After lockdown, the instinct to bare all is on the rise
By Billy Warden
Photographs by Bryan Regan
Dwayne drives an 18-wheeler, often clad in nothing but his tattoos.
“I slip off my shirt and shorts and go — but only at night,” he says. As we speak, he’s soaking up the sun sans shirt, shorts or anything else in a meadow near a busy patio pool. Nearby, folks hula hoop, au naturel.
Dwayne describes himself as a devout churchgoer and former sheriff’s deputy turned long-haul trucker. He’s also a naturist, which is readily apparent.
For the uninitiated, “naturist” is the preferred term for folks who enjoy the feel of a breeze without the intrusion of fabric, who like to bare all with, as the International Naturist Federation puts it, “the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment.”
Dwayne and his wife live in the mountains, but like nudists from all over the state — including a relatively recent surge from the Triangle and Triad — he’s a frequent visitor to the Bar S Ranch, a sprawling naturist resort tucked in the hills outside Reidsville.
And while Dwayne’s non-textiled appearance this Saturday afternoon might shock some, the reason behind it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with a common 21st century prescription: self-care.
“In law enforcement, a lot of what I saw broke my heart. I’d come home and take off my clothes and just shed the world away,” he recounts. “Shed all my stress.”
A similar impulse seemingly tied to the stresses of COVID-19 produced surging interest in nudism here and abroad. The Wall Street Journal, Vox and The Telegram all reported on the spike. In August 2020, Forbes declared that “nudism has become a thing.”
Lynn, the no-nonsense manager at the Bar S Ranch, reports that since 2014, membership has leapt by 150%. The rustic resort’s 26 cabins are rented year-round.
Fueling much of the growth are people from Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. “They’re some of our biggest population centers for members now,” says Lynn. “We get doctors, lawyers, teachers.”
But after word goes out that a reporting team from the capital city would visit over the weekend, no Raleigh members show up. Coincidence? Or avoidance?
Which raises a question: in an era that embraces exposure via social media and dating apps, that celebrates all sorts of things that used to be unacceptable, what is so taboo about being nude?
Naturist resorts aren’t the only option for getting together in the all-together. Triangle Area Naturists (T.A.N.) has been hosting clothing-optional house parties since the mid-1980s. Longtime member Jay Shapiro, one of the few naturists who shared a last name, reports that during the pandemic, T.A.N. picked up 34 new members.
“My theory,” he proposes in a radio-smooth baritone, “is that people have been staying home, not having to get dressed. Maybe they’re not wearing anything. And they think, this is nice. Plus, they like not doing laundry as much.”
At T.A.N.’s first post-pandemic potluck in May, the great undraped mingle in the sunken living room and on the back deck (complete with a shielding wall of tall plants) of Jay’s modernist North Raleigh home. Asked to describe the allure of reveling in the raw, the 30 or so guests pop off the words “freedom” and “honesty” like fireworks at a Fourth of July bash.
DiDi, unclad from the waist up, chalks up her interest in nudism to an American classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “When I was eight, I read the chapter where Tom and Huck go skinny dipping and I thought, I want to do that!” she says.
Growing up in a straightlaced home, DiDi didn’t get around to it until she graduated from Duke University and discovered a clothes-free swimming hole in Bahama, just north of Durham. “There were people without clothes in the water, on the rocks, under the trees,” she says. “I was struck by how natural it was; so free.”
Visiting T.A.N. from Greenville, Kumar pipes up: “I like the positive auras and the friendly vibes. Also, the equality.”
“When everyone is nude,” agrees Jason from Greensboro, “you don’t know if you’re talking to a banker or a janitor.”
While class distinctions might vanish with the clothes, the parade of human shapes is eye popping. But once you see a whole brigade of bare bodies, you get comfortable with the full range of our physiques — much wider than what you see on cable.
The pressure-free mood is “so good for your self-esteem,” says Jill, brushing aside auburn tresses, as if Lady Godiva had dismounted her steed in a suburban kitchen.
Jill “grew up a prude” in a conservative house in a small town where the rules were “what dad said” and “the neighbors were always talking about each other.”
“Life is hard; being nude helps,” she sighs. “This is freeing.”
Yet, Jill doesn’t feel free enough to share news of her remedy for life’s jagged edges with her family. “I have grandkids,” she explains. And while she has no plans to go birthday suit-ing around them, she’s terrified the kids’ parents might get the wrong idea and end their visits.
The wrong idea has nothing to do with freedom or equality. Those things are as American as a bald (or otherwise undressed) eagle. Rather, nudists say, they’re bedeviled by the misguided buzz that their real preoccupation is, ahem, the birds and the bees.
Whatever brings each naturist to shed clothes and convention, it is NOT, they say, the promise of sex. This is very nearly a mantra, from T.A.N. to the Bar S Ranch.
Relaxing poolside at the resort, John, aka blogger “The Bearded Beerman,” declares, “There are no sexual undertones. There are no pretenses in the way here. You can’t be anything other than what you really are when you’re naked.”
Sitting 4 feet away, and also starkers, I take John’s point.
For this story, T.A.N. and the ranch have required that the reporting team be, as Jay Shapiro put it, “fully immersed in the experience of enjoying the company of other unwrapped humans.”
Oh, we’re “fully immersed” all right — but is the experience “enjoyable”?
I’ll attest that, initially, strolling completely exposed into an unfamiliar living room or hula hooping party is startling, even alarming. Within a quarter hour, though, the internal alarm bells ceased their shrieking and my raised eyebrows eased back down to their usual position.
Having grown up on swim teams and being a die-hard gym rat myself, this is not all that different from being in a locker room — except with no tan lines and lots of members of the opposite sex, one of whom resembles my Aunt Loraine.
The atmosphere is laid back; ULTRA-casual, you might say. Nothing like the charged air of a nightclub floating in flattering fabrics and flashing jewelry. The exposure reveals how vulnerable we all are. My bare foot lands in prickers. During an interview, I battle an exceedingly inappropriate mosquito brazenly buzzing near my inner thigh while a bubbly teacher from Winston-Salem gingerly shoos another one from my forehead.
The teacher’s husband, eyes shaded by a Crocodile Dundee hat, is explaining why he wants to keep even their first names on the down low. Despite the world’s seismic shifts in what’s acceptable, “this is still the South,” he says, “still the Bible Belt.”
Dwayne, the naked trucker and avid churchgoer, has a retort for that. Spreading his arms on a deck overlooking the pond (unfortunately inhabited by snapping turtles), he posits: “Did God not create Adam and Eve this way — and say it was good?”
Then, hearing the splashing of a volleyball game in the nearby pool, he streaks off with a merry, “Oh, shoot! I gotta get in there.” OH
Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer and producer as well as the lead singer of the alt-glam band The Floating Children. He is also the co-founder of the strategic communications firm GBW Strategies.