By Heidi Simmons
Have you ever gone skinny-dipping? It may be the gateway drug to becoming a nudist — or as nudists call it –- a “naturist.” If you prefer bathing suits and clothing, then you are a “textile.” If you totally cringe at getting naked and fear seeing a naked body, then you have “Gymnophobia.”
In Mark Haskell Smith’s Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World (Grove Atlantic, 320 pages), he uncovers way more than just nudists’ lingo.
This is Smith’s sixth book. His fiction titles include: Moist, Salty, Delicious, Baked and Raw: A Love Story. His non-fiction Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers and the Race for the Cannibis Cup is an essential read about the production of marijuana. Smith spent two years exploring the subculture of growing pot with a quest to smoke the dankest bud. He was successful! (For my review go to coachellavalleyweekly.com/dank-goodness)
For a guy who writes novels with such sensuous titles and is willing to embed himself into fringe subcultures, you would think Smith is some kind of macho, lascivious, badass – and perhaps he is – but he sure doesn’t look or act like one. Smith is bald, fair-skinned, bespectacled and blue-eyed. He has an easy-going manner and curious disposition. His non-judgmental demeanor makes Smith the perfect guy to garner information about outlying industries.
In Naked at Lunch, Smith admits to being a nerd. So what motivated him to drop trou for an inside look at global nudism? I sat down with Smith at the Rancho Las Palmas resort where we met in the bar — fully dressed.
CVW: On a scale of one to ten – ten being the most comfortable with “social nudity” – where were you when you started this adventure? And where are you since the release of Naked at Lunch?
MHS: I was a one when I started. I was really uncomfortable. I’d never done it before. I had skinny-dipped in high school once or twice but never anything else. Today, I’d say I’m a six – maybe six and a half. Now, if people were skinny-dipping at the beach I would join them. I wouldn’t feel too weird about it. But I don’t know if I’d go to a nudist resort again and hang around the barbeque.
CVW: Your first experience getting naked was here in the CV at the Palm Springs’ Desert Sun Resort. You were surprised by how many elderly people were in the buff. Although your descriptions of ageing bodies are honest, you didn’t see their nakedness as beautiful. Has that changed?
MHS: Oh totally. On the [nude] cruise ship, I was really inspired seeing a 70 year old woman with her walker out on the dance floor enjoying herself. I hope when I’m seventy I can be like her — so free and having fun. It was really great.
CVW: You point out that membership in “non-sexual social nudity” is dwindling and that younger people are finding new ways to express their naked selves. Do you think social nudism has a future?
MHS: I don’t know. That’s going to be the challenge for these resorts with older members who are aging out. The young nudists I talked with want to go to a beach or campground. They don’t want to spend a couple hundred bucks on a hotel.
CVW: I enjoyed reading about anarchist Émile Armand and the various manifestos and philosophical points of view of the naturists you include. Is social nudity political?
MHS: I think so. These are people who risk their jobs, a stigma and arrest to do what they find pleasurable. That’s a social and political statement against the church and our laws. They’re saying it isn’t fair. We need to be more tolerant of everything and we’ll be a better world. Why not set asides places for nudists. Is that too much to ask?
CVW: Your European excursions to Spain’s Vera Playa and France’s Cap d’Agde were quite different experiences. Spain is family oriented and nudity is welcomed by the surrounding beach community, whereas France is a walled off world that allowed swinging and fetish dressing. Was there a big difference in the way the nudists socialized?
MHS: People are pretty much the same. They’re on vacation. They’re out eating and drinking, playing on the beach. In France at night the fetish clubs and swinger bars open. The kids have gone to bed. You could shop naked in Spain but most didn’t. In France, everyone was shopping naked.
CVW: At Cap d’Agde, you wrote about a threesome having sex on their balcony. Is sexual promiscuity the natural evolution of social nudity?
MHS: No. They don’t have anything to do with each other. In fact, nudists go through great lengths to keep it a safe and a non-sexual environment. But it [the sex] was an unusual thing to witness.
CVW: You say that the non-sexual social nudity at pools was somewhat boring and that you missed the flirtations that happen at textile pools. Is social nudism not that social?
MHS: It is social among couples and regulars. But for single men, they’re a little suspicious. I had to be restrained. I didn’t want to come off as some weirdo or overly friendly or flirtatious guy because there are rules against that. It’s safer to socialize with couples.
CVW: Naked at Lunch is dedicated to David Ulin (Los Angeles Times Book Critic) and Tod Goldberg (UCR Palm Desert Administrative Director of the MFA program.) Are they nudists?
MHS: Ha! No! They are the furthest from nudists. But they’re my good friends and fellow writers. They encouraged me to do it!
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Smith includes a detailed history of human nudity, the laws and current state of global nakedness. He interviews a wide range of experts that include a naturist publisher, a fashion designer and a psychologist. There is a chapter on cock rings and genital topiary.
The book shines when Smith is in the midst of non-sexual social nudity, whether hiking, eating or “taking air baths” in the Austrian Alps. There are many laugh-out-loud as well as cringe-worthy moments.
Especially charming is Smith’s account of finally convincing his wife to join him on a naturist cruise, where they get naked on a beautiful Bahamian beach and swim in clear water sharing a peak experience.
Naked at Lunch encourages a reconsideration of body image and nakedness in society.