Why I am an anti-naturist

In the entry he wrote on “nudisme” in Sébastian Faure's Encyclopédie anarchiste (published 1934), Émile Armand used the word “naturiste” only once, and he put it in quotation marks just as I have done here. Michael Ruehle, son of the operators of Sun Valley Gardens – a nudist camp located on the narrow band of land between Oniatarí:io and Kanahnòn:ke, operational from 1954 to 1982 – likewise used the word “naturist” only once in the reflections on his childhood that were published in The Voice of Pelham in late 2020. It appears in the following context:

Many people wonder about how folks got to be nudists and join the club. In those days, well before social media, my father would run advertisements that were more or less specific, depending on where they ran. Some would be in the various nudist magazines of the time, and these would basically say, “Come visit Sun Valley Gardens, the best nudist camp near Toronto and upstate New York.”

He also ran ads in some of the regional newspapers (not all permitted it), that would be a bit more discreet: “Enjoy a carefree lifestyle at Sun Valley, Canada’s best family-oriented naturist campground.”

It is not his own word, in other words, but a word pulled from a quote – specifically, the “bit more discreet” ad that mentions not only naturism but the family.

I don't want to impute too many things about what either Armand or Ruehle's dad would have thought about the word “naturism” or its cognates, but I appreciate that the two of them seem to prefer the word “nudism”. I have already written about my intention to use the two words to different ends – but whenever another writer, be they erudite or commentariat, insists that the words are synonyms (or otherwise asserts that, like lift vs. elevator, this is the case of a British/Commonwealth word and a U.S./North American word that mean the same thing), they do something to make my position a little less tenable.

It is perfectly unclear whether or not the word “naturist” ought to be pronounced /ˈneɪtʃəɹɪst/ (as in “nature”, like the first syllable in “neighbour”) or /ˈnætʃəɹɪst/ (as in “natural”, like the first syllable in “nanny”). Many people, even those who post on r/nudism, frequently confuse the word “naturist” for the word “naturalist”, which is more properly the word for any number of people who study plants, animals, or “natural history”. These problems don't exist with “nudism”. Why use “naturism”, then, unless you have been duped into thinking it is the “correct” word (perhaps because that is genuinely the more common word in the milieu of nudists you have found yourself ensconced in) or you have a purpose that goes beyond simple description?

I can understand the occasional need for euphemism, especially in a bygone era. But I cannot respect any insistence on identifying nudism – that is, not wearing clothes – with a broad concept of the natural, or any idea of what is supposedly natural for us, i.e. members of the human species.

A rhetoric of “naturism” appeals to nature in order to justify nudism – which is to say, it employs a fallacious argumentative strategy – and it also implies a dichotomy between the categories of naked and clothed that maps neatly to the categories of natural and unnatural. Nakedness is, of course, perfectly natural, insofar as “natural” means anything, but I hardly think that wearing clothes can be considered an unnatural state for the human animal to be found in. Most humans wear clothes most of the time. In public, outside of a very limited set of circumstances (if any), an alien observer of our society would likely observe that it is perfectly unnatural for humans to be unclothed. When it does happen, the immune system of the hive (e.g. society!) typically kicks in pretty quick, regulates the aberration, loads it into a police car, takes it out of sight, etc.

But none of that is really the core of the problem. The problem is that nature is an ideological construct. So is humanity. These are the ideas of observers (that is, conscious minds) that have come up with theories about the universe and the phenomena contained therein. Alas, they are not very useful constructs for the elaboration of strategies for social change and/or for individual empowerment.

What they do, instead, is capture both the rational and imaginative faculties of people who don't (seem to) know better about the complexity of the world, the absurdity of life, or the necessities of living. This is always to the benefit, above all, of empty cults and others' profits. In other words, projects that rely upon the production and reproduction of a certain kind of subjectivity.

Naturism isn't a real player in literally anything that matters politically today. It's a thing for retired people, mostly, and also some younger people who don't have much else going on. For those inclined towards activism (whether they call it by that name or not), there are usually more interesting dragons to slay. Nevertheless, it's a problem insofar as the rhetoric and half-philosophy of naturism has shaped a lot of the conversation around nudism, especially in all those long decades since anarchists stopped participating in that conversation, e.g. approximately the 1930s.

I don't want to point fingers, either, but I think it's fair to say that sometimes, some anarchists (or people who hang out with anarchists a lot) will get taken in by ideas that are simplistic but powerfully explanatory. And I'm not too alarmist about this kind of thing, but I have always been open to the notion that letting bad ideas like primitivism, attasism, or naturism spread unchecked and unchallenged may someday lead to bad consequences.

The most likely bad consequence with respect to naturism is just failure, not some horrible atrocity. But failure might mean any or all of the following: no nudity-optional space; fewer people comfortable in their bodies rather than more; wasted time; wasted money; wasted imagination. I abhor all of it.

I don't have all the answers, but I think there is a lot of benefit to a different grounding of things. One that is probably a bit more personal and ineffable, perhaps worthy of names like “comfort” or “happiness”. I think there can be a bit more honesty between people, too, whenever they can get away, as much as they can, from lazy thinking, received ideas, and bad intellectual habits (like invoking abstractions to win arguments, especially on the internet).

All of the ideas in naturism, such as they are, encourage people to identify themselves as “naturists”. Alas, for those who haven't taken those ideas in, just the very act of self-identification sounds false – and the introduction of falsity, even a perceived falsity, diminishes the honesty of whatever communication will take place next. Therefore, I am an anti-naturist. That doesn't mean I am an adversary of any individual person who is caught up in naturist self-identification, but it does mean that I am against the idea and its consequences, namely its deleterious effect on the chances that any nudist project could ever succeed in some meaningful fashion. Mystification does not give way to salient strategy.