Full disclosure: Uncovering Oregon’s nudist subculture
Words by Lindsay McWilliams, Illustrations by Miro Merrill
I’m sitting with a group of eight people in lawn chairs by a pool. With my notepad handy and recorder on, I ask questions about my interviewees’ lives — typical of my job as a writer. Typical, until I look down.
I am naked. In fact, we’re all naked. We are at the Willamettans Family Nudist Resort.
I had arrived fully clothed at the property in Marcola, Oregon about 40 minutes earlier, where I was greeted by an older woman with a raspy voice named BJ. She was wearing a tank-top and flip-flops — nothing else. We hopped into a golf cart and traveled up a gravel road as BJ laid out the rules.
“No cameras on the grounds,” she explains. “Always have a sit-upon if you’re nude. We’re clothing optional, so we can wear clothes. But there are a few places where you need to be nude: in the swimming pool — who likes bathing suits? — and in the hot tub.”
The Willamettans resort reminds me of summer camp. It’s 44 acres of dense forest, where trees have been cut down to make way for the cabins, condos and trailers that guests can rent or own. A single gravel road travels in one big circle, serving as the main drag. Just up the road from the front office is the Full Moon Saloon, The Bun Marché gift shop and the Rest-ur-Rump restaurant. “We play on words,” says BJ. The 400-member family resort has every amenity one could need: a laundromat, communal showers, a bar with cheap drinks, a pool and hot tub. It even has tennis courts, bocce ball and shuffleboard. And all of the upkeep and operation of the resort is done by members and volunteers. A co-op club, the resort requires that all of its members pitch in to keep the place running.
“It’s like any other park except you don’t have to wear clothes,” says BJ. As she brought me into the pool area, I was warmly greeted by several naked folk. “As we usually say, welcome home!” says Brain, a man in a fisherman’s hat. “This is the happiest place on Earth. Disney’s got nothing on this,” says Nettie, a brunette-haired woman cooling herself with an embroidered fan.
It took me a while to accustom myself to seeing so many body parts that I usually don’t see, and for a time I struggled to look people in the eye. But, before long, the nudity didn’t faze me as much.
We finished a full tour around the grounds, and I went back to the poolside deck where most of the regulars were hanging out. “So Lindsay, are you going to partake?” one man asks. My plan was to fully participate, but I’d been putting it off. I considered myself open-minded about the experience, but I would have been lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to be naked in front of a bunch of people I had just met. Questions and insecurities began popping up inside my head: Should I have shaved better before I came here? Maybe there’s something grossly abnormal about my body that I’ve never noticed until now… Will guys creep on me, stare at me or get a little too close? Regardless, I knew that I had to do it. I had promised myself I would.
Still fully clothed, I sat down at a table with five people, some smoking cigarettes or pipes, all of them naked. John Kinman, former president of the Willamettans and also of the American Association of Nude Recreation, told a story.
“This goes back to the early 80s. BJ and I were together and I took her to a business conference in Florida. We’re lying by the pool and she says, ‘I’m a little uncomfortable. Guys walk by and gawk at me and I’m worried — is my breast falling out or is my pubic hair showing?’ I said, ‘When this conference is over, I’ll take you somewhere else.’ We went to Tampa to a place called Paradise Lakes, and an hour later we’re lying nude by the pool. All the sudden, BJ says ‘Nobody’s staring at me. I just feel so relaxed and it’s a non-sexual environment.'”
I found it fascinating that, from her experience, BJ felt less sexually exploited when she was nude than when she was wearing a bathing suit. It’s as if the tease of being almost naked creates more sexual tension.
John was raised as a nudist from childhood and he introduced BJ to nudism when the two began dating. “It was hard for me at first to understand, but it became a beautiful lifestyle,” BJ explains. “You start to love people by the heart rather than criticizing what they wear. And sometimes their whole personality changes when they take off those clothes.”
At this point, I was starting to loosen up. First off was my shirt, then my bra. But no one really stared, or even seemed to notice that I was stripping. And yet, I was fighting the urge to cross my arms in front of my breasts. I kept self-consciously looking down to see how they looked, the palest parts of my body that had clearly never seen the sun.
A woman named Kari seemed to notice my discomfort. “You know, everyone feels the need to cover up at first. But, everyone I’ve ever met at a nudist resort, they look you in the eye,” she says. “They’re not looking at your body and they’re not judging you.”
What most of them didn’t know was just how huge this moment was for me. Three years ago, I had finally recovered from a long battle with anorexia, which had crippled any body acceptance that existed in me. Three years ago, I wouldn’t be caught naked in front of the people closest to me, let alone complete strangers. And yet here I was — doing it.
“Look at me,” says Paula, a woman likely in her seventies who’s evidently had a double mastectomy. “I have no breasts.” She was a spunky, social member of the Willamettans with a tattoo of bright pink lips stamped onto her right buttcheek. Paula was already a nudist when she had to have one of her breasts removed due to cancer. She asked her surgeon to remove both and refused reconstructive surgery. “Don’t want it, don’t need it,” she said. “I’m a nudist.”
Many people at the Willamettans talked about nudism being beneficial for their body images. Looking around, all shapes and sizes of people could be found. Some were hairy, some with stretch marks or C-section scars; others with wrinkles or cellulite. “Before we first came out here, I always thought it was going to be all Barbies and Kens,” says one woman named Lee. “And we have not found Barbie and Ken yet. We’ve been looking for them,” says Nettie, as the group around her bursts into laughter.
The demographic of this resort is vast. Many members are in their forties or fifties, but I also met many in their thirties. Apparently young adults have become more common at the resort over the previous years. The Willamettans is also family-friendly; many people bring their young children, who are apparently the club’s “best nudists” because they love to be naked. Overall, the people I met weren’t all crazy hippies and nature-freaks like I might have thought. They were normal, everyday people: teachers, bus drivers, government workers, lawyers and nurses. They just don’t like to wear clothes.
“The most important thing: we’re not a colony. There’s no leprosy here,” says Brian. For these nudists, identifying them as a colony has a very negative connotation. It makes them feel like outcasts, undesirables or like some type of cult.
Another misconception about resorts like the Willamettans is that they are teeming with perverted creeps. But this club takes special care to ensure the safety of its members. Each person who wants to join must first pass a background check, showing no criminal activity. Then, during the first year, new members are on probation; their membership can be terminated by the board of directors at any time. Longtime members keep an eye on the newer ones, making sure incoming members aren’t staring a little too long or getting a little too close. “And we really want to watch out for the kids,” says Jackie, a board member. “That’s our main priority.”
Because of the stigma around nudism though, members know better than to tell their friends and coworkers about where they spend their weekends. As far as others know, they “go camping” or to the beach often, especially for nudists who still lead professional careers and fear that they would be judged by employers. “We don’t tell everyone because their mind immediately goes to sex or something dirty, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” says Nettie.
Hanging out naked may be publicly frowned upon, but it’s hardly a minority activity. According to the American Association for Nude Recreation, Oregon alone has at least nine nudist or clothing-optional clubs. And many, like the Willamettans, draw several hundred people each year. Those who participate in nude recreation often travel nationwide or worldwide to visit different clubs or attend nudist conventions. “These days, we won’t go on vacation unless there’s somewhere we can be naked,” says Lee.
While people in the United States commonly attribute the birth of nudism to the French, there is evidence that it existed elsewhere, much longer ago. In 1932, researchers and nudist experts Frances and Mason Merrill wrote one of the earliest extensive accounts of nudism in the U.S. titled Nudism Comes to America. They cite “high civilizations” like Ancient Greece and Japan, but also a large movement in Germany, long before developments in France. Yet the couple also refers to nudism in North Africa, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Russia, and Portugal during this time.
Years after the movement began in Germany, secret nudists (also known as naturists or sun-worshippers) in the U.S. heard about what was happening in Germany and began to organize themselves informally. According to the authors, the oldest nudist club was formed by German-Americans in 1929 in New York City. It was called the American League for Physical Culture. Of the 200+ members of the club, many were known to be clergymen, professors, business professionals — “very bourgeois.”
Nudism has never been new. It has ebbed and flowed with changes in society, practiced in secret and in public. However, common across nudists of all time periods is the idea that being naked is healthy and natural.
At a nudist resort, nothing is hidden. And, therefore, there is no such thing as “too much information.” Bodily functions, and things that might otherwise be embarrassing or taboo, are brought to the forefront. Because they have to be.
“Alright, Lindsay,” Brian says to me, “ask the really hard question that I know you want to ask.” I had no idea what he was getting at. “What happens when guys get overexcited? It’s a natural thing,” he says. My cheeks immediately turned pink as I laughed, realizing that I was now talking about male erections with a complete stranger. Jackie responds, “You should roll turn around, cover it up with a towel or go back to your tent, and try to keep that thing under control.”
“Parts is parts — everybody’s got `em,” says Debbie, a tan woman wearing a sunhat.
The candor of the group was extremely refreshing. I began to feel what they were feeling — that I could talk about anything, that I could show any part of myself, physical or not, without fear of judgement. It made sense to me why many of the members called the resort “a no-judgement zone.”
“I’ve always felt that, deep down in all of us, there’s this latent desire to get back to the Garden again and be able to walk naked in nature,” says another man named Jon.
“Walk naked in nature,” Kari repeats, approvingly.
At the end of my visit, I was given hugs by many who encouraged me to come back again. I put my clothes back on to head home. The inside of my car was about 90 degrees due to a rare, sunny day in the Oregon springtime. During my drive back to Eugene, my clothes clung to me as I began to sweat. My elastic bra felt more constricting around my ribcage than ever. At that point, I understood.