Mary-Ann Shantz. What Nudism Exposes: An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022.
Why write a book about nudism? This is a question I’ve been asked many times, and one you may well be asking too. What follows is my “elevator pitch” response. Along the way, I’ll highlight aspects of the book I suspect may be of greatest interest to NiCHE readers.
Nudism emerged in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century, at the height of industrialization. It was one strand of the Lebensreform movement, that also included vegetarianism, hiking, and nature conservation. As John Williams explains, its objective was “to reorient the German people toward nature, and… thereby to find solutions to the problems of modern society.” By “nature” nudists meant “both the nonhuman rural environment and the naked human body.”1 While nudism has always aimed to promote both physical and mental health, the early nudist movement was especially concerned with physical health, and nude hiking and gymnastics were two of the most popular activities. In the interwar period, nudism spread through western Europe as well as to Britain, the United States, and Australia.
I was initially drawn to the topic of nudism as a way of exploring historical attitudes towards the body. How have the ways people thought about and experienced their bodies changed over time?
I was initially drawn to the topic of nudism as a way of exploring historical attitudes towards the body. How have the ways people thought about and experienced their bodies changed over time? It seemed to me that studying the history of nudism might provide insight on these questions.
Although Canada’s oldest nudist club, the Van Tan Club, opened in North Vancouver in 1939, the movement became firmly established in Canada only after the Second World War, as European (especially German) immigrants with nudist experience provided an influx of leaders and members for the fledgling Canadian movement. Nudism’s arrival in Canada coincided with the “golden age” of the family vacation, facilitated by increased leisure time, disposable income, and car ownership, and nudist clubs provided alternatives to the public beaches, parks, and campgrounds to which many Canadians flocked.2 By 1960, more than twenty nudist clubs were operating in Canada, ranging in size from ten to more than four hundred members. Nudist clubs emerged on the outskirts of many cities across the country but were concentrated in the Greater Vancouver area and southwestern Ontario.
In the context of postwar Canada, the priorities and marketing of nudism shifted from improving bodies to improving minds. Moving away from the physical culture of early nudism, the postwar Canadian movement engaged with contemporary psychological discourse to present their movement as encouraging healthy, “normal” psychological development. By helping people to be more comfortable in their own skin, the argument went, they would counter harmful social attitudes that led to shame and repression. They promoted their movement as family friendly, a means of strengthening heterosexual marriage and raising healthy, well-adjusted children. In other words, nudists presented their movement as an unconventional way of achieving widely shared social values.
I argue that what nudism ultimately exposes is the body’s position at the intersection of nature and culture, the individual and the social, the private and the public.
I argue that what nudism ultimately exposes is the body’s position at the intersection of nature and culture, the individual and the social, the private and the public. By attending to how nudists navigated their cultural environment, nudism offers opportunity to consider a wide-range of topics, including: European immigration after WWII, shifting gender and sexual norms, child psychology and parenting advice, nude photography, second-wave feminism, the free beach movement, and modern environmentalism. The chance to delve into such a range of topics was one of my favourite aspects of this project, and I hope the book may provide a useful entry-point for students and general readers interested in the postwar period. Each thematic chapter has a chronological arc, as does the book as a whole; early chapters tend to focus more on the movement’s foundations in the forties and fifties while later chapters have greater focus on the 1970s.
NiCHE readers may be especially interested in Part 3 of the book, which contrasts the modernist approach to nature and club development embraced by most nudist clubs with the environmental activism and “hands-off” approach to nature advocated by users of Vancouver’s Wreck Beach in the 1970s—a free beach that came to public attention following the arrest of a group of nude bathers on the beach in the summer of 1970. Members of the nudist movement and Wreck Beach users all defined nudity as natural, but they differed in their attitudes towards nature, as well as in their approach to the regulation of space and sexuality.
Beyond contributing to postwar historiography, I hope to open up questions about what we define as “natural” and “normal,” and offer some historical insight into how those terms have been employed. As William Cronon asserts, “What we mean when we use the word ‘nature’ says as much about ourselves as about the things we label with that word.”3 This is equally true when the word “nature” is applied to bodies or the natural world. And as something both private and public, bodies are sites where self-identity, self-presentation, and the navigation of social norms play out in visible as well as historically contextual ways.
Feature Image: Female Nudes in a Landscape. Artist: Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Acc. No. R814-295 / e011192291.
1 John Williams, Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Nature Conservation, 1900-1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 2.
2 Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008); and Claire Campbell, A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011).
3 William Cronon, “Introduction: In Search of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1995), 25.
Latest posts by Mary-Ann Shantz (see all)
- New Book – What Nudism Exposes: An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada - December 15, 2022
- Review of Barbour, Undressed Toronto - October 26, 2022
- The Naked Truth about Conferences - October 15, 2014