Our first morning at Berkshire Vista Resort, my friend Mandy sleeps late while I muster the courage to leave our room. The question isn't so much what to wear, here, as what not to wear.
We arrived late and identified ourselves calmly enough at the security intercom, but our cool evaporated at the sight of a sign that said, "Caution, Nudists Crossing Ahead."
"I can't get out of the car," Mandy laughed, clutching the steering wheel like a life preserver. "What if naked people suddenly jump out of the woods to greet us?"
I left her doubled up over the steering wheel and marched toward the inn, a restored 1770's farmhouse, expecting to find the office. Instead, when I climbed the steps and peered through the window, I spotted a couple of men in easy chairs. Naked.
I turned heel and fled. "Whose idea was this?" I gasped, crawling back into the car.
Mine, of course. Surfing the Net to find a nature camp for my kids, I typed in "naturist" and stumbled onto a list of nudist camps. Hundreds of them. I couldn't believe it. I thought everyone put their clothes back on after free love and Woodstock.
Giggling, I telephoned Mandy to announce that I'd found the perfect present for her 40th birthday: A weekend at Berkshire Vista, the northeast's only luxury nudist resort. "We'll celebrate your birthday in our birthday suits," I coaxed, "and laugh about our nudist days when we're 80."
I proposed the idea as a joke to cheer Mandy on through the last difficult days of her thirties. Although she is a successful professional in business for herself, her personal life has been rocky; she recently ended her wedding engagement and feels bereft and uncertain about her future. I fully expected her to call my buff, I mean bluff, as the Day of Our Unveiling approached. When it became clear that she was going to do no such thing, I panicked.
I couldn't possibly go to a nudist camp with Mandy, of all people! She works out at the gym four times a week and maintains a perfect tan. When I treated Mandy to her birthday dinner, she ordered a lobster and ate it without butter, observing my plate of fried scallops with astonishment: "That's more fat than I eat in a month!"
I'm a junk food maven whose favorite snack du jour is a handful of cookie dough. I have three kids and the body to prove it. Mandy wears bikinis to the beach, while I've graduated to bathing suits bigger than my mother's. I'm so self-conscious about my body, in fact, that I sometimes feel awkward getting undressed in front of my husband.
Most of my friends sympathized. "A nudist camp? Oh my god!" one exclaimed. "Listen, you may be hesitant about being naked in front of your husband, but I don't even like being naked in front of myself!"
My husband, however, tried to reassure me. "You're a beautiful woman," Dan said, then grinned. "If you want to practice ahead of time, I'm always available."
I stared at him. "Don't you even mind that I'm going to be naked in front of complete strangers? Or that, by the way, those strangers will also be buck naked in front of me?"
Dan, who once wore a ponytail and a long beard that made him look like an Amish farmer, shrugged off my concerns. After all, he still reminisces fondly about his glory days as a member of a hot tub club in San Francisco. "Social nudity is about acceptance, not sex," he lectured.
Oh, sure. I lie in my bed and will the skies to open up. At least if it rains, I can twirl a strategically placed umbrella.
Along with the umbrella, my suitcase bulges with enough gear to survive a winter in the Himalaya. Facing all-new fashion dilemmas caused me to overpack. I knew I needed bug spray and a few gallons of sunscreen, but then I noticed a garden party on the resort's agenda. How did one accessorize for such a thing? A big sun bonnet and open-toed shoes? And where would I keep my lipstick and keys? I couldn't carry a purse.
In the end, I solved the purse dilemma with a fanny pack, trying not to visualize what I'd look like wearing that and nothing else. I also poured all of my necklaces out of the jewelry box and into the suitcase. With enough weight around my neck, surely I'd look thinner.
I can hear voices now, men and women chatting in the kitchen outside our bedroom door. Naked voices, I remind myself.
I get up and, still in my cotton nightie, peek outside the window. My first nudist of the day is a woman on the deck of her RV. She's wearing a sweatshirt and bends over, bare-bottomed, to water a planter of pink flowers. My second nudist is a man walking his dog. He's in a t-shirt and flip-flops, swinging bravely along the open road as he and the dog trot down the path towards the brook.
It's not raining, but I'm in luck: It's chilly enough for a few people to wear sweat pants and tops. I'm one of them. I vowed to shed one article of clothing at a time, though, so that means no bra to breakfast. Mandy is still asleep, her blankets pulled up to her chin, as I let myself fall prey to gravity and slip out of the bedroom.
Headed into the restaurant, I rely on peripheral vision to avoid staring. A hairy man looms up on the other side of the pool fence like a grizzly bear on hind legs, drying himself on a towel the size of a handkerchief. A topless woman pushes her naked toddler on a playground swing, and a man wearing only a baseball cap squats next to a motorcycle. I don't relax until I'm on the clubhouse deck, where I focus on the rolling hills that form a bright green basin around the resort.
When the sun comes out, the place has the giddy atmosphere of a summer camp. Campers bounce about the tennis courts, wearing only sneakers, and two elderly men toss a Frisbee with the glee of undiapered toddlers. I remind myself that the athletes of ancient Greece were naked, as I make the stunning observation that I'm among the most petite women here. I'm also one of the youngest. I had expected Aphrodite and Adonis, but this place is crawling with Ozzies and Harriets with broad smiles, fantastic tans and big bottoms. So this is where all of the flower children have gone!
As the temperature rises, the only people still dressed are the clubhouse bartender and waitress. "Well, at least you're down to shorts," one friendly fellow teases, striding past us with his wife. This couple is our age, and they have identical blonde manes of shoulder-length hair brushing their bare shoulders. Both wear shorts.
"So are you," I observe.
"I hate carrying a towel." He lifts the front flap of his dungarees to show us that he's really not wearing shorts, but a skirt. And, as with all men in kilts, the mystery ends when the breezes blow.
Mandy and I decide to hike. If we're hot, we'll be more inspired to bare it all. "Are you going to wear earrings?" Mandy asks me anxiously. "Earrings and lipstick do seem sort of superfluous here, don't they?"
"I'll wear my most slimming earrings," I declare, "and just one article of clothing." I pull a sundress out of my suitcase and go into the bathroom to put it on. "Why am I closing the door, when in just a few hours I'll be frolicking naked in the freesias at the garden party?"
"I don't know," Mandy answers, as I emerge from the bathroom and find her pulling on a t-shirt that reaches to her knees. "But I'm leaving my underpants on."
Within an hour we're sweaty and changing into our, uh, into nothing but towels for a swim. The brochure strictly states that this is a clothing-optional resort, but "Nudity is required in the pool, hot tubs and sauna. No bathing suits," they add, in case anyone misunderstands.
We pause by the pool fence, still safely cocooned in our enormous towels, to watch a man wearing only sneakers erect a trellis for the garden party. "I understand why I'm reluctant to get undressed," I tell Mandy. "I'm overweight and pasty white. But you've got the body of a goddess!"
"My breasts are too small," Mandy argues. "Besides, your body is the way it is because you've had kids. I'm 40 years old and my body hasn't done the work I think it's supposed to do. Sure, I'm thin, but what's the worth in that, at the end of a life? Nothing."
I'm sad that she feels this way, and tell her so. Still, the fact that Mandy feels self-conscious, too, lets me take the final step. I drop my towel onto a pool chair and scuttle over to the outdoor showers, where a shriveled gnome of a man chats up an attractive blonde woman. Like many women here, the blonde has gone in for some decorative shaving. The result is a fuzzy caterpillar creeping downward from her navel. Another woman by the showers has two enormous nipple rings, leading me to think, Ow! Then I wonder whether, in fact, most people are more ornamental without clothing than I'd realized. How would I know? I've never even seen my own mother naked.
I'm content in the pool, where I have the illusion of being less exposed while my breasts bob along with me like a pair of happy white ducks. It's not so bad being naked when I lie down in the sun, either. For one thing, my stomach looks flat. For another, the woman beside me is nearly twice my size. She's sprawled across the chair the way my kids lounge in front of the television, leaving no place where the sun can't shine. This is the first time in my life that I can contemplate the entire visual spectrum of the human condition, and that spectrum seems infinite. I am lying in a sea of flesh, and all around me are the old and the young, the thin and the fat, the hairy and the bald, the pierced and the unadorned.
That afternoon, Mandy and I don sunhats, bangles and beads. Clanking and tinkling, we follow the parade of people to the garden party in the Snob Hill area of the campground and discover an amazing fact: What nudists do for fun is dress up. The men are in top hats and spats, bow ties and cummerbunds. One woman wears white lace gloves and carries a parasol, another has chosen a black nightgown clasped at the neck with an elaborate brooch. There are a lot of sarongs and fanciful clothing created from scarves tied in fancy ways. These chatty couples all seem to have been nudists for decades and married even longer. Most of their grown children have no idea; they think Mom and Dad are just off camping again.
There are overflowing window boxes and elegant gardens, tasty snacks and, at one trailer, a tiny toad orchestra tooting away on a table. Someone sets up a croquet game and there's a sale table to benefit a legal fund for nudists. It all feels like a PTA carnival at our elementary school, as I talk to two lawyers and an engineer, a construction worker and a teacher, a speech therapist and a banker. The key difference is that, without clothes, you can't tell a ditch digger from a doctor. Nudists, I realize, are part of a subculture, like golfers or birders. And my husband was right: Nudism has nothing to do with sexuality, but with finding an activity you enjoy and seeking out places where you can practice it and feel accepted.
The party blooms into the night, when we all gather at the clubhouse dance. Mandy and I borrow dresses from our new nudist friends, since scanty evening wear is the one thing neither of us packed. Mandy's is black and fits her like an ace bandage; mine is a filmy, copper-colored gown.
"This will bring out the highlights in your hair!" promised the owner of the dress.
The highlights in my hair? This dress is invisible! But it's perfect for the dance, where a disco light swirls over people who leap, amble, hop, and sway to every wedding reception favorite from The Macarena to The Electric Slide.
Afterward, Mandy and I go back to our room and reverse our normal routines, going naked by day and then dressing in our comfy pajamas at night. "So what do you think of all this?" I ask her.
"Well," she mumbles around her toothbrush -- by now we can do almost anything in front of each other -- "I'll be glad to get back to the safe comfort of my clothes. But it's certainly interesting to get a new perspective on aging and on the self-created shame most of us feel about our bodies."
I think about this the next morning, when it really is raining and I find that I'm slightly disappointed. I'm not as anxious to zip, tuck and button myself back into clothing as Mandy. In fact, even my nightgown feels like too much right now.
I undress and shower, then wander into the kitchen to make tea, a towel draped over my shoulder. It's a little odd, since I wouldn't even walk around this way in my own house, and I almost wrap the towel around me. But then, through the kitchen window, I see several of the couples I met the night before. They're soaking in the hot tub on the deck, never mind the rain, and laughing. One woman sees me and motions for me to join them.
I hesitate only a moment before I do it. Everyone slides over on the benches to make room, and the warm water rising to my rain-cooled shoulders feels like a blanket. I glance at the gray sky and have a sudden memory of the time I hired a small plane at the local airport to fly me over our town, of how astonishing it was to see our home as just another rooftop. Our house would have been nearly indistinguishable from the others, if I didn't know the life within its walls. Just as now, from up above, my body would look like all of these other bodies next to mine, our heads tipped back to enjoy the rain on our faces.