It’s late on a Saturday afternoon when I arrive at a swim school in Werribee. I’m a little bit early but I’m taken inside by Trevor, who I spoke to over the phone a few days ago. He runs a club that holds swim nights here twice a month. I’ve been warned against disclosing the pool’s exact location.
The centre isn’t very big. There’s a 25-meter pool with two lanes, a smaller drill pool, and a spa. There are people putting out soft drinks and snacks on a trestle table, while a group of men are draping a black tarp over the windows that look out onto the street.
As I start to scribble down notes, a woman comes up to me and introduces herself. She tells me she heard I was coming, and is willing to talk to me, on the condition she remains anonymous. Her family doesn’t know she’s a naturist.
Although it varies between different cultures and places, many define naturism as a lifestyle lived in harmony with nature. And while it’s mainly expressed through being nude in social settings, it’s generally accepted that nudism is only one part of the lifestyle. As well as attending clothing-optional beaches and resorts, naturists can join a host of clubs that hold regular social events, like nude swim nights.
This is a weekly ritual for 29-year-old Lisa*, who’s been attending events run by the Solar West Nude Leisure group for two-and-a-half years. She’s now on the committee, and it’s her job to collect tonight’s entry fees. I take a seat next to her, and she peels off her top and bra.
A younger-looking guy walks up to us.
“Excuse me guys, I’m kind of new today.” After fumbling with his money, Lisa reassures him by saying: “I take it you’re a bit nervous, it’s cool.”
He’s wearing a jumper, track pants and a baseball cap—he’s similar in age to Lisa, and looks like a regular guy off the street.
“This pool here, the bigger pool, it’s actually warmer so my advice, take the cold one first then jump in that second so you won’t get so much as a shock,” Lisa tells him. “Sorry about the spa being out of work.”
He wanders away and gets his kit off.
We’re alone for a moment, so I ask Lisa to take me back to where it all started.
“I grew up in a country town and it was a bit of a running joke in the schoolyard that there was a nudist colony way up in the bushes out whoop-whoop,” she says. “And it was a joke within the back of my head, it was this curiosity of actually wanting to go there.”
Lisa joined an online nudist forum in 2012, before mustering up the courage to attend her first event.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but as soon as you realise everybody was getting their clothes off and you’re going to, the nerves were over. After that it was just like who cares? I sort of saw it a bit like a costume party, but the costumes are not really there, if you get my drift.”
I ask her why she’s kept it a secret from her family.
“My parents and I sort of don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things,” she says. “I still love them, I still visit them, I still catch-up with them, like every good kid. From nudity to politics, you name it, I know I’m going to be involved in probably a verbal shit-storm if I did that.”
Being naked is commonly associated with sex. It’s a sensitive topic, but I ask Lisa if she’s ever been approached for sex during a nudist event. She hesitates for moment, and pulls back from my recorder.
“I really should be honest here,” she says. Lisa’s been bubbly and giggly so far, but her tone changes. “I have been asked to join in threesomes with other couples. I just simply tell them no and report it to the committee.”
She assures me this sort of thing is “extremely rare”.
Solar West’s President, Trevor Harris, says there’s been a significant shift in public perception towards nudism over the last two decades. After the club was formed in 1993, its events would attract up to 200 people—with around 70 of those being children.
“Back then it was good,” he says. “Now at the moment if you said there was 70 naked children in a group of 100-odd adults, most people would think that something untoward is happening.
“If you won’t do it with your clothes on, you won’t do it here,” Trevor tells me. “There’s been the odd kissing and cuddling, but nothing you guys wouldn’t see at events or pubs. Anymore more than that, people get spoken to, and if we have to speak to them more than once, they’re out.”
I count a total of 21 people tonight, but I’m told it’s still a small turnout. There aren’t any families with children, and most of the nudists are much older. It’s like any other party on a Saturday night really—everyone’s mingling and having a good time, except they’re all in their birthday suits, and they’ve swapped sofas for coloured noodles.
In Australia, nude bathing stretches far back before European colonisation in 1788. While the British were mostly unapproving of nudity, some settlers eventually adopted the Indigenous Australians’ practice of bathing in the buff. In 1833, however, sea bathing was banned entirely during daylight hours. This law was not overturned until 1902, but even then, both men and women were required to be covered in neck-to-knee bathing suits.
In 1975, Adelaide’s Maslin’s Beach became the country’s first legally recognised clothing-optional beach. The Victorian Labor government followed suit some eight years later, establishing four clothing-optional beaches in the state: Campbell’s Cove in Werribee, Sunnyside North in Mount Eliza as well as two beaches in Torquay—Point Impossible and Southside.
While they’ve been subject to heavy criticism from opponents since their establishment, Campbell’s Cove has received a particularly bad reputation in recent years and is at risk of having its nude status overturned. The Wyndham City Council recently conducted a review of the beach, arguing it isn’t as secluded as it used to be. The council wants to redevelop the area, and upgrade its landscaping.
In Victoria, “wilful and obscene exposure” in a public place is illegal, and carries a jail term of up to two years. In other words, exposing your genitals in any place visible to the public is technically a criminal offence. However, under the Nudity (Prescribed Areas) Act 1983, the state government has authority—after consulting with the relevant local council—to prescribe an area as having clothing-optional status.
Trevor says if people don’t like what they see, they should look in the opposite direction.
“Why go to a clothing-optional beach? Are you there just to have a perve?”
For Lisa, it’d be sad to see the beach shut down.
“It’s one of those few opportunities you can get, that you can experience every ounce of sun on your body. I’d be ashamed it that were overturned.”
Deborah*, who’s been a nudist for 17 years, is here with her partner. She’s in the water and leaning on the pool ledge. I’m kneeling on the deck beside her, trying not to get my clothes wet.
She works in a corporate job for a large multinational company and wants to protect her identity. She fears she’d be dismissed if her work found out.
“They’re a little bit meh about that kind of stuff,” she says. “They assume that’s where all the people that check out all the little kids are. I couldn’t cope with that.”
But then she laughs, and recalls seeing one of her co-workers at an event.
“Funny thing—there once was a guy from my work that rocked up to a swimming event, and well, I thought, okay—you’re here for the same reason as me and that’s not a problem.”
It get’s even funnier when she tells me how she deals with unwanted sexual attention.
“A couple of times at nudist beaches I’ve been approached by randoms in the bushes. I fob them off and I just point and go, if you were male, then that would be bigger, and they just scurry off into the bushes.”
An older man arrives at the door, alone—he’s an hour late. Lisa rolls out of the pool to collect his entry free, joking it’s not her “best look” as she wraps a towel around her waist.
For her, being around “real people” with different body shapes has been refreshing, and in many ways, therapeutic.
“Technology has gotten so good you can fabricate anything,” she says. “I’ll go a bit personal. I’ve had my own mother tell me to lose weight. You look around and you see there’s no dead-set perfectly airbrushed body around here.”
As I’m talking to Trevor, his partner Barbara wanders over. She’s 32 and started skinny-dipping as a kid.
“I’d actually walk in to the dam or whatever with my bathers on, and then take them off and swim around holding on to them.”
Trevor, who’s 52, calls himself a “backyard nudist”—he’d frequently sunbathe naked at home in New Zealand.
I still haven’t had a direct answer from anyone about what’s so appealing about going au naturale. I sense there’s a thrill of voyeurism in it, but I ask Barbara what she thinks.
“I find most people more truthful and more honest when you’re talking to them [naked] because they’ve got nowhere to hide,” she says. “There seems to be a lot less bullshit when you’re running around naked than there ever is when you’re at a social occasion and people are clothed.”
Unlike the others I’ve spoken to, Barbara’s work colleagues know what she gets up to on weekends, and so does her mum. But that was by accident. She says she’d frequently tell her mum she was going swimming on the weekends with Trevor. And when they were going on a holiday one time, Barbara accidentally let slip to her mum she needed to buy togs to swim in the hotel pool.
“And mum goes, ‘Don’t you go swimming all the time?’ ‘Yes mum, I go swimming naked normally.’ So yes, that’s how my parents found out we were nudists.”
I must admit I’ve myself been invited to go for a dip in the buff, both by Trevor over the phone and now again by Barbara. I don’t know how I’d go being bare-arsed in front of a group of strangers—even though they’re not really strangers anymore.
I decide to keep my clothes on. Trevor tells me I’m the odd one out.
They’ve got to be dressed by 6.30pm, as there’s another event straight after. Barbara’s about to go organise supper, but she gives me a tip for the newbies: “If it’s your first time, bring a sarong. That way you can wear the sarong, and you drop the sarong as you hop into the water, so you’re never running around outside in the air naked.”
Trevor’s tip? “Be nude, not rude.”
Hats–I mean clothes–off to anyone who gives it a go.
By Sam Cucchiara
Photograph via Flickr