Free and Natural

By Hannah Getahun

Sarah Schrank, author of "Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body," writes about early 20th century nudism and its connection to modern day society. Photo by Hannah Getahun.

Sarah Schrank, author of "Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body," writes about early 20th century nudism and its connection to modern day society. Photo by Hannah Getahun.

While nudity may be a taboo topic rooted in sexuality for some, the early 20th century found groups of middle-class white Americans baring it all in an attempt to root themselves in nature and escape the clutches of capitalism and industrialism. 

Sarah Schrank, a Long Beach State history professor and author of “Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body,” explores nudist subculture and its eventual rise in mainstream consumerism. 

What is your book about?

Sarah: [It] is basically about how Americans have responded to the rise of consumer capitalism through their bodies. In the early 20th century, there was a lot of anxiety about what authenticity meant, what realness meant, and one of the ways that people thought [they could] challenge capital[ism] was through living more naturally. Leaving the city, being more healthful, and getting naked was a part of that. That became an organized movement in the 1930s when you had organized nudism. But a lot of examples throughout the book aren't exactly about nudism per se, but about what nakedness meant. For some people it meant something natural and wholesome, and for others it was completely entwined with sexuality. By the time we get to the 21st century, it gets reattached to consumer capitalism. Now you have Naked Juice and Naked & Famous jeans, and all these brands that have “naked” in their names even when there is really nothing naked about them at all. But somehow “naked” carries this idea of being authentic and real. I’m making the case that our consumer culture is tied up with these early 20th century ideas about getting out of consumer capitalism and getting back to the land and...nature. 

How did you first become interested in the subject of nudity? 

Sarah: My interest in the subject came from two places. When I finished my first book on art and modernism in Los Angeles—and I talked a lot in that book about how LA marketed itself as a city—I wondered: Is it true? Is LA’s main identity tied to art? And I thought, “I’m not really sure it is.” I think it’s tied to the body. It’s like how LA people look like models, LA people look like celebrities, LA people look a certain way...and I was curious as to where this LA body cultism comes from. I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that it was a product of health culture, of boosterism and, ultimately, Hollywood...Then the next question that came to me was: Has there ever been a moment where the body and people wanting to project images of it was ever about something socially progressive and about social change and not just about narcissism…? And I came across nudism during my research of alternative body practices going back to the middle of the 19th century. It turned out it was a whole big social movement with a long history. 

Did “nudist” escapism find itself in other societies, or is it uniquely American? 

Sarah: No it’s not uniquely American at all because we got it from Germany. Going back to the middle of the 19th century, there was something called Lebensreform and Nacktkultur, and these are two ideas around living naturally [and] trying to go outside the industrial society of the late 19th century—and now there are nudist groups all over the world.

Has the body, as something natural, made its way into contemporary society? 

Sarah: For nudists, for people who actually practice this...yeah. For them, nudity means natural. It’s liberating. That’s where the free and natural idea comes from, at least with the title of the book. They experience that. They feel that way. But I think that nudity is as meshed with sex and consumerism as it ever has outside the narrow nudist world. I think we have a false sense of it being natural because I think a lot of the bodies aren't natural. We are encouraged to alter them and fight aging.  

What do you want people to get out of this book? 

Sarah: I want people to understand where their body anxiety comes from. The fact that people think they are not good enough or too tall, too small, too old—there’s a long history of it. And it’s hard to challenge because...we invest so much in [our bodies]. Much of it really has to do with anxieties consumer capitalism creates for us...The other thing is this book delineates this whole subcultural world that’s around us all the time. I take heart in that. I love that in the cracks of mainstream society there’s all these other ways that people design their homes or the communities they create or the magazines they publish and sometimes it’s in really large numbers...It’s still really fascinating to me that the subculture is still so large and I think that’s a really good thing to remember. And that there are people who really live freely. They have a totally different understanding of their bodies place in the world, and I think that’s really heartening. 

“Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body” can be bought wherever books are sold.