The campsite is quintessential New England. Cornfields in the distance, wooden cabins nestled between tall oaks and pines, a cluster of buildings around a pond. When we crest the hill and drive down into the parking lot, the first person we see is a man pushing a lawn mower through the grass. He wears a hat, headphones, a pair of shoes, and a white towel wrapped around his upper arm—nothing else: no shirt, no shorts, no underwear.
My two friends and I climb out of the car and pull off jeans, t-shirts, a dress, socks, bras. I drop my clothes in the passenger seat, grab my driver’s license and my wallet, and head towards what looks like the camp office building. This is our first time at Dyer Woods Nudist Campgrounds, a family-oriented camp in Foster, Rhode Island. The camp website invites visitors to “experience nature naturally” and join a community that can be a “home away from home.” People come here for afternoons and full summers to hike, swim, and relax—all while nude. While there are nudist resorts that cater to swingers and polyamory, Dyer Woods is one of many places where nudity is strictly non-sexual. The camp’s philosophy is one of appreciating nature and, as the national Naturist Society’s website declares, believing that “Nude is not lewd!”
A man named Bob greets us on the porch of the office. He is 55. He wears small hoop earrings and a grey, long-sleeve t-shirt, but only because it’s a brisk and cloudy 71 degrees. Growing up in Rhode Island, Bob remembers the kids giggling about Dyer Woods and screaming, “There’s a bunch of naked people running around in the woods out there!” Then, two years ago, Bob arrived at Dyer Woods for the first time with his partner. “We said ‘heck with it.’ We got out of the car, we stripped right away,” Bob recalls. I smile as Bob says this, hearing my own afternoon mirrored in his story: removing article after article of clothing, walking barefoot up to a stranger, feeling the tension fade from my shoulders and my stomach unclench as we talk.
Bob began officially exploring social nudity as an adult visiting Cape Cod’s nude beaches, but he says he’s always hated clothes. “My 86-year-old mom came and spent the weekend with me last weekend, and she’ll say even when I was a little kid I would rip off my diaper and run naked through the house.”
Out in the “textile world,” the term nudists use for the world of clothes-wearing people, Bob works in a small payroll office for AAA. “I’m more ready to tackle the regular world on the Monday through Friday. And I’m always counting down: Tuesday, three more days until I’m at camp. And it gets me through the week,” Bob says. Bob is open with his coworkers about where he spends his weekends to relax, reflect, and recharge, and one woman from the office has been joining him at Dyer Woods for almost two years. The other coworkers don’t understand it, and they ask Bob how the two can work together when they’ve seen each other naked. As Bob recounts other people’s surprise and judgement, I remember that my back, chest, stomach––everything––is visible, but until this moment, I’ve forgotten. So when he emphatically says, “I don’t know, it’s no big deal,” stretching out his words and emphasizing his point with his hands, I believe him.
Being in a gay relationship, Bob says he didn’t know how camp members would respond to his presence when he first arrived. “It didn’t faze anybody,” Bob says. “That’s when we got our first inkling that the place was very welcoming...We started coming every single weekend after that.”
More than two years later, Bob says he hates it when it’s time to go home. “I have to put my shorts back on,” he cries, throwing up his hands. His tone is light-hearted, but he adds that there’s a marked difference between how he feels in his own skin here and in the textile world. “I just feel right, more at ease and at home [here],” he says. “For the most part, I’ve been big. Say I went to a public, normal state beach or whatever, I would be wearing the longest shorts I could possibly wear and not take a shirt off. But then, here—it just doesn’t matter here. And no one stares at you or judges you. You’re a person. And the packaging doesn’t matter.”
Bob isn’t alone in this experience. One of the tenets of nudism is respect for your body and for others’, and through social nudity, many people experience a comfort and confidence unavailable in textile life, a feeling of peace with their physical bodies. Bob knows the rhetoric of “be thin, be thin,” is waiting out in society, but he says, “it’s nice to leave all those behind that gate at the top of the hill.”
This summer, Bob and his partner married each other in Dyer Woods, in the nude, with the help of the ordained president of Dyer Woods and guests from the camp community and the textile world. Bob says the day highlighted the camp’s sense of community, as camp friends celebrated the couple and volunteered to grill food for the after-party, as well as what being nude can represent. “We even kicked off our flip flops and everything, ‘cause we said we’re marrying each other exactly how we are, no pretense, no getting all duded up and looking like we don’t normally look. Just totally nude, right down to the soles of our feet, and we’re just marrying each other as we are, for what we are.”
Back in 1965, a man named Kenneth (Ken) Walker inherited 200 acres of farmland from his family, which had owned land in Foster since the 1700s. With the help of family members and friends, Ken transformed the property, digging out a swimming pond, planting pine trees in the cow pastures, and erecting camp buildings and electricity poles. The central clearing now boasts of a woodfire-heated sauna, volleyball court, lawn chairs, swings, and a playset for the kids, all clustered around the pond.
Dyer Woods is quiet today; only seven members are out and about in the cooler, overcast weather. But typical summer weekends see two or three dozen people around the camp: people in their early 20s to their 80s, as well as parents with young children. One family has been coming to Dyer Woods for 20 years, and their 15-year-old basically grew up spending his summers at the camp. Special events throughout the year, such as “Dyer Woodstock,” include activities like yoga, tie-dying, and slip n’ slides. The Labor Day festivities this summer brought 140 people from surrounding states and as far as California.
Before the warmth of the afternoon fades, my friends and I go swimming. I’ve been skinny dipping before, but always at night. There is the same pleasure of water on skin, glossy and gentle. When I step out and feel air hit my skin, my body instinctively expects a towel, more for the security of cover than to be dry. Instead, my friends and I walk straight to the sauna. A few minutes later, two men have joined us. One cheerfully brags that 120 degrees is nothing for a sauna, settles on his towel, and says, “best place in the world.” He goes on to tell us about his wife, his writing, his religion. The other explains that he was interested in social nudity since early adulthood, but it didn’t quite fit with his family life. He began coming to Dyer Woods earlier this year with his puppy, a fluffy bijon and shih tzu mix named Lucy, after his wife passed away. His story reflects a larger narrative shared by many members: the search for a community.
When Ken passed away (nude) in 1987, his daughter turned the camp over to the members to create a co-op. Now, seven long-term members serve on a board of directors, and all the members share responsibilities around the camp. “It’s all completely voluntary,” Bob says. “When someone sees a need and thinks they would also enjoy doing it, they just step into it. And luckily, it all just seems to mesh.”
All summer, Bob has taken half-Fridays off from work to come volunteer at the gate and take reservation calls in the office. Saturday and Sunday mornings, he wakes up early, brews a pot of coffee, and bakes apple muffins for whoever wants a morning treat. Saturday evenings are for community potlucks, and, most nights, one member starts a campfire where people will chat and play music late into the night.
“It’s a great community of people that really care about each other and like spending time together,” Bob says. “Everyone is accepted for who they are, quirks and all.”
While Dyer Woods presents a loving community and home for many, there is an imbalance in terms of the members’ gender, racial, and ethnic identities. With its largely white, male history, social nudity in the United States is still struggling to achieve diversity in multiple regards, and Dyer Woods is no exception. Of the seven people we see today, six of them are men, four of them are white, and everyone looks over the age of 40. Two of my friends who visited Dyer Woods on a busier weekend recalled a greater mix of age-levels and gender identities, but still a predominantly white crowd.
A camp member named Sam* offers to lead us through the hiking paths that thread Dyer Woods’ 175 acres of nature preserve. Sam looks to be in his early fifties, and, similar to Bob, began enjoying social nudity at a clothing-optional beach in Vermont. No one else in his family is a nudist, but they accept the importance of Dyer Woods in his life.
Sam wears Teva sandals, a gold wedding band, a white and gold watch, and a Columbia backpack to carry his flashlight, bug spray, and water bottle. Noticing these details, I’m reminded of what Bob’s mother told him during her visit about the equalizing factor of nudity: “You don’t know who’s a banker, who’s the CEO of a company, who’s the janitor, who’s unemployed, who’s down on their luck or a millionaire.” While I still notice the cars that members park outside their trailers, their watches, or their shoes, this removal of class difference mostly holds true.
However, the equalizing nature of nudity does nothing to erase the financial barrier to being a part of Dyer Woods in the first place. Of the camp’s 60 members, “day” members can visit afternoons for $600 a year, and “full” members own plots of land where they can pitch tents or park RVs and trailers for $2400 a year. Short-term visitors can come for an afternoon ($40) or an overnight stay ($65 - $115). Bob says the camp’s financial cost is discussed during monthly member meetings. He says there’s always a conflict between keeping the camp running and being as accessible to as many people as possible. There’s been talk of free summer weekends in the future, and the camp traditionally passes used trailers down to new members for free if the old owners are upgrading to a cabin.
Still, Dyer Woods is the cheapest nudist destination in the area, the closest alternative being Sun Ridge Resort, less than five miles away in Sterling, Connecticut. The resort has more of a country club feel, with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and rates higher than those of Dyer Woods. “We think Dyer Woods is pretty unique because we’re not highbrow and fancy. It’s more old New England, rustic, more woods,” Bob says. Compared with online photos of Sun Ridge Resort, Dyer Woods definitely counts as more rustic, with its log cabins, real ponds, and acres of forest trails, but it’s still fancier than the plain old woods.
Sam leads us through the trails now. Low shrubs and ferns cover the ground between trees, the paths are littered with fallen pine needles, and bright orange and purple mushrooms sprout along the trail edges. Tree roots snake across paths, moss creeps over the ground and up tree trunks, and white and yellow wildflowers dot the surrounding grass. Low stone walls crisscross through the trees, serving as a reminder of the land’s old use as a farm. A plaque along one trail is dedicated to Ken and his wife, Muriel. It contains one of Ken’s favorite sayings: “Lack of reverence to nature is the mark of a fool.” Surrounded by shafts of light cutting through leaves and sparkling across ponds, it’s easy to see why everyone at Dyer Woods shares this love and respect for nature. And the desire to be nude in nature sinks in: Out here, the more human-made things are stripped away, the more immersed in nature I feel.
Before joining the camp, Bob would get creative with the local trails around his home. “I’d sneak off to an Audubon Trail in Rhode Island at five o’clock in the morning on a Sunday when I figure no-one’s there. And I’d get halfway into the trail and take my shorts off.” But Bob says he was always listening for another person’s footsteps, feeling like he was doing something wrong. For people who can afford it, places like Dyer Woods are the answer. But if you’re a person in the U.S. who wants to be nude outside but doesn’t own property, have connections to someone who does, or have some money, you’re out of legal options.
Driving away from Dyer Woods, I sat with my legs tucked under me, the fabric of my worn jeans between my legs, long sleeved cotton shirt hugging the insides of my arms, the underwire of my bra against my ribs. I felt their presence, soft and restrictive all at once.
I remember sitting in that small, intensely hot room chatting with two men about hiking, snowshoeing nude, and writing. I remember how they would gaze out the window as they spoke or make direct eye contact, how their eyes never swept or flickered below my neck, something I expect in the outside world every day.
I remember wrapping a blanket around my shoulders in the cool shade of the woods with Sam, and how the partial coverage brought up familiar feelings of taking stock of what skin is showing, wondering where I am being watched. I remember pulling off the blanket and letting my awareness of my body’s shape fall away again.
For me, the equalizing aspect of nudity that day was in the equal presence of bodies; it shifted a power dynamic I’ve felt for years walking past strangers whose eyes make me uncomfortable. I’ve spent so much time in the world feeling tense, small, watched and violated through that watching—all while fully clothed. And I didn’t once feel that way that afternoon.
My comfort at the camp had more to do with an escape from my body and physical self-awareness than a visceral enjoyment or acceptance, but there were glimmers of those feelings that Dyer Woods members described––in the pond, for example, and in reaction to the encompassing warmth of sunlight on skin. I find something deeply and personally beautiful about desexualizing the naked human body, claiming the ability to exist without the “packaging,” as Bob put it, of clothing and its connotations. Unfortunately, however, people have been known to violate Dyer Woods’ rules on non-sexual conduct, and the camp keeps a blacklist of people who have been asked to leave and are not welcome back. That fact would have made approaching Bob and Sam without my two friends feel very different. I wanted to hear about the experience of a woman member, but there was no one to ask. The one woman we glimpsed was off searching for the jacuzzi and taking a swim with another member.
For the most part, the big questions around what nudity means and how it relates to body image, self-love, and identity go unspoken at the camp. “We don’t really get into too many deep discussions about nudism, ‘cause we’re all living it,” Bob said. Most days, nudism at Dyer Woods is about the visceral comfort of moving around in the sun, being at ease in your own skin and nothing else, and being part of a community.
*Name has been changed.
KAYLI WREN B‘20 would like to participate in the Naked Donut Run this year.