In the context of many conversations, “nudism” and “naturism” can be considered synonyms. They both refer to precisely the same activity, the same subculture organized around that activity, the same set of ideas that motivate that subculture.
I have made a point of saying that I am not a naturist, however—making the point that I am an anarchist instead. That is only partially because I am not, and never have been, part of the aforementioned nudist/naturist subculture. My main contention is that the connotations and history of the word “naturism”, specifically, make it worthwhile to cleave the synonymity of “nudism” and “naturism” in twain. In doing so, both words are able to do a little more work for us in philosophically rigorous discussions.
Before I begin, I just want to say that I have no problems (inherently) with any person who “identifies as a naturist”, i.e. who uses that word to describe themselves and/or even prefers “naturist” to the other word, “nudist”. Perhaps I am trying to have my cake and eat it too, but I have no interest in starting up a sort of gay vs. queer controversy, or a bisexual vs. pansexual controversy, and then staking my claim on one side of it.
Again, the point is that I want these words to do more work for us, which they cannot do if they are understood as synonyms. I also want to stress that, no matter what a dictionary says (because, indeed, many dictionaries identify the terms as synonymous), an -ism word that evokes “nature” will necessarily have a subtly different meaning than an -ism word that evokes nudity or nakedness.
A brief, demonstrative aside. It is interesting that the Germanic, or Saxon, words in English, i.e. those with roots in the language that predate the Norman conquest of England in 1066, often with cognates in the genetically related contemporary German language—for instance, “naked”, cognate to modern German “nackt”—rarely give rise to -ism words; usually only Greco-Latin words serve that function. It's fine that we don't speak of “nakedists”, but I honestly think that “freedomists”, for instance, could be a fine word for naming any number of people, perhaps including muself and my friends. For some reason, the words with roots in the older language are somehow coded as less intellectual, more earthy. Native speakers of English are able to just intuit this fact of the language, without ever being explicitly taught.
So, with respect to the “activity” of nudism (in scare quotes because being naked is more of a passive condition than a deliberate undertaking), I think it is clear that the word “nudism” is pretty straightforward. The fact that it is an -ism word gives it some connotation of being an ideology, but there are, of course, other -ism words in the English language that connote nothing of the kind: “botulism”, for instance, but also words that denote activities, such as “cellism” (shout out Fredy Perlman) and “equestrianism”. In French, there are an even greater number of examples of such words that aren't ideologically connoted: “tabagisme” for tobacco addiction, “cyclisme” for bike riding, etc.
The word “naturism” is not straightforward. To encounter the word for the first time, without sufficient context (imagine a magazine entitled The Naturist without any depiction of people on the front cover, depicting just a sunlit copse of trees instead), a person might not understand that it has anything to do with nudity or nakedness at all. Furthermore, as a modification of the word “nature”—any concept of which can only be understood through the lens of one ideological framing or another—the word “naturism” establishes itself as a firmly ideological concept in and of itself. Thus, if we refuse synonymity, the two of them can do some work for us by denoting an ideology of nudism (or maybe about nudism) that is not identical to nudism itself (which is to say, practiced nudism).
As I understand it, the use of the word “naturism” to denote nudism (in any sense) is a more recent phenomenon than the word “nudism” itself. It is by no means the real word for nudism, as some self-described naturists insist today, nor is it even “the British word” for nudism (i.e. this is not a “lift” vs. “elevator” situation). I would never claim to be perfectly familiar with the related archive, and I understand that it's hard to prove things definitively in endeavours of intellectual archaeology or etymology even when you do have that kind of access. That being said, it is my impression that, in the period from 1900 to 1950 (and even later than that), the word “naturism” served a usefully euphemistic function for anglophone countries' formal nudist associations, clubs, etc. If they wanted to advertise their existence to the public at large, to speak of naturism was safer than speaking of nudism, because the latter could attract censorship or, worse, police attention.
To frame nudism and/or nudity as natural was advantageous then (and many self-described naturists obviously still think that is true today). From the 19th century on, to be clear, there were plenty of other things that were being framed as natural, or as scientific, or whatever. Words like “nature” and “science” (and related adjectival forms) are huge in semantic terms, attending as they do to variegated concepts in both philosophy and popular understandings—but they can serve a much simpler role in the discourse of marketing and propaganda (basically the same thing), which is to indicate simply and straightforwardly that a given thing is good, no further qualification necessary.
For this project, I am interested in a critique of the movement for a sort of “social nudism”—that is, a deliberate and shared practice of being naked—that began around 1900 in Germany. The Germans referred to this movement as neither “nudism” nor “naturism”; they used, and largely continue to use, a natively German term, “Freikörperkultur”, which can be straightforwardly translated as “free body culture”. This popular cultural movement was borne out of a particularly dynamic culture of radical medicinal innovation and inquiry that existed in Germany at this time; there are lots of interesting things to say about it, and the larger German cultural context, but I am not the person to do it. (Suffice it to say, however, that some aspects of all this were problematic.)
The ideas of German “Freikörperkultur” were broadcast to, and emulated in, France, England, and other countries (though the term “Freikörperkultur” itself, too German perhaps, did not make the same journey). This movement, which typically emphasized the importance of sunlight, fresh air, and family togetherness, and which was very much of a piece with the movement in Germany, was generally denoted outside of that country by the names “nudism” or “naturism” (or cognates thereof).
So, I think it is appropriate to speak of a single, global movement with a certain degree of historical continuity. There is a tradition, in other words, that I'd like to be able to speak about in ways that are comparable to how many people (including myself) speak about the anarchist tradition or the Marxist tradition.
I want to denote this tradition as naturist, and not nudist, because I think that nudism—the earthy “activity” of being naked—exceeds and predates the naturist tradition that is in part an intellectual tradition, just as whatever is designated by the word “anarchy” is something that exceeds and predates the anarchist tradition.
I think I am guilty of sometimes using the word “naturism” in a similar fashion to how I use the word “leftism”, i.e. as a grab bag of different things I don't like. So it is important to acknowledge that, today, there are self-identified naturists who actually read old books that were written before 1950—who are “steeped in the naturist tradition” and take it seriously, as much as a religious scholar takes a given school of theology seriously—and there are also self-identified naturists who simply call themselves that because they intuitively understand what it means (“nudity is natural”) and they like that idea because they think of themselves as environmentalists or something. Allow me, in this paragraph, to acknowledge this diversity of thought.
Again, though, the important thing is that, by using the word “naturism” in a way that refuses any synonymity with “nudism”, I am able to distinguish my own thoughts from those associated with any part of the naturist tradition. This is important, because I think that the cause of nudism (that is, the liberation of nudist desire, and not simply of self-denoted “nudists”, as I explained in this post) are going to be served better by anarchist ideas than by naturist ones.
Naturism is pretty much moribund as a cultural and political movement. Anarchism, on the other hand, has vitality. I have my critiques of anarchism today—which is to say, critiques of tendencies within, or adjacent to, the anarchist space—but there's really not much of a comparison here. And I'm not saying that naturism is about to disappear, but I am saying that it is significantly less influential than anarchism could ever reasonably hope to be. Naturism is a cloistered space, and a gradually shrinking one, held back (in my humble opinion) by the insufficiently radical political ideas of the vast majority of its adherents.
Again, if you call yourself a naturist, no big deal! That's chill, and you are (probably) chill. It's just that, this blog is in large part a critical project—and I need a sufficient vocabulary for elaborating that critique. The object of my critique is an ideology, and that ideology needs a name.
And the best name available is “naturism”.