I, too, was a reluctant nudist. Most nudists are for the first 10 minutes.

Having some experience now, I must say that in his new book, “Naked at Lunch,” Mark Haskell Smith nails the many variations in the clothing-optional world.

The key one is that Europe is relaxed about it. Nobody gets prosecuted for nudity in Europe, unlike in my own tiny town, where an octogenarian walked a mile down a state beach to privacy, took a brief naked dip, lay on his towel and was booted awake by a ranger and arrested on a charge of public indecency. He paid a $500 fine.

Smith is not a nudist or a prude, he says, but is “fascinated by subcultures,” especially those “deemed morally suspect or quasi-legal.” (His last book was about Olympic global efforts to grow great marijuana.)

His wife, learning of his nudity plans and having none of her own, wonders why he won’t write a book about cheese. His dermatologist warns him by describing what befell one patient who liked to stand on his head nude.

Nonetheless, he “drops trou” (an annoying expression he uses often) on a nude cruise where “penises dangled” and “buttocks could swing … without restriction.” He visits a nudist resort in California, where his first reaction is not, “Wow, we’re all naked here!” but “Wow, these people are really old!”

He browses America’s nudist library at a nudist resort in Kissimmee, Fla., and learns that an early nudist magazine was distributed to World War II troops to help them cope in lieu of prostitutes. And he hikes naked for a week through the Austrian forest with 19 nude strangers, soon friends.

For a few long chapters he recounts the history of nakedness (even Hitler gets involved, closing some nudist resorts, opening others) and recent legal work to open more U.S. beaches to nudism. (Only nine exist where you are safe from challenge.)

But the book is breezily written, warmly personal and largely nonjudgmental. (Exception: “The obesity epidemic appears to have hit American nudism especially hard.”) He comes around to relaxing, enjoying himself and wondering what the big deal is.

He debunks myths that social nudism is about sex, or that nakedness is erotic. It can, however, be exhilarating.

Mastectomies, zipper scars, cottage cheese, huge and tiny, dark or light, we’re all specimens in the human family, a fact no better appreciated than when we let ourselves hang loose.

 

Susan Ager is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She is at Susan@ susanager.com.