Mary-Ann Shantz, What Nudism Exposes: An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022. 268 pgs. ISBN: 9780774867214.
Reviewed by Sharon Wall.
On bath nights in early childhood, I recall my Mennonite grandfather accusing my siblings and me of being “little Doukhobors,” as we ran from bath to bedroom. It took years before I understood the comment (essentially, an ethnic slur) or learned about the use of nudity as a form of public protest. I did understand the disparaging tone.
The postwar subjects of Mary-Ann Shantz’s engaging monograph claimed no lofty goal of challenging state authority with their bodily choices; their nudism was not a tool, but an end in itself. Or rather, it was a tool in the service of more individual ends, a not surprising turn in the era of the psychologized self. Quite simply, as Shantz explains, nudists believed that removal of the “artifice” of clothing allowed individuals to adopt healthier attitudes to the body, to engage in more authentic social relations, and to become their “natural selves.”
What Nudism Exposes sits nicely alongside other works in social/environmental history that have shown that “the natural” was assumed to bring out the best in “the human.” It also goes beyond those works by exploring not another respectable initiative under the firm control of society’s betters, but a distinctly fringe movement led by a group of somewhat oddball characters—some even working-class and immigrant—that attracted few and never won the respect it sought. Clearly taking inspiration from Dale Barbour’s Undressed Toronto, Shantz helps to document a history that is still largely unexplored by Canadian historians. But while Barbour focused (primarily) on nineteenth-century nudity—largely male, homosocial, spontaneous, and often working-class—Shantz shifts the spotlight to a mid-twentieth century form that was organized, heterosocial, family-oriented, and somewhat cross-class. By situating the origins of organized nudism within the notoriously conservative early postwar years, Shantz helps dispel stereotypes about this period, as other recent postwar scholarship is doing. Postwar nudism—like postwar socialism or postwar feminism—reminds us that Canadian society always included subgroups of those who swam against the current—in this case, in the buff.
On the surface, nudism’s undeniable social transgressiveness might appear to be the primary explanation for the book’s subtitle: “An Unconventional History of Postwar Canada.” In fact, what is also unconventional about Shantz’s exposure of this movement is how artfully she approaches nudists (presumably the embodiment of unconventionality) to shed new light on the power of postwar social norms. As she puts it, her broader aim is to demonstrate “how a subset of Canadians navigated the social and cultural changes of the postwar period” (13). Ultimately, Shantz’ study demonstrates that even apparently fringe actors were uninterested in challenging most of the dominant values of the day. This is illustrated, for instance, by club membership policies (nominally “open” but in practice, exclusionary), the thinking about kids at the clubs (children as “natural nudists,” but still in need of socialization), the uses of photography (ostensibly, to present the body “naturally,” but in practice, centring staged, airbrushed photos of mostly young women), and the approach to the natural setting (lovely, but in need of a little “civilizing.”) As Shantz reiterates clearly in each chapter, twentieth-century nudists were not radicals; they sought social respectability not social change. Beyond their interest in clothes-free living (at least for a few months in the Canadian setting), these were fairly ordinary, mainly white, postwar Canadians.
As the eye-catching cover suggests, the natural setting provided the backdrop for Canadian nudism, making this book of intrinsic interest to historians of environment. Three broad sections house the book’s nine chapters, underlining key shifts in this history: from early origins, objectives, and the navigation of gender, sexuality, and children’s place at nudist clubs (Part 1), to attempts to grow membership by putting the movement “on display” (Part II), to environmentalist influence on the movement (Part III). This third section on “The Regulation of Space” will appeal most directly to environmental historians. Its two chapters examine, respectively, the physical spaces of nudist clubs and the 1970s shift from nudist to naturist. The latter, we learn, began to see their bodily practice not simply as a personal proclivity, but as embedded in a broader environmental consciousness.
This study also reminds environmental historians that questions of gender are inextricably tied up with our historical relationship with nature. In one way, the very existence of women at nudist clubs brings to mind the American Not June Cleaver, but, in another, we learn it’s more a story of “Still June Cleaver, after all.”1 In fact, gendered dynamics shaped the decision-making process that brought couples to camp (often on male initiative), gendered assumptions shaped their experiences once there, and clubs, which boasted a “natural,” “holistic” approach to the body, sometimes promoted themselves with objectifying photos of mainly young women’s bodies. In this connection, Shantz does well to note that clubs took up the beauty pageant as marketing tool (in the nude, of course, and with great commercial success) just as second-wave feminists were decrying it as the public epitome of female oppression. On occasion, Shantz could possibly make more of the contributions being made, for instance, to the history of postwar marriage. At the same time, she does well to point out gendered nuances to recreational nudity that others might miss. In Part III, for example, Shantz notes that women at Vancouver’s Wreck Beach could be the target of unique harassment, but also that some felt no more objectified there than elsewhere.
The source base for Shantz’s book is varied: club records, correspondence, and publications (including photographs), a solid base of (previously-conducted) interviews, as well as some print, radio and television media accounts. While the narrative is often framed in broadly national terms, records originate from groups across Canada, from Vancouver to Calgary to Toronto (with some reference to Quebec clubs and their unique trajectory). Evidence from the 50s and 60s predominates, but the 1970s get some fascinating coverage in chapters devoted, respectively, to Toronto’s Miss Nude World pageant, and to battles surrounding nudity at Wreck Beach. In fact, considering Shantz’s assertion that the local context was most important to individual experience, perhaps more could have been said about the regional appeal (or non-appeal) of nudism in different parts of the country. (I noted, for instance, the absence of Winnipeg clubs!)
If one thinks of paths for future research, one wonders about the lure of nudist clubs in settler states. Given that colonizers around the world had long used lack of (or “improper”) clothing to judge Indigenous peoples as “uncivilized,” what is the significance of postwar white settlers turning to glorify nudity? Was this another attempt at “playing Indian,” an updated effort at “becoming Native in a foreign land”?2 Shantz notes the general lack of racial diversity at the clubs; this kind of analysis might have further explained that phenomenon. Further, it seems likely that those already socially marginalized might be reluctant to join a movement that placed themselves further outside the norm. The fetishization of racialized bodies no doubt also could have deterred racialized peoples from wanting to put the body so brazenly “on display” in a predominantly white setting. And there were simply other (real?) battles to be fought.
These points notwithstanding, students and scholars from a variety of fields will find something of interest in this well-researched and intriguing study. Beyond its many insights and attractions, the book is pleasingly packaged, coming in at 200 pages which, along with clear and accessible writing and inherently interesting subject matter, make it a perfect candidate for an undergraduate assignment. Individual chapters could also provide valuable (and not too lengthy) readings in courses in environmental, gender, body, and childhood studies. Quite simply, with this new monograph, Shantz goes a long way in providing a multi-faceted history not only of recreational nudity in mid-century Canada, but also of the possibilities and limitations of non-conformity in the postwar period.
1 Comments inspired by: Joanne J. Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Ruth Roach Pierson, They’re Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood (Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1986).
2 Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Gillian Poulter, Becoming Native in a Foreign Land: Sport, Visual Culture and Identity in Montreal, 1840-85 (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2009).