The Naked Truth

Note: Originally published in More magazine, this Lowell Thomas award-winning story is the inspiration for my memoir’s title, but is not the version included in it. I’ve reserved for the book the far funnier back story of how I got the assignment and what the nudist resort was really like.

More story, the Naked Truth

It’s a balmy day in mid-September in Palm Springs, where my friend Nikki and I are vacationing. We’re sitting near a dazzlingly blue resort pool, reading magazines, making conversation, applying sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen. Nikki and I aren’t particularly light-skinned, nor do we hail from sun-free cities: She lives in Phoenix, I in Tucson. But exposure is definitely an issue.

We’re nude, you see, lounging around a pool at Desert Shadows, an upscale nudist resort.

Mind you, Nikki and I aren’t nudists. Far from it. An occasional bout of youthful skinny dipping aside, we’re not prone to disrobing in public – and we’ve definitely never paid for the privilege.  And until a few hours ago, the two of us had not been on textile-free terms.  Nikki and I had gotten acquainted about five years earlier because we both write about food, among other topics. After a year or so of consulting with each other about restaurants in our respective Arizona culinary territories, we’d started dining together whenever one of us visited the other’s city. Eventually, we began gabbing on the phone about other shared interests: We’re both divorcees – she with a teenage son, I without children – who have a tendency to look for love in all the wrong places.

It was during one of these long-distance therapy sessions that we got into our fateful disrobing discussion. As usual, we were complaining about how it used to be a lot easier to bounce back from our restaurant-reviewing duties. Time was when a few days of dieting and some extra hours on the StairMaster would rid us of any added heft fairly easily. But lately, without changing any of our habits, weight reduction had become a major struggle. Wouldn’t it be nice, we agreed, if we could just relax and accept our estrogen-challenged bodies, flab and all? Half-laughing, I proposed going to a nudist resort. If we saw women of all sizes feeling at ease with themselves, I said, it might put our distorted self-images into perspective.

I never imagined that Nikki would take me up on my semi-serious suggestion. But there she was, agreeing that a nudist retreat might be just the thing to rid us of our shared obsession with perfection. My reputation as a New York City-bred sophisticate was on the line. I couldn’t let Nikki know that my proposal to lounge around in the buff was just a bluff.

The idea hadn’t exactly come to me from out of the blue. Nude recreation has been all over the news, and I’d secretly become intrigued with the notion of a naked vacation. A nudist flight to Mexico last year had gotten major, uh, coverage, and I’d read a piece on CNN.com about how baring it all had moved from the hippie fringes into the mainstream, with clothing-optional activities contribute some $400 million to the U.S. economy annually. I got my letting-go-of-perfection notion from the web sites of two major U. S.  nudist organizations, The Naturist Society (“Body acceptance is the idea – nude recreation is the way”) and the American Association of Nude Recreation West (“Clothing optional living is about freedom, joy, recreation, self-assurance and body acceptance.”)

I found  “freedom” an interesting choice of buzzword, too. I started thinking about how attitudes towards nudity had changed since “Hair” and “Oh, Calcutta,” where the act of clothes-shedding had been used to make a political statement about liberation. The recent crop of bare-it-all theatrical productions – including the “Full Monty,” “The Graduate,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire du Lune” and “Take Me Out” – as well as such HBO shows such as “Sex in the City” and “Oz,” which regularly include nude scenes, use nudity for its realistic, comic, or shock value, but not as a metaphor for anything more profound.

It was the media blitz about counter-culture nudism in the 1960s that paved the way for the current mainstreaming of nude recreation, according to Stephen Payne, one of the owners of Desert Shadows, who said his clientele was now beginning to get younger. “We didn’t originally market to young people,” he said, “because we didn’t think they could afford to stay here. But now it seems like we were behind the trend. Nude beaches like Hollover in South Florida are being mobbed by people under 30. ”

Boomers though we are, Nikki and I had missed out on the nudism part of the counter-culture the first time around; neither of us had naked commune stays in our pasts. We wondered if we would feel liberated now –  or merely as embarrassed as we’d be if we tried to wear bell-bottoms again.

Our search for a take-it-off spot nevertheless took off. We didn’t want to go too far away – what if we needed to escape? — or stay too close – what if we ran into someone we knew? — which eliminated Cap D’Age, an entirely naked city in the south of France, and Shangri-La, a nudist ranch near Phoenix. We weren’t interested in a singles pick-up scene like Hedonism II in Jamaica, nor a totally family-oriented retreat like Cypress Cove near Orlando — Nikki needed a break from contact with teenage angst.  We finally hit upon Desert Shadows Inn Resort in Palm Springs, opened in 1992. It was a four-hour drive from Phoenix, it billed itself as family-friendly — and it had a spa.

Behind those tasteful, nondescript doors: Naked people!

Behind those tasteful, nondescript doors: Naked people!

With its swaying palm trees and soothing pink buildings poised against a dramatic mountain backdrop, Desert Shadows looked great on line, but we wanted to be sure we wouldn’t feel out of place there.  I phoned and explained that this was our first venture into “naturism,” as the website termed it, and that we were two single women just looking to relax. The friendly front desk manager assured me that the place had a strict policy: If anyone said or did anything that made us feel uncomfortable, we had only to report it and the guest would be asked to leave. He explained that many areas of the resort were not clothing optional – you were expected to be nude in the main public areas, such as the pools, though you weren’t required to rip off your clothes immediately if you were coming in from the outside – but in other parts of the property, like the dining room, your attire was up to you.  I was dying to know what the dress code was at reception, but asking the manager what he was – or wasn’t – wearing seemed like a question you’d ask on a 900-number phone call. I didn’t want to get asked to leave before I even arrived.

We booked a two-bedroom villa –  we would get to know a lot more than we might want about each other, so separate sleeping spaces were an agreed-upon requirement –  for two nights, Sunday and Monday, only. Our budgets were tight – the accommodations cost $295 a night, off season – and our chutzpah had a limited shelf life.

The reaction from friends was mixed. Many of the women laughed and exclaimed, “You’re brave. I wish I had the nerve to do that.” Others snorted, “I could never…” Some — including two who don’t even like to appear in public in bathing suits – contended they would have come along had they been asked. The men? One of Nikki’s friends accused her of being an exhibitionist. Another, with whom a romance was brewing, seemed partly amused, mostly turned on.

“Bring back pictures,” nearly everyone said, regardless of gender.

And so, one Sunday morning in mid-September, we bade goodbye to the two people Nikki couldn’t bring herself to tell, her mother (“She doesn’t need to know what type of vacation we’re taking. It would only worry her”) and her 13-year-old son (“He’s just becoming a sexual creature. I didn’t want him to be thinking of his mother in that way, to have to wonder about  men looking at me naked. Ick.” ).  Then –  all too quickly it seemed –  we found ourselves ringing the bell of a large wooden door in Palm Springs, and getting buzzed in. The two people at the reception desk were indeed dressed. But just beyond a glass door, hanging out by the pool, there they were: naked people. I found it hard not to giggle nervously during our tour of the beautifully landscaped grounds, and when Nikki and I got into our  villa –  more upscale motel than luxury resort style, but immaculate and featuring a large kitchen, Jacuzzi tub, and wonderful outdoor shower  –  we let out a few tension-releasing laughs.

But we knew that we couldn’t hide indoors indefinitely. Besides, it was a beautiful day. So we scuttled off to our respective rooms and came out dressed for the occasion: Not.  After going through a litany of complaints about our bodies – “Look at my huge stomach!”; “See how my breasts are sagging!” –  and mutual assurances that the other’s flaws were imagined, we ventured out, carrying only the large towels that doubled as security blankets and sanitation guards.

The al fresco walk to the pool and search for lounge chairs was easier than expected. It’s not that nobody looked at us, but the reception was no different than the one I get when I show up at the pool at my health club.  Sitting under a tree, several yards back from the main activities pool, we surveyed the scene. As expected, we saw a wide range of shapes –  from totally toned to way overweight –  and ages, from teenagers to septuagenarians.  I observed that the men seemed to care less about their appearance than the women — at least a far larger proportion of them had larger proportions. But mostly – I admit it – I was fascinated by the array of male genitalia on display. I felt like I was in the produce section of an exotic supermarket: no poking or squeezing, please.

The nudity novelty wore off quickly, however, and we soon turned to the light reading we’d brought – and to applying sunscreen. A few relaxing hours later, we went back to our room. The evening’s scheduled dinner was a buffet, so we decided to get dressed and head to downtown Palm Springs.We’d had enough nudity for one day – and we weren’t quite ready for any close encounters with chafing dishes.  As we sat on the fairy light-draped terrace of a seafood restaurant, we rehashed our reactions. We agreed that our relatively  blase attitude about lying out in the altogether might have been attributable to the fact that we were hiding a few rows back from the pool action.

The next morning, determined to mingle, we took the plunge. Wow – the cool water felt wonderful against my unencumbered skin! And the natives were friendly. Nikki and I easily fell into conversation with a number of people throughout the day: a sales manager at Costco who was wearing only a boater (hats were big at Desert Shadows); a neatly-coiffed real estate agent from Connecticut who looked like Harriet of “Ozzie and Harriet”; and a handsome financier from Pebble Beach, California, by way of Russia…. There was no one nudist “type,” no way to profile those who chose to go without clothes. So much for my assumption that this would be an aging-hippie fest.

On this Monday morning, only boomer and beyond-age nudists were around. (My sense that the younger people we’d seen when we arrived must have gone back to work or college was later confirmed by owner Stephen Payne, who said summer and college breaks were – no surprise – the peak times for that demographic.) Most of the people we spoke to had been doing the nudist circuit for years, and said that they’d found Desert Shadows to be the nicest,  most upscale of the naturist retreats.

Which didn’t mean you couldn’t let loose here. We learned that we’d arrived too late on the previous day to catch the pool volleyball game (darn!), and that we’d missed naked karaoke on Saturday night (double darn!). Whenever we told people we were nudism newbies – on this quiet weekday, we were apparently the only ones –  they were very solicitous. We heard several variations on the theme of “You’ll never want to go back to wearing clothes again.” The “L” word – liberated – came up a number of times, as did the notion that nudism just felt, well, natural. And nearly everyone said, “You meet the nicest people in these places.”

Most of them were nice, anyway. I thought that the glances of a couple of men I talked to lingered a bit too long on my breasts. It never reached the point where I  felt uncomfortable, however, in part because I had equal visual access to their assets. And there was no one I considered reporting to the front desk propriety police. Nikki, citing the incident of the dangling genitalia – a man who leaned down to talk to us at the pool positioned himself so that his tender bits were, literally, in our faces – contended that some guys seemed pretty happy to be exposing themselves. She nevertheless agreed that everyone made a conscious effort not to be overtly sexual.

Although we’d missed naked karaoke, Nikki and I got to enjoy another unique experience –  walking over Desert Shadows’  nudist bridge, the world’s first such span when it debuted in February 13, 2003, and immediately became the brunt of jokes by comedians such as Jay Leno. Officially named the Lee R. Baxandall Bridge for one of the foremost champions of nude recreation in America but called everything from the “naked bridge” – its usual designation –  to the “bridge of thighs,” it links the resort with the affiliated nudist condo complex on the other side of Chaparral Road, a main Palm Springs artery. It was initially considered a traffic hazard because it was draped in not-quite-opaque material, causing motorists to look up in the hope of catching a shadowy glimpse of some nudes, but by the time Nikki and I walked across it, the bridge was safely covered in completely nontransparent canvas. As we looked down at the traffic below,  we both got a kick of the  “Nyah, nyah, I see you but you don’t see me” kind.  It was the only time during our stay when we felt mildly exhibitionist.

By dinner time, there was no question of getting dressed to enter the casual dining room. It would have seemed weird, somehow. Anyway, being food critics, we were far more interested in discussing what was on our plates – nothing terribly exciting –  than in looking at what people in the restaurant weren’t wearing (not a single diner was clothed, but the servers all were).

All in all, it had been an interesting day. But when we returned to our rooms, we discovered that, notwithstanding all our attempts to keep up with our sunscreen applications. we’d been overexposed. Nikki was sore in a spot where no sun had ever gone before. “Look,” she cried. “I have a burning bush!” I clearly hadn’t applied sufficient sunscreen to my hidden regions either. “Just call me Robin red breast,” I countered.

The last morning was fairly low-key, as we stuck mostly to the shade, catching up on our recreational reading. Moreover, our heads were already back in the world of work – and clothing.  Our final assessment? Nude swimming felt fantastic, and walking around without clothes wasn’t the major deal we thought it would be — you get used to it surprisingly quickly. But nudism seems to involve a lot of sun worshipping, and we’d both put our baby-oil-and-iodine days behind us. There were many, many things about which we hadn’t yet achieved wisdom, but we knew better than to be turning our skin into shoe leather.

Moreover, neither Nikki nor I felt liberated by our experience.  Shedding our clothes had not returned us to a more natural, prelapsarian state or transformed us, even temporarily, into free spirits. In fact,  Nikki felt more self-conscious when she left than she had before she came.  “I don’t consider myself a prude,” she said, “but nudity 24/7 is not for me. I don’t want to be thinking about my gut. I would much rather cover it up, and delude myself that I’m slim and beautiful.”  Fixating on the young, hard-bodied women who’d been there our first afternoon, she left Desert Shadows determined to lose some weight.

Me, I was glad that society had progressed to the point where nudity was no longer a big deal. Lounging around with your clothes off was just another recreation choice that, like skiing, younger women could take or leave. And, unlike Nikki, I’d achieved my goal of getting over my self-consciousness – when I remembered my age, of course. I may not look like I did when I was 25, but I went home feeling reasonably satisfied with the shape I’m in.

Besides, I’d learned that my body wasn’t necessarily my key asset. As I was leaving the pool on the final morning, still in full undress, a man with whom I’d chatted on the previous day approached me and said, “I hope you won’t be offended by my saying this, but you have a really nice smile.”

Note: Originally published in More magazine, this Lowell Thomas award-winning story is the inspiration for my memoir’s title, but is not the version included in it. I’ve reserved for the book the far funnier back story of how I got the assignment and what the nudist resort was really like.

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About the Author

ejarolim@mac.com'

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. mnitus@aol.com' marilyn sutin says:

    Reading this reminded me of our trip to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of ’79. We decided to visit Gay Head Beach, the only nudist beach on the island. I remember us both being self conscious but in those days we looked pretty good, dressed or otherwise. I also remember a man coming over to borrow a lighter. We were lying on a blanket and he was knelling over us, his penis directly in our sight-line. But he just lit his cigarette and left. At first there were nervous giggles between us but after a while I think we felt less self-conscious.

    • ejarolim@mac.com' Edie says:

      You’ll have to read the back story of this adventure in my book. It’s very similar to the one we experienced. I’d forgotten about the guy who came over!

    • Edie,

      Your article was not only informative, but also hilarious. Especially
      the burning bush and robin red breast.

      I guess you’d have to say the guy leaning over to talk to you was
      King Kong.

      Best,

      David Pearson

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