Free and Natural is a cultural history of nudity offering an in-depth account of how the naked body came to be closely tied to modern ideas about nature and authenticity. Sarah Schrank explores how the "free and natural" lifestyle emerged from the history of the nudist movement, sexual and environmental politics, and consumer capitalism.
2019 | 288 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / Cultural Studies / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
View main book page
Table of Contents
Introduction. On Being Free and Natural
Chapter 1. Welcome to the Nudist Colony
Chapter 2. Naked at Home
Chapter 3. Therapeutic Nudist Retreats
Chapter 4. Swinging Suburbs
Chapter 5. How to Free a Beach
Chapter 6. Naked Lifestyle Consumerism
Epilogue. Bodies Out of Place
On Being Free and Natural
In 1916, the prolific journalist George Wharton James, famous for his colorful accounts of Native American life in the Southwest and florid Southern California boosterism, self-published a memoir entitled Living the Radiant Life: A Personal Narrative. Featuring a swirl of modern Christian thought, praise for Whitman's and Twain's portrayals of America, shameless name-dropping, and references to his own Western adventuring, the book is most remarkable for James's extolling the body beautiful and his quest for a liberated experience in nature. From his opening line, "Everything in Nature is radiant," James explored his theory that if human beings could just marry mind, body, and soul through encounters with nature, we all could achieve longevity and vigorous health. Living the Radiant Life developed contemplations on the physical self that James had introduced in his earlier writing, including his conviction that it would be far better to "know the sanctity of nudity, rather than to cover the body."
In prose startlingly reminiscent of today's New Age lingo, James described ideal health as emanating from the body in straight, parallel lines, invisible to everyone but the occultist's eye, but experienced personally as charisma, vigor, and joy. The healthy body was a radiant body full of energy and "life-force." This life-force might also be described as a series of auras that in a healthy body were experienced as strong pulsing waves. In a sick body, however, the auras lost power, pulsed weakly, and created a "confused direction." For James, such feelings of malaise were evidence that mind and body were deeply connected and optimal health meant lining up one's psyche with one's corporeal being. Unlike medical practitioners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who understood the body as a battleground upon which to fight illness, James believed the body to be a container of experiences, some good, some bad, but with infinite possibility for happiness. As he asked his readers, "I want to radiate spiritual health. Do you?"
The key to the radiant health James held dear was the life lived outdoors, and so he instructed his readers first to emulate the American Indian: "Learn of him and be wise. He is a believer in the virtue of the outdoor life, not as an occasional thing, but as his regular, uniform habit. He lives out of doors; and not only does his body remain in the open, but his mind, his soul, are ever also there." Native Americans, however, were not the only guides to radiance. In extolling the physicality of the outdoor life, James also exposed a profound, and possibly homoerotic, fetishism of the working man's body: Fishermen had "brawny arms and shoulders and backs"; sea captains were "brave, powerful, massive men"; and loggers "[swung] their axes or handled the huge logs with an ease and power that stagger the ordinary city man." Three weeks spent riding with real cowboys turned James from a "dyspeptic, sleepless, and anemic" mess into a radiant being full of vim and vigor.
For James, the radiant life of the outdoors trumped the modern industrial urban world which, despite its "pleasures in the ballroom," were accompanied by "languor the next day, ennui, jealousy, heart-burnings, gossiping, cruel slandering, [and] ruination of health." The city was not just full of emotional pitfalls and vulnerability hangovers caused by the overstimulation of the senses, it was inherently unnatural, with the "artificial never equal to the real," as electricity turned night into day and reversed the "natural order of things." Fashionable dress, too, received James's derision as it invited flattery that was "hollow, insincere, and corrupting." To succumb to urban pleasures, many of which were pleasures of the flesh, was to sully the body and weaken the spirit. Though this censoriousness reflects the Christian ideology James expounded upon in his collected writing, his meticulous effort to separate the denigration of the clothed body indoors from the virtues of the naked body out-of-doors also reflected a keen desire to display the very body he shaped. It may have been nature's challenges that whittled away fat, tanned the skin, and hardened muscle but it was in the city where the radiant body had intrinsic value.
For all of James's clear directives for achieving a blissful life, his own was marked by conflict and contradiction. A British Methodist minister, James immigrated to the United States in the 1880s with his wife, first settling in Long Beach, California, only to have her sue him for divorce for adultery and to be defrocked by the church for fraud and sexual misconduct. Smeared in the Los Angeles Times for tales of "revolting domestic crimes" and sexual deviance too "filthy" to print, James was all but run out of town. While he would eventually be reinstated, James left his ministry behind and instead pursued a career as a journalist, photographer, editor, booster, and health fanatic, often contributing to Physical Culture magazine, pet project of tabloid publisher and body cultist extraordinaire, Bernarr Macfadden. Littered with pseudoscience, radical diet regimens, sex advice, vanity shots of Macfadden in a variety of athletic poses, celebrity exposés, and lots of advertising for beauty-enhancing commodities promising success in the emergent urban industrial world, Physical Culture, first published in 1899, represented the height of early twentieth-century body cultism. James's enthusiasm for corporeal and spiritual experiences outside the city, in nature, might seem out of place in Physical Culture and yet it was there that the original chapters of Living the Radiant Life first appeared and it was to Macfadden that James gave heartfelt thanks in his foreword.
While neither the first nor the only proponent of the modern life lived out-of-doors, James serves as a sublimely articulate advocate of what became the free and natural lifestyle in the United States. In his tastes for nudity, vegetarianism, sexual exploration, primitivism, Southern California leisure culture, mind-body ideology, "God is everywhere" New Thought philosophy, health fads, and physical exercise, James literally embodied the modern impulse to be liberated from the stresses of an urban capitalist life by channeling his energies into one lived "naturally." To be free and natural was not simply to retreat to the wilderness and never to return to civilization. To be free and natural in the modern age was to select carefully from a range of spiritual ideologies, body practices, health philosophies, sexual identities, and commodities to shape a "lifestyle" of free and natural living. The naked body, laden as it has been with conflicted meanings and representations, often served, both in James's time and today, as the key signifier of authentic experience in modern urban environments.
Over a hundred years after James fixated on the body as both the site of toxic moral corruption and the key to robust natural health, Americans continue to pursue a wide range of body practices as a means to achieve optimal well-being and reconnect with the natural world. While some of these practices may be subcultural, the ideas behind the free and natural lifestyle pervade many aspects of American culture, affecting everything from the interior design of domestic space to the marketing of everyday commodities. Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body thus explores the origins, evolution, and cultural practice of a modern lifestyle that privileged nature, nakedness, and a quest for authenticity in tandem with, and in reaction to, the rise of twentieth-century consumer capitalism. By calling it a "lifestyle," Free and Natural evokes and retains the complex relationship proponents of natural living had with consumer culture, often absorbing it into their daily lives at the same time that they tried to free themselves of it. The free and natural lifestyle has taken many forms in the United States, ebbing and flowing in popularity while sometimes exhibiting conflicting philosophies, but its practitioners have consistently invested the body, nudity, nature, sex, and their concomitant spatial contexts, with heightened social and cultural significance. These five integrated themes, and their shifting relationship to one another, serve as the foundational framework of this book.
James's quest for authenticity and natural living through the body became a prominent feature of the American modern age as other middle-class urbanites also grew fascinated with the upkeep, cleansing, and general fitness of their bodies, producing a new cult of the body when they ascribed attributes of character development and health to physical culture regimens and diets. Purposive exercise, bodybuilding, weight loss, and cosmetic use became both therapeutic and consumer habits of a social class in search of self-identity and status in the midst of urban industrialism and as part of an economy of leisure. Concern with personal physical appearance was intertwined with the anonymity, physical mobility, increased visuality, and consumer practices that characterized daily life in early twentieth-century cities. How one looked and how one was perceived from the outside became critical factors in the successful navigation of urban capitalism. In Macfadden's Physical Culture magazine, advertisements for elocution and posture lessons ran alongside the essays on bodybuilding, fitness regimens, and mail-order forms for new health and beauty products like mouthwash and hair cream. For the native-born middle-class aspirant, or the newly arrived immigrant, the message was clear: how you looked, sounded, and smelled on the outside was far more important than anything happening on the inside. In the city, no one knew who you were so the impression you made on the senses, and especially how you looked and carried yourself, mattered. A well-formed body became a highly desired quality in a modern urban culture that increasingly fetishized fitness while the industrial economy, through the use of machines, increasingly relied less upon human strength. Fitness practices and character-building exercises became heralded as antidotes to the male impotence and effeminacy that presumably followed the corporate restructuring of labor into white-collar classes and gray flannel suits.
Molding the body into an acceptable shape and then using it to assimilate into American culture as an acceptable middle-class citizen meant that one was either white or white enough to do so. One of the many crises facing modern urban industrial America was how to reconcile xenophobia and eugenics-based social science with Progressive-Era goals to absorb the millions of immigrants passing through Ellis Island, across the United States-Mexico border, or arriving on San Francisco's Angel Island, as well as the internal migration of African Americans out of the rural South into Northern industrial cities. One way to navigate the pressures of assimilation and urban racial politics was to exert white privilege as soon as one could. Constructing a fit white body while dropping one's accent and ethnic name was a strategy available to those whose bodies were not racially marked. For women, however, such strategies were hindered by the sexualization of their presence in public, especially for women of color. White women were never subject to the same type of surveillance but the combination of late-Victorian gender ideologies about separate spheres and sexual purity (especially for wealthy women), and a lack of political power, burdened their public presence at the turn of the twentieth century with sexual overtones. The objectification of working-class women was further complicated by new patterns of courtship, especially dating, that mingled sexual possibility with the treats of the consumer economy. How these women's bodies looked and were fashioned by clothing and makeup was closely scrutinized by reformers concerned about working women's safety, but also about their threat to the social pecking order.
Anxieties also grew among the emerging middle class that their health was being compromised by exposure to pollution, crowded cities, impoverished immigrant populations, and a denatured living experience that shut out the sun and left them vulnerable to illness. Progressive reformers responded to these concerns with calls for more parks, regulations to clean up the tenements, and health programs for the urban poor. Some of the wealthiest moved to suburbs well outside the cities and traveled along the American "health belt," a route of sanitaria and resorts running through the Southwest, on new rail lines that promised access to healing climates and a return to preindustrial calm and physical revitalization. As the twentieth century unfolded, many urban dwellers began to see a tension between their corporeal health and wellness pursuits and the heightened visuality and commercial sexuality of the body in American popular culture. In other words, what started as a way to feel good in one's skin was beginning to feel like an odious pressure as the body and its fitness were becoming closely monitored status signifiers of the modern industrial age.
Along with this pressure to reshape their bodies came a new self-consciousness about the environment in which such physical exertion should take place and how much effort ought to go into producing the desired effect. Too much effort, and one could be seen as vain. Too little, and one might be perceived as lazy. Physical culture practiced outside the city, and away from neighbors and colleagues, became a sought-after ideal that included visits to health sanitaria, camping, and out-of-doors adventures permitting exposure to the sun and fresh air. Once rejuvenated, modern Americans could then return to their city life taking some of their free and natural experience back with them. Early twentieth-century celebrities such as Pierre Bernard, the "Mighty Oom," who popularized the physical practice of yoga in the United States, soon capitalized on what they rightly perceived as a market for professionalized body culture, selling wealthy urban dwellers weekend retreats for physical and spiritual nourishment as part of a general regimen of rigorous dieting and exercise. If nature was the place where the body could rejuvenate, it was in the city where the reinvigorated body could be displayed.
While quests for perfect health, physical fitness, and youthful beauty were consumer routes to addressing our body's flaws and fundamental impermanence, another strategy was to intentionally leave the body as bare as legally possible. This, too, has a history. Nudism as both a social activity and a means to organize one's daily life and living space emerged in the United States at the same time that modern urban industrialism reshaped American society and the American body. An effort to restore a natural experience to modern life while challenging social pressures to conform to body norms, nudism offered an opportunity to sidestep so much corporeal anxiety. Nudism can also be interpreted as an early alternative health and wellness movement because its proponents have long claimed that sustained sun exposure, outdoor leisure activities, and practiced relaxation naturally strengthen the body and heal the soul.
Nudism, by focusing attention on the entirely exposed body, also promised to authenticate the self. Indeed, white middle-class men were especially susceptible to the concern that they seemed weak and even worse, untrustworthy, in a new marketplace where appearance was everything. Part of the new physical culture regimens to shape the body were suntanning programs to give salesmen and managers the outward appearance of health and vigor. If they could not actually get outside, they could take advantage of the new tanning lamps that hit the market in the 1930s. As an advertisement in The Nudist magazine explicitly put it: "Look Successful—Be Successful! A good healthy coat of tan has a surprising effect on your business success. You look healthy and virile and instantly command attention. Your prosperous appearance makes people want to do business with you. Salesmen find their sales actually increase after they acquired a real bronze tan! And you will find yourself more popular, for both men and women are attracted by that healthy outdoor look!" In fact, part of nudism's appeal was the ability to get a year-round allover suntan and show it off to one's nudist friends. But the sunlamp ad also reveals a tension between being a nudist and achieving the look of a nudist. While the tanning lamp could prove useful for both, one wonders if readers of The Nudist in 1937 empathized or snickered at the thought of salesmen desperately trying to buy the "natural" nudist look. To be naked, or at least bear the trappings of a naked life, did not necessarily render one natural or authentic.
The naked body, about as vulnerable and raw a form of self-expression as we possess, thus proved an especially provocative, controversial, and fraught site upon which to hang American hopes for liberation. Though heralded as the key to freedom from modernity's worst excesses, naked living was, throughout the twentieth century, deeply susceptible to capitalism's commodification and objectification of the body. Yet intentional social nudity, whether part of an organized public movement or a private experiment in naked living, has largely been a reaction to consumer capitalism's commodification of the body; a challenge to the capitalization of sexuality in popular culture; a rejection of the corporeal and sexual anxieties of the modern era; and an effort to shape a concept of nature within modern urban life while offering up a cheap health elixir in which sunshine and outdoor living could banish illness, build self-confidence, and make the body strong.
Nudity as a strategy for authentic living was welcomed by thousands of Americans largely because modernity provoked deep feelings of vulnerability along with fears of being cut off from nature altogether as old systems of community and identity formation were replaced with urban industrial capitalism and the body subjected to overwork and abuse. Scholars of modernity have long argued that the impulse to be "real," an impulse associated with 1960s rejections of materialism and corporate interventions in daily life, has a history dating back to the nineteenth century and the rise of modern systems of time management, industrial assembly lines, the technological reproduction of goods and images, and the concomitant anxiety of being cheated or defrauded by an economic system intent on extracting one's labor and depleting one's financial resources. By claiming to be "authentic," or at least attempting to live authentically, Americans sought, as cultural theorist Marshall Berman has put it, "a dream of an ideal community in which individuality [would] not be subsumed and sacrificed, but fully developed and expressed." This individuality could certainly bump up against charges of narcissism, and taint an accompanying lifestyle with the exclusivity of class and racial privilege, but it can also be understood as an effort to retain control over one's life, for example, by rejecting processed foods in favor of sustenance grown organically. Authenticity was thus tied to a desire to be more natural, or at least to grasp some semblance of nature beyond the mechanisms of modernity. Naked living offered an opportunity to reclaim one's body, restore it to a state of nature by offering it up to the sun and the elements, and stake a claim to an authentic experience of the self. To be natural was thus to be naked and to be naked was therefore to be real.
The compulsion to be in nature and, in so doing, better the body for the modern age became an organized experiment in the 1930s when social nudists embraced the radical idea that it was the body that was natural and the society that was unnatural. This impulse was characteristically modern in that it reached back to an idealized Edenic past and gestured forward toward a utopian future in which one's own body, left alone to function outside the pressures of modern capitalism, could be a guide to better health and a more wholesome life. Social nudists took the idea one step further to assert that the naked body was the most natural expression of all and that the ticket to circumventing the worst excesses and illness-producing stress of the industrial age was to relinquish clothing altogether. The rub, as it were, was that by the 1930s more Americans than not lived in towns and cities and, not surprisingly, their neighbors, friends, and colleagues were less than thrilled by public nudity, which was long associated with sexual degeneracy, mental illness, and general troublemaking. To most Americans, it was public nakedness, not socially prescribed norms, that was unnatural. Today, social nudism continues as a subcultural practice but one that still remains difficult to experience outside of private venues, many of which are now part of an international economy of resort tourism and back-to-nature retreats where, for a significant fee, one can buy access to the free and natural lifestyle.
While nudism and natural living experiments were organized efforts to reject the material and cultural excesses of the modern age, they were also attempts to reclaim sex and sexuality as natural and wholesome. They were rarely, however, exercises in free love or critiques of heterosexual marriage. Instead, nudist philosophy in the United States reasoned that by not hiding the body, and thereby embedding a sense of corporeal and sexual shame in children from the moment they are told to put on their clothes, Americans could grow up to have a healthy appreciation for their own bodies without projecting all of their emotional needs and anxieties into sexual desire and performance. Living naked would undo the mysteries of gender distinction, certainly emphasized through clothing and fashion, and downplay the importance of sexual difference even if it could not produce complete gender equality. Ridding the body of clothing would also rid one of guilt. As one observer put it in 1926, "by a perverse system of Puritanical reasoning it has made of the body a symbol of sin and shamefulness. . . . Civilization and 'modesty' demand that the body be covered with clothing; the heavier the better—forgetting, of course, that dress is not the secret to but the symptom of modesty and morals."
Concerns about sex shame, as well as capitalism's corruption of healthy sexuality, grew in the early decades of the twentieth century as the new commercial markets for health, fitness, and beauty products promised enhanced sexual vitality while, in the pre-Hays Code era, movies and popular culture grew racier. Morris Fishbein, a doctor and editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association throughout the 1920s and 1930s, dedicated his career to fighting quackery and charlatanism, saving special vitriol for Bernarr Macfadden, who Fishbein believed peddled dangerous health advice and salacious body worship. In language that echoed the concerns of American nudists, Fishbein argued "[Macfadden] has taken what should be a beautiful search for health, for vigor, and for strength, and made of it an ugly and discouraging thing to every right-minded individual. . . . The Macfadden gospel is essentially an appeal to a large minority of persons whose eyes are aroused by the flash of nakedness." Like Fishbein, who sought to distinguish between lewd nudity and the pursuit of corporeal health, nudists believed healthy sexuality was supported by social nakedness and were equally eager to put distance between themselves and what they viewed as crass pornographic entertainment. Nudity for physical, emotional, and mental health was distinct from nudity for sexual arousal, and with the flurry of publications meeting consumer demand for all things about the body, the distinction could get a little hazy. Physical Culture magazine proved troubling as it celebrated the body and natural health in ways nudists emulated but also commodified and sexualized the body. For nudists—indeed, all naked living practitioners in the United States—the inherent sexuality of the nude body would produce philosophical, cultural, social, and legal contradictions that would prove impossible to resolve, although they would certainly try.
Harnessing the new interest in exercise and health to philosophies of naturism taken mostly from German and British nudist practices, proponents of free and natural living in the United States believed they could reclaim the naked body as natural and beautiful, reject deeply held convictions that the body was inherently shameful, make the healthy body a collective goal, and, in the process, reshape society. As the chapters to follow detail, however, naked living in the United States was no easy feat. Practitioners, whether members of nudist groups or not, frequently ran up against anti-obscenity laws, resistance to shifting sexual mores, and intense legal battles over the use of public space. Thus, at the heart of this inquiry are the geographical spaces such as camps, suburbs, and urban beaches where "being natural" was overtly tied to the naked body.
The spaces in which naked bodies are viewed and encountered have everything to do with how nakedness is interpreted. Simply walking around one's own home in the buff with no one seeing you does not qualify as either problematic or radical nakedness. It is private, indoors, and no one knows unless you tell them. Being naked in your house with all the lights on and a clear view in from the outside, however, opens up legal questions about lewd intent. Walking down a residential street alone, while naked, in most parts of the United States will at the very least raise eyebrows and will likely elicit concerns about mental illness and produce calls to local law enforcement. Outdoor nudity in a commercial venue, such as meandering through a shopping mall or promenade, will lead, most certainly, to arrest. The general social and legal consensus is that these are unnatural acts, the acts of the socially marginal and potentially sexually degenerate, and that we are not free to perform them. Indoor nudity is also not perceived as natural, unless in the bedroom or bathroom, but if unseen, does not matter much. Its visibility is what can cause problems. Meanwhile, outdoor nakedness in a place considered more natural than a city street, such as at a beach, has also proven unacceptable to many because being "free" can also be interpreted as not having to see someone else's nudity. Given the problem of spatial context, claiming the naked body as natural in the modern world has proven a difficult paradox and a complex legal challenge for advocates of nudism and the free and natural lifestyle to the present day.
Not only has the meaning of the naked body been tethered to the place in which it is viewed, the interpretative spaces of nudity are often visual, be it film or still photography, and the framing of those images has deeply affected how nudity has been understood. The expansion of the middle class in the mid-twentieth century, and its coupling with consumer capitalism, produced an especially conflicted modernist aesthetic that privileged the idea of the naked body in nature, but often in the most unnatural of settings, such as naked suburbanites serving drinks in an overstuffed living room, preparing dinner in a kitchen full of appliances, or lounging by an intensely chlorinated backyard pool. One of the paradoxes that threads its way through this story is that inasmuch as American nudists sought to reject the judgments of modern body culture and the consumerism that fed it, the private world they built to allow nudism and natural living to thrive was utterly denatured and artificial. Rather than rejecting modernity's artifice, many Americans modified their environment, often their own homes, and just boldly redefined the meaning of nature. Nudist magazines and films therefore had an important role to play in showcasing the free and natural lifestyle as wholesome and fun but also in providing a visual context in which the tensions between indoor/outdoor nudity; public/private space; and natural/unnatural environments, while never resolved, could be neutralized by the sheer delight practitioners found in displaying their own bodies.
Though social nudism and naked living projects took place all over the United States, and this book covers diverse regions including Florida, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, the majority of the case studies come from Southern California, and particularly Los Angeles County. This specific geographical focus is partly a product of the primary sources used, many of which are from Southern California archives including the Pomona Public Library Free Beach Collection, the extensive private collection of the Southern California Naturist Association, and the immense holdings of the Huntington in San Marino. It is also because a disproportionate number of nudist colonies, beleaguered free beaches, and lengthy obscenity fights were found here. Nowhere is the American cult of the body more closely associated with place than Southern California, largely because of 150 years of boosterism tying a lifestyle of leisure displayed through the flesh; the movie industry's globalized celebrity culture; the widespread adoption of cosmetic surgery; the intense fixation on physical fitness; the marketing of beach culture; and the local pornography industry. As artist and writer Eve Babitz, famous for playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, while in the nude, once wrote, "It has always seemed to me, ever since I was little, that sex (i.e., inspiring lust) was what L. A. was about." With a climate amenable to naked living and a reputation for beautiful bodies on display, it is not surprising that Southern California would attract the nudist and the bohemian faithful. But reputations are one thing and reality is often something quite different. Southern California, and Los Angeles especially, also have long histories of political conservatism that have devastated public culture in the region and encouraged repressive legislation curtailing the public display of nakedness. Decades of clashes between city and county officials and a range of nudist activists have thus made Southern California an especially rich place to study.
While our social and economic circumstances have evolved and changed since the turn of the twentieth century, the anxieties prompted by our competitive social structure, enhanced visual culture, and material desires remain. Peruse any newspaper, social media interface, magazine, television show—indeed, most of American popular culture in the twenty-first century—and one is presented with a startling number of references to sex and sexuality and myriad images of naked, or near-naked, human bodies. In the visual landscape of television, dramatic film, and advertising, the bodies are overwhelmingly young, fit, and highly desirable. Older bodies, and increasingly young ones too, are injected, nipped, tucked, and sculpted in a bid to stave off aging and encourage their sexualization. In contrast, the bodies portrayed in a news brief, documentary, Facebook meme, or widely circulated YouTube video may take on a variety of colors, shapes, and ages not seen in processed entertainment media. In this other visual landscape, we may be privy to stories of the obesity epidemic, plastic surgery gone wrong, murdered black bodies, transsexual bodies, the health hazards of having an old body, abused workers' bodies, or an array of dead children's bodies who, through no fault of their own, became flotsam in an alienating and uncaring world.
In both of these broad, though not exaggerated, examples of how human beings are physically represented in contemporary American culture, the effects are essentially the same. They are exposed in order to elicit a strong reaction. In the case of entertainment media and advertising, we are meant to be aroused by the commodities and commodified bodies displayed and yet it is always an unrequited desire. Neither the BMW nor the model selling it will ever love us back, but we may go to great lengths to own the product that promises to make us as desirable. In the case of the news account of suffering or bravery in the face of terrible odds, the images are meant to arouse us too, either our ire and guilt or our repulsion and shame. The effects of this body obsessiveness have been devastating from both cultural and social perspectives. To take one example, the intense peer and media pressure on teenage girls to conform to unnatural physical standards promoted online has left them alienated from their own bodies, sexually precocious, yet unable to claim their own desire and needs, and vulnerable to rape and assault.
Meanwhile, upper-middle-class adults pursue "wellness," which leads to no end of gym and fitness memberships, yoga, meditation retreats, alternative foods and supplements, a wide range of diets, and therapeutic treatments to keep us in one piece; quite literally, in the sense of mind and body becoming united and healthfully intact. At its best, wellness can bring its practitioners relief from deep and desperate suffering. Given the high rates of stress, and the serious illnesses it causes, these health challenges make wellness a worthwhile goal. But, for the most part, wellness is available only to those with significant disposable income to spend on therapists, life coaches, and exercise classes and excellent insurance to cover the rest. Wellness, and the billion-dollar industry that fuels it, is a symptom of the shift of health from a public concern to a private one. Without the means, wellness is out of reach for most. The wealthy get healthy and everyone else stays sick.
As George Wharton James's story attests, the desire for beauty, sexual prowess, and optimal health is nothing new; in the twenty-first century, the difference lies in the extensive role of social media, personal electronics, and globalization in perpetuating and extensively commodifying the body. Sexual norms, sexuality, gender expression, and beauty standards are more flexible than in previous generations, and accessibility for disabled bodies more readily addressed than ever before; nevertheless, the surveillance of the body has equally intensified, making our personal display and physical achievement of youthful health that much more scrutinized and anxiety-producing. It's no wonder the wellness and beauty industry fares so well.
It is thus revealing, literally, that one of the most popular of cable television's recent reality shows has been the Discovery Channel's Naked and Afraid. Introduced in 2013 as an updated variant of the Survivor franchise, Naked and Afraid puts one male and one female participant together in a challenging natural environment such as a deserted Maldives island, the Florida Everglades, or one of many South American jungles, takes away their clothes and all modern amenities, and leaves them alone with nothing more than fire starter, a machete, and a film crew for twenty-one days. In season after season, practically identical challenges unfold (no water, no food, sunburn, mismatched personalities, dysentery) and the only question is whether they will both make it to the end or will one "tap out" before the other. While about as formulaic as television gets, the show is fascinating for its sidestepping of sexuality and its normalization of nudity. Here, nudity is an expression of physical vulnerability, the bodies, while fit, are so racked by bug bites, wounds, and dehydration as to be rendered asexual, and "nature" is presented as both a brutal, terrorizing force and a healer of modernity's ills. If you can make it through the twenty-one days, your mundane emotional and social hang-ups will seem all the more manageable. In Naked and Afraid, nudity is a potent signifier of naturalness and vulnerability even as the participants' breasts and genitalia are blurred out, presumably to protect the stars and the viewers from offense. Nudity, in fact, produces such vulnerability that the contestants need to work together, picking up each other's slack, and benefiting from each other's wilderness skills. While the weight and muscle mass of the competitors is carefully monitored, possibly producing envy in the viewer as each contestant visibly shrinks, the potential sexiness of the experience is elided, making the show unusual for avoiding that obvious narrative hook. Nakedness is not just a device to restore contemporary Americans' essential humanness; it is a form of catharsis that pushes the competitors beyond the shallow needs of sexual desire and material acquisition. Even though it is certainly a commodity—the show sells broadcasting rights and advertising space—and is produced under the inherently unnatural gaze of a camera crew, Naked and Afraid highlights how much cultural significance we place on the body in nature, however artificial the experience.
Americans have long sought what they considered a "free and natural" lifestyle manifested through their own bodies; what they encountered instead were some of the longest-running legal fights in United States history and profound resistance to even the concept of public nudity. The body is now more present in contemporary culture than ever before while the notion of "natural" is so tainted by biological determinism, commodification, and the loss of any environment untouched by humans that it has lost much of its early twentieth-century meaning. Harnessing the body to nature was originally an effort by nudists and other proponents of naked living to situate the body outside capitalism; ironically, that same effort ultimately shored up the connection of the body to late capitalism's excesses. It is a complicated story, and my goal is to identify historical moments when the body was not simply a vessel for narcissistic individualism but held the promise of other collective possibilities.