage, but photos? What guy can pass up nude photos? Now, for all you young people reading this, imagine a time before sexting, when taking naked selfies was especially challenging. Nobody had camera phones in those days, and you simply couldn’t drop a roll of sexy-time memories off at Walgreens without getting asked some serious questions. But I had a solution. It was this new fangled thing called a digital camera. So, as Maria sat on my bed readying for our Playboy shoot, I rifled through my desk to find—where the fuck is my camera? My brother, as it turns out, had stolen it! I was sure upset at the time, but looking back on it now, I should probably thank him. Given the butterfly effect, my kids today might not exist, and I’d be far less happily married. For you see, while Maria had little trouble getting naked, she was a shallow person, often judging people by their looks. She’d have hated Paradise Lakes if it weren’t stocked with Calvin Klein models.
But Maria wasn’t my only prospect. Jaime was a waitress who seemed into me, your typical blonde, all-American girl-next-door who liked to paint. When I asked her what she thought about nudity, she remarked, “I wish clothes had never been invented!” So . . . Jackpot? Not exactly. Nudism matters a great deal to me, but there’s more to my personality, and to love. At around the same time, I met another girl at the mall who made crepes. She was short and cute and just a little bit shy, but she always seemed to smile when I asked for my usual banana and Nutella combo. Somehow, I managed the courage to ask her out, and we talked well into the night about our favorite writers and philosophers. By contrast, Maria and Jaime wouldn’t have known Jean-Paul Sartre from Britney Spears. So when Valentines Day rolled around, I knew I had a decision to make. Maria was waiting for me, because we always went out that day, but there was also crepe girl, who was smart and considerate and I loved being around her even when we just sat on her couch doing nothing. Only problem? I couldn’t have met a girl further from the nudist lifestyle had I tried. Crepe girl was fairly timid, covering her backside with a jean jacket wherever we went, but that was the least of my worries, for she was living in America on a student visa from—I kid you not—a Muslim country. Far from the carefree attitude of the Greek isles, in her country, religiously observant women cover from head to toe, and the beach is just a field for boys to kick a soccer ball around as families mill about the sand in their
Sunday Friday best, with nary a bikini in sight. Heck, not only would you never find unicorn girl here, she’d immediately get thrown in a Midnight Express dungeon. Or worse.
When it comes to my life, it seems, God has a weird sense of humor. There was every possibility she’d be leaving me for her homeland upon finishing her studies, or go running for the mosque should she discover my nudist proclivities. But it was worth the risk, because I loved her, even if I had to give up the things that made me who I am. I don’t know how I broached the subject of nudism, but I did, not wanting to end up married ten years still harboring a secret. Whatever her response, I knew I owed her the truth.
Love, it seems, can make you do things, stupid things, crazy things, things you’d never imagine doing. On our first visit to Paradise, I assured her that clothing was very much optional. But what made her feel awkward was everyone else. Societal norms had flipped on her, and she became the odd one out, the crazy person in a one piece. Just like my mother, she hated any appearance of impropriety. Honestly, I think she’d have loved to live during the days of poofy wigs and corsets. But when in Rome, she’d be first in a toga. So by our second visit, she got out of my Volkswagen Beetle proclaiming, “Who needs bathing suits?” and what took me years to build up the courage to do, she did in a week. My younger, timid self could never have made that jump. But love is a powerful thing.
And that’s when I realized crepe-making Muslim girl was far better than a born-nudist, because she was willing to meet me halfway. For me. For shy me, for cleft lip me, for ugly me. She wasn’t a unicorn, but something better, a girl like me. Least likely to become a nudist.
Just last week, my wife and I returned from a naturist resort in Cancun. And in case you’re not following, yes, I married that crepe girl. We’ve been together fifteen years now and, during that time, managed to pop out two clones. Both are of my wife. I mean, really, the relatives say I wasn’t even there, but that’s probably for the best. And while we’re far from the nudist family I’d dreamed about, every night when I climb into bed and look at those three identical faces, I am reminded how incredibly fortunate I am. The main thing, of course, I am loved. But aside from that, I no longer panic when the car door slams in the driveway because I forgot where I put my shorts. My entire childhood, I dreamed about being naked, in front of family and friends, without anyone so much as noticing, and now that dream has become a reality. Around my wife and kids, I can be true to myself, live in a way that feels most genuine, and that’s what nudism is all about. Just being yourself. And we are teaching our kids to do the same. To know that they are loved, and that they are beautiful, just the way they are.
As of this writing, I am 41 years old, too old for young naturist events, and yet it has taken me this long to figure out why nudism caters mostly to people over sixty. That’s just how long it takes for some people to come out to friends and family, to overcome shame, to realize the truth. From parents, religion, and the media, we are pressured into believing that the human body is shameful and obscene, a thing to hide and be disgusted by, but that it is sometimes, paradoxically, beautiful and arousing. But this is a lie—the most prevalent lie in history. A great many more people never overcome the “shame of being human,” going to their graves fully dressed. In church clothes no less.
Perhaps in some ways, I never fully overcame my repressed childhood. My wife, who is tolerant of nudism, still makes fun of me. “That’s your philosophy,” she says, “being naked?” But nudism, I tell her, isn’t about nakedness—strippers aren’t nudists, after all—it’s about being alive. At some point in our history, in our rush to evolve and separate from nature, we’ve forgotten that life isn’t merely to be seen and heard, but to be felt as well. We have forgotten that our bodies make us what we are—human—and there is no shame in being human, or in being without clothes, or being seen without clothes. To be naked is simply to be oneself. A breast or a penis or a vagina is no more embarrassing than an ear or an elbow. Body parts are only as significant as our society makes them.
Missed Parts 1 through 5? Go back to the START!
Special thanks to Felicity Jones and Jordan Blum for first posting this story on their blog!