SEP 02, 2001

All Undressed and So Many Places to Go


THE beach blankets were spread on the sand, the Igloo coolers filled with cold drinks, the pages of bad summer books already curling in a salt breeze scented with the mai tai aroma of suntan oil. The five friends on the family beach just a short hike from Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island made for an image with the reassuring look of an all-American snapshot.

There was a difference, however, between this picture and those in most photo albums. The two men and three women in this particular shoreside group, all in their 30's, were naked.

"Why not?" asked Rosemary Murphy, 31, an intensive-care nurse standing surfside on Lighthouse Beach, wearing only an ankle bracelet and a red devil tattoo. "Once you get past the initial jolt of taking your clothes off in public, you realize that it feels much more comfortable." Besides, Ms. Murphy added, "it's not like the Puritans are about to pull onshore in a boat."

If they did, they might be startled to see 3,000 nude people stretched toward the distance, playing volleyball or Frisbee or testing the water, protected by little more than baseball caps, sunglasses and a slick of SPF 30. Where once a handful gathered, park officials say that 200,000 nude bathers visit over a typical summer.

In what some see as a sign that Americans' cultural mores may be shifting along with their tan lines, this scene is being repeated at hundreds of public beaches throughout the country. On a fine weekend at Haulover Beach, a quarter-mile stretch of sand connected to a Miami-Dade County park, as many as 7,000 people migrate to an exclusively nude area that was visited by 200 nudists a day in isolated clusters when it opened 10 years ago.

Crowds are also increasing these final summer days at Blacks Beach near San Diego, at Mazo Beach on the lower Wisconsin River and at Gunnison Beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., a "dress optional" sand strip run by the National Park Service that was recently deemed by the Clean Beaches Council, an environmental group, one of the top 10 beaches in the United States.

Far from being off the beaten path, most of those places are in plain sight of both state and federal lands, and they are legal. Late last year, officials of Cape Canaveral National Seashore in Volusia County, Fla., agreed to set aside part of south Apollo Beach as a clothes-free zone, thus creating a complement to Playalinda, a county beach nearby that has been known to draw 3,000 nude sunbathers on a busy day.

In June, California opened its first official clothing-optional beach at Gray Whale Cove, a 20-minute drive south of San Francisco. The are still 185 unofficial sites in California listed in The San Francisco Bay Guardian's annual guide to places along the state's coastline patronized by people who would consider "Baywatch" actors overdressed. While the National Park Service does not maintain statistics on nude recreation within its parks and national seashores, rangers in New York, California and Nevada spoke of the practice becoming increasingly commonplace. "There seems to be more tolerance of it," said David Barna, the agency's spokesman. "And we get less complaints."

Public nakedness is not without its foes. A bill in the Wisconsin legislature, for instance, would ban nudity on all state-controlled lands. An Oregon judge has ordered state wildlife agents to police the boundaries of a milelong nude beach on Sauvie Island after neighbors won a lawsuit complaining that vagrant nudists were straying across private property lines.

In Barnstable, Mass., the county seat, a Superior Court judge recently reversed the establishment of a clothing- optional beach in the usually laissez-faire resort town of Provincetown, citing old laws prohibiting indecent exposure. More typically, there is a distaste for the practice, as voiced by Jane Dimmock, a bather at Fire Island on a recent Saturday, who said, "Some of us think the whole idea is just gross."

Most American places have laws prohibiting lewd or obscene behavior. "And we are vigilant about enforcing them," said Constantine Dillon, superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore, where use surveys show that attendance at the clothing-optional Lighthouse Beach more than tripled to over 200,000 last year from 60,000 in 1996.

Mr. Dillon added, "We have a very low number of problems" at Lighthouse Beach. "This is a family beach, with a lot of kids and couples. Anyone behaving obscenely is pretty darn unwelcome out here."

The urge to disrobe in public lately seems to stretch well beyond the tideline, with most experts citing generational shifts as a probable cause.

Spontaneous outbreaks of group nakedness that once seemed renegade on many American campuses are no longer rare occurrences, with nude runs, nude dorms and a variety of naked antics a regular occurrence at all kinds of universities. "Students just accept that it's something people are going to do," said Katherine Stutzman, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr, where an annual tradition centers on leaping naked into a reflecting pool.

Perhaps more surprising than collegiate nakedness is the growth in the number of campgrounds and R.V. parks nationwide geared toward naked recreationists, a phenomenon reflected in the addition of nudist destinations to listings in the official road guides of five states.

"There's a definite increase in tolerance and acceptability of it," said David Gorin, the president of the National Association of Recreational Vehicles and Campgrounds in Falls Church, Va. "We don't have any problems with nude campgrounds. We never get any complaints."

Nudists can now choose from among an array of nude resorts, cruise lines and spas. And membership in the American Association of Nude Recreation has doubled in the last decade to 50,000, with most of the growth among people 18 to 34.

When Kimberly Schwartz first stumbled across a nude beach, "I'd never been to one in my life, and it was hard for me to believe they existed in this country, even though I knew it's prominent in France," she said.

Ms. Schwartz, a single mother and surgical nurse from Baltimore, comes from "a family that is not even close to being naturists," she said. "And I realize that a lot of people would think it's too much." For herself, however, the experience of going naked at Lighthouse Beach this summer was liberating. "So much of it is a reflection of how you feel about yourself," she said. "How comfortable are you in your skin."

An act of social daring that was pioneered in the 60's, getting naked in public is not, said Jerome Levin, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Wolfson Institute for National Affairs at New School University, "a political statement anymore."

The power of the unclothed body to shock is waning, perhaps as an effect of the proliferation of frank imagery in film and advertising and an increase in Internet sites like the all- nude Webcast, or such cable television shows as "Sex and the City," or "Oz," where nakedness is common enough to seem nearly compulsory. Even network television viewers eventually stopped noticing that Richard Hatch, the star of the first "Survivor" series, spent much of his time outwitting his fellow castaways while clad in nothing but pixels.

Consider, too, the linguistic peekaboo of "The Full Monty," a phrase now so familiar that it was recently made an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not seem coincidental that when the market-savvy designer Tom Ford recently announced the introduction of his first fragrance for Yves Saint Laurent, the name he chose for it was Nu, French for nude.

In the cosmopolitan setting of Miami, it is no longer rare to see women sunbathing topless at city beaches. Still, on any given Saturday afternoon in Miami, said Caren Rabbino, a Web producer who lives there, "the religious people are walking home from synagogue, and the Cubans are standing in the ocean drinking cafe con leche with their clothes on, and the Brazilians and Germans are wearing nothing and nobody is segregated. It's all right out there plain as day."

When Abercrombie & Fitch's 271- page summer catalog was released last June, so little about the anatomies of its male and female models was left to the imagination that the lieutenant governor of Illinois, Corinne Wood, sponsored a campaign to boycott the label. Ms. Wood's campaign and, her Web site, quickly drew support from a variety of religious and antipornography groups. "They're marketing inappropriate imagery to our children," Ms. Wood said in an interview.

An Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman said: "Corinne Wood is missing the point. Nudity is already happening on colleges all over the country. We're just reflecting what's already there."

The company is "selling their clothes by using forbidden fruit," Ms. Wood said in June, not inaccurately (the once faltering retailer had sales of $1.24 billion in 2000), about the time Abercrombie & Fitch began shipping the 400,000 first-run copies of the $6 catalogs to newsstands and retail stores. By mid-August, the entire print run was gone.

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company