Kansas nudists battle critics and stereotypes

MANHATTAN, Kan., June 14 (UPI) -- In a lamp-lit corner of a Kansas City, Kan., coffee bar, Mike sat in a worn leather armchair and swigged a Coca-Cola. He wore jeans and a hoodie but that outfit isn’t his preferred way of dressing. In fact, Mike prefers to not get dressed at all. He’s a naturist -- one of a burgeoning group in the Midwest who socialize in the nude.

“Just because I’m dressed, does not mean mentally I’m not a naturist,” said Mike, 33. “Naturism ... is more of a philosophy, not just going nude but also respect for others, respect for yourself and respect for the environment.”

Mike asked that his last name not be used for fear of alerting his family to his lifestyle.

On the surface, Mike is an independent filmmaker and sports blogger. He has degrees from Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in business administration and is studying journalism and video and television production. He’s active in local government and national politics.

But when he’s not in the public eye, Mike lives clothes-free.

Social nudity is taboo in the United States and people like Mike say they face intolerance from spouses, family, friends, the law and religion.

Even the name by which they call themselves -- naturists -- is misunderstood, Mike said. Nudism is about shedding clothes but naturism is about shedding the confines of society and transcending it, he said.

Mike keeps his involvement with naturist communities a secret from his family and most of his friends.

“They have no clue,” Mike said.

He’s part of the Heartland Naturists, a Kansas City organization that tags itself as family friendly.

Heartland is one of four naturist organizations in the state, information from MapMuse, an online geographic directory with listings categorized by brand and interest, states.

Another organization, Camp Gaea, isn’t listed on MapMuse, but it’s a popular spot for local naturists. It’s considered a cultural and spiritual camp instead of strictly about naturism.

At naturist camps, people play volleyball and shuffleboard, go hiking, swimming and camping and even garden -- all in the buff.

And they’re “camps,” not “colonies,” said Bob Morton, the executive director of the Naturist Action Committee and chairman of the Naturist Education Foundation.

“People think of colonies of ants or colonies of bees or something like that,” he said.

Mike discovered naturism as a college student. In 2005 he attended his first naturist swim, organized by Heartland.

“I was nervous at first,” Mike said. “I took my clothes off and was very comfortable very shortly afterward. I will never wear a bathing suit again. Once you swim naked, that’s it. You’re in it for life. It feels free.”

For many, especially in the United States, naturism is about freedom, said Mike Storey, a naturist and a philosophy professor at Bellevue College in Washington. Storey is also an editor at N magazine, a naturist publication, and has contributed to a book on the best nude beaches worldwide.

“It’s the freedom from clothes, it’s the freedom from oppression, it’s the freedom from a sense of shame, or it’s the liberty I have of having the wind and the sun on my skin,” Storey said. “Americans just love liberty.”

But in Germany, he said, naturists tend to focus on physical well-being. In France, naturists shun clothes to equalize class distinctions, he said.

The American Association for Nude Recreation advocates going nude recreationally to relax, relieve stress or boost self-esteem.

Storey says people become naturists to better their relationships with others.

“As social beings we need to communicate with each other socially,” he said. “Clothing can, to some small degree, alienate us from others, from the natural world, from God, if people are spiritual. So, to that degree, by getting rid of clothes, we de-alienate, to some degree, our relationship with other beings, so we’ll actually be able to flourish and thrive a little bit better naked socially.”

When people remove their clothes, socioeconomic distinctions are also cast away, said Mark Partin, Heartland’s treasurer.

“Nudists, in general, are made up of a cross-section of society,” Partin said in via e-mail. “And likewise, the Heartland Naturists are made up of people from all walks of life.”

Heartland events have attracted business executives, nuclear physicists, lawyers, engineers, college students and clergy members from various faiths, Partin said.

Mike said naturism is, for him, a way to overcome years of alienation.

“There were times when I’ve had my body image questions,” he said, adding that he was bullied throughout his school years.

Now, he said, he feels comfortable with his body.

Many naturists say their practice helps them cope with personal hang-ups about their own bodies.

“I didn’t like my own body very much,” said Irene Whittman, president of the Sandy Lane Club Inc. naturist resort in Hutchinson, Kan. “Now, I’m comfortable with it. It’s something that has really helped me grow as a woman, to be able to say, ‘This is me. This is what I am, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.’”

“None of us are Barbie dolls,” she said. “We’re ourselves.”

Nicky Hoffman, managing director of The Naturist Society, said she chose naturism to help her daughters overcome body issues.

“This is the only body you’re ever going to get,” Hoffman said. “I wanted my girls to know that they were OK just like they are.”

Still, critics say they worry that naturist organizations, especially those that advertise as “family friendly,” are dangerous places. Nikki Craft, an activist against naturism, said the camps are ground zero for pedophilia, swinging, pornography and sexual exploitation. Those practices are inherent in the communities, she said.

Heartland officials say they perform background checks on members and require photo identification at all events.

“Our organization is NOT (and will not be) a sex club, a dating service, a singles club, or a swingers club, so if this is what you are looking for please go elsewhere,” Heartland’s Web site states.

To deter overt sexualization, Heartland bans genital piercings in addition to blatant sexual activity.

Naturist advocates often cite research conducted by Marilyn Story, who studied more than 250 children ages 3-5 years whose families were social nudists, at-home nudists or non-nudists.

Story’s results, published in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1979, suggested family nudism increased body acceptance more so than other factors like geographic location, sex or race.

"Watching young children, they’re natural naturists,” Hoffman said. “They want to run around naked every chance they get.”

Lawmakers have tried cracking down on naturists. Former Kansas state Rep. Cindy Hermes, R-Topeka, proposed a bill in 2000 that would have outlawed nudist camps.

Someone who lived near the Lake Edun grounds in Topeka asked Hermes to do something about the facility. While the bill would have made it a crime to participate in nudist activities, Hermes said her primary goal was to create a fence or tree barrier between the nudists and passers-by.

Lake Edun members occasionally went to their cars in the parking lot, unclothed and in full view of children riding by on school buses after school let out.

“It just wasn’t quite right,” she said.

Now, Hermes said she thinks of the conflict and the proposed law as a “wild” ordeal.

“Live and let live,” she said.

Hermes said she was young at the time of the controversy and later regretted her actions and acknowledged naturism as a way of life.

While Hermes’ bill didn’t pass, Kansas does have an indecent exposure law, criminalizing the act of exposing a sex organ in the presence of someone who isn't the spouse of the offender or someone who has not given consent, with intent to gratify sexual desires.

It’s difficult to determine when certain acts are crimes, said Josh Kyle, a spokesman for the Riley County Police Department in Manhattan, Kan.

“There is a fine line between freedom of speech and a community’s authority to establish its own rules concerning what it considers obscene, what it considers permissible,” he said.

Up until 10 years ago, when the Manhattan anti-nudity ordinance was enacted, residents could legally walk the streets nude.

Now, it’s illegal to be nude in public. The law was enacted within city limits in an effort to curb strip clubs, Kyle said.

Many naturists see going without clothes as a constitutional right.

“If wearing a T-shirt with a slogan on it is protected by the First Amendment, if wrapping yourself in a flag is protected by the First Amendment, then why should being nude not be protected by the First Amendment?” Morton said.

Not all people who go nude share Morton’s beliefs. Some just do it once or twice, for the experience.

The Ypartnership/Yankelovich National Leisure Travel Monitor conducted a poll in 2008 and indicated that 1-in-10 adult Americans ranked a nude recreational resort as one of their top travel priorities, called a “nakation,” as cited in Chris Santilli’s 2008 Chicago Tribune article.

Mike says he hopes there will be new interest in going nude, for the sake of naturists everywhere. People should understand that naturists are just like other people in most ways.

“We’re not any of these stereotypes,” he said. “We just prefer to not wear clothes from time to time.”