Members of Naturist New Hampshire relax in a whirlpool.
That is the view of Merrill Mudgett and other adherents of naturism, a movement that promotes "social nudism" as a source of freedom, promoter of tolerance, and means of relaxation. It is a growing movement worldwide, encompassing teachers, government officials, businessmen, laborers, and police officers. It even attracts members of the clergy, such as the retired Baptist minister who recently joined the New Hampshire group.
Before becoming a naturist, the pastor had to struggle with the implications of going in the direction he felt God was leading him; the sort of struggle that most American naturists have to work through because of the puritan traditions that helped shape this country's views of the human body. That view is not shared by much of the rest of the world, where nudism is more widely accepted. The French seaside city of Cap d'Agde plays host to 50,000 naked people on a weekend - roughly equivalent to the entire population of Manchester.
The United States was not always so prudish when it came to nudity. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regularly went swimming without clothes; and Ben Franklin was one of the world's most famous nudists, sitting in front of an open window each day to take "air baths".
Today, naturists have to fight increasing challenges from those who are promoting broad bans on nudity as part of the crusade for "family values". Many naturists, however, argue for their own family values which promote honesty about the human body, saying that nudism satisfies the natural curiosity that a clothed society creates. With a proper attitude toward nakedness, there is no place for pornography, a phenomenon that feeds on a misunderstanding of sexuality.
"Nude is not lewd" is one of many mottos by which naturists live. Contrary to some of the myths surrounding nudist resorts and naturist gatherings, sexual promiscuity is not tolerated and those who come with the idea of "picking up a babe" soon find that is not what it is all about.
"Society's idea is that nudity and sex is the same thing. It absolutely is not," said Mudgett, the founder of Naturist New Hampshire back in 1991 when the group had its headquarters in Franklin. Today, Mudgett, who works at Webster Valve & Foundry in Franklin, takes reservations for the group from his home in Tilton.
"We're very protective of each other. While there generally are more men than women attending our gatherings, the women feel quite comfortable, knowing that no one will be hitting on them."
If it's not about sex, what is naturism about? According to Mudgett and others we spoke with, it is about freedom and friendship more than anything else.
"I've always felt that clothing was an infringement on a freedom," said Ray Dubois, a Manchester resident who works with computers and publishes a quarterly chess magazine. "Every other species is able to go about in its natural state, while man has to be ashamed of his appearance and the appearance of his fellow man. There's something wrong with that."
Mudgett said he has been large all of his life and has been the butt of numerous "fat jokes" which contributed to an introverted nature. Once he attended a naturist meeting, however, he was able to accept his body, as the others around him accepted it.
The same thing holds true for women who are overweight or who have had to cope with mastectomies. Naturism promotes body acceptance. "There are very few perfect 10s at our gatherings," said Mudgett. "In fact, there probably aren't any."
Dubois agreed: "Our population is similar to anywhere else. The general population is out of shape one way or another. We see people as they are. There's no need to feel embarrassment. We're not a club of models and bodybuilders, so there's no need to feel out of place."
Naturists say that it is difficult to explain to those who have not experienced group nudity just how much of a psychological burden is lifted when one sees the diversity existing in others. It allows people to concentrate on other things and provides a freedom not found elsewhere.
Meetings draw members and non-members ranging in age from thirtysomething to their seventies, coming in all shapes and sizes to enjoy swimming in a heated pool, sitting in a whirlpool, and lounging in the sauna. Participants have included two employees of Lucent Technologies, one from Sanders, a quarry truck driver, and the owner of the Franklin business where the group used to make its headquarters. He said he was drawn into naturism as an extension of massage therapy.
Not everyone is willing to go public with their affiliation to a naturist group because of prevailing attitudes in society. For some, it is a very personal thing; for others, it is a cause worth fighting for.
Most participants had similar accounts of how they got into naturism: skinnydipping as children, or finding themselves at nude beaches, and liking the experience of being textile-free. Some, like Mudgett, learned of the naturist movement by watching an episode of the Geraldo show in which members of the religious right sought to debunk the naturists. "The nudists were on one side, discretely covered with towels, and the moral right was on the other, dressed in suits, and the only ones not coming across as hypocrites were the nudists," said Mudgett.
Contacting one of the groups mentioned on the show and attending one of their gatherings in New York, Mudgett found he was instantly accepted. Others from New Hampshire who also attended the meeting commented on the lack of opportunities in their home state - the most famous nudist resort, in Nottingham, allows only couples in order to maintain a gender balance - and Mudgett decided to form a group that would welcome singles as well as couples and act as a resource for those interested in naturism.
Naturist New Hampshire meetings are clothing-optional, allowing those who are interested but not really sure about naturism to start slowly and work their way into the naturist lifestyle, if they wish. Non-members are welcome.
Everyone we spoke with had a similar view of their fellow naturists. "We meet great people and we've made some long-term friendships," said one man who, with his wife, attends as many naturist events as they can fit into their busy schedules. "People here are not hung up on occupations," he said, "and it's always enjoyable to go to different campgrounds and meet other people."
The couple has been attending naturist gatherings for 10 years and has been part of the New Hampshire group for three. "I've never had trouble with anyone I've ever met at these events," he said. "If people feel free enough about getting together like this, they're generally open, sociable people."
Another couple joined the New Hampshire group largely to make it easier for other women to attend. "I think a single woman would be intimidated by the number of men," Lois said in explaining why she felt it important to increase the number of women attending. "I've never seen two women come together."
Lois said her first experience with naturism involved going with friends to Rock River, not knowing it was a nude beach. At first, she resisted taking off her two-piece bathing suit; now she says can hardly stand putting on a bathing suit.
Fred, an employee of Lucent Technologies and one of the original members of Naturist New Hampshire, said that naturism has become a way of life for him. He always was a closet naturist at home, with his experience dating back to when he was in the Boy Scouts. "At the YMCA, we weren't allowed to wear bathing suits," he said. "Then I went skinnydipping in college." He is making improvements on his home which include incorporating private decks and a swimming pool where he can enjoy a clothing-free existence.
Naturist New Hampshire maintains a website to provide information about the group, and the NNH newsletter lists what is happening in the area and the group's meeting schedule.
To obtain more information, e-mail the group at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: NNH, PO Box 969, Winnisquam NH 03289.