Naked at Lunch by Mark Haskell Smith: An Immersive Look at Social Nudism

People have enjoyed taking their clothes off and socializing in the buff for centuries — a predilection that is often frowned upon by society at large. In his latest book, Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World, Mark Haskell Smith takes an immersive approach to exploring naturism and “nonsexual social nudism.” Although not a nudist himself, he gamely drops trou and dives into the naturist community, going on a “nakation” aboard a nude cruise, hiking naked through the alps, and lounging by the pool at naturist resorts. Along the way, he discusses the history of nudism, the state of contemporary naturism, common misconceptions, popular nude recreational activities, and just what it is, exactly, that compels people to take their clothes off around other naked people (in nonsexual contexts).

“The nudists and naturists I’ve met are not kinky freaks and weirdos, they’re not exhibitionists or voyeurs or pedophiles; for the most part they are friendly people who just want to enjoy the sensual pleasures that life has to offer, just like foodies and wine snobs, people who go to spas or concerts or sporting events, and people who stop and smell the roses — basically anyone who does something for the pure pleasure of it. Nudists enjoy the sensation of sun and wind and water on their bodies. And I would argue that unless one has some sort of debilitating skin condition, everyone enjoys these sensations. Nudists are just brave enough or honest enough to go all the way.”

At once funny and thought-provoking, Naked at Lunch is a fantastic read for fans of Mary Roach-style participatory journalism. As Smith goes on his personal journey, he forces readers to confront their own attitudes about the human body and its place in public spaces, all while keeping the tone light with jokes-a-plenty. I’m sure we all have preconceived notions about what nudism is or why people do it, and this book does a great job or educating readers about the reality.

A few interesting tidbits:

  1. Many nudists trace their love of hanging out while letting it all hang out back to their first time skinny dipping as teenagers.
  2. Although San Francisco now bans public nudity, New York City allows women to go topless in the name of gender equality.
  3. For those worried about women’s safety: Single men are often barred from entering nudist resorts, and if they are allowed to enter, they are frequently viewed with suspicion.

Naked at Lunch is a fascinating peek into a world we rarely see (and one that is highly, unfairly stigmatized), and I definitely came away from this book much more open-minded (and even curious) than I was before. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy immersive explorations of offbeat topics!

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Five Lessons to Take Away From I Am Not a Slut by Leora Tanenbaum

Being a teenage girl has never been more complicated than it is today. For generations, adolescent girls and young women have dealt with slut-shaming and sexual double standards in school, but today’s Internet culture has added an entirely new element for them to navigate. Never before has it been easier to record and distribute evidence of “slutty” behavior on cell phones or to bully classmates within the anonymity of social networks. In I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, Leora Tanenbaum interviews adolescent and college-age girls as well as journalists, academics, and other professionals who work with them to provide fresh insight into the lives of young women today.

I was absolutely fascinated by this book. It shines a light on how slut-shaming is used by both boys and girls to police the activity of their female peers, how sexual double standards create a toxic environment for young women, and whether the term “slut” can be reclaimed. But I also had some trouble with how universal Tanenbaum’s arguments seemed. When she says “almost all” women have been called a slut at some point, I wanted numbers. Reading this book painted a picture of high school and college very different from my own not-too-far-removed experience. Although it’s sad and awful that ANY girls have had the experiences these women did, I couldn’t help but wonder just HOW typical their stories were.

However, this book isn’t about the girls who kept their noses down and didn’t talk to boys or go to parties. It’s about the girls who have been called sluts, regardless of their actual level of sexual experience or their agency in those experiences. (And those seem to be the only choices a girl has: to be ignored and seen as a prude, or to express her sexuality at the risk of being labeled a slut.)

To give you a taste of the information imparted in I Am Not a Slut, I would like to share five things I learned from this book.

1. A girl can become known as a slut, even if she has never had sex.

She may be singled out because she is perceived as other, seems to have an unfair advantage with boys, or even because she has been sexually assaulted. Actual level of sexual experience is often irrelevant.

2. There is a fine line between being a “good slut” and a “bad slut.”

A girl tries to portray herself as a “good slut” to show that she is sexually sophisticated, but she can easily lose control of the label and become a “bad slut” when her peers perceive her to violate feminine norms by exercising sexual agency, having sex outside the boundaries established by her peers, or appearing as if she is trying too hard.

3. The word “slut” is used by both girls and boys to police the actions of their female peers.

A boy may call a girl a slut to assert his dominance and masculinity. When a girl playfully calls her friend a slut, it distances the first girl from the label (reinforcing her own femininity) while serving as a sly reminder to the friend that she is being monitored. The use of the word “slut” among female friends also serves to normalize a derogatory word that place’s a woman’s value in her sexuality.

4. With the rise of social media and camera phones, girls are always on display, and they must perform their femininity at all times.

Seventy percent of all Facebook activity is related to viewing pictures and profiles, and women receive two-thirds of all page views on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. In this atmosphere, “Girls’ sexuality is just another thing to document.”

5. In college, hooking up is seen by women as the first step toward a relationship.

Although many women may not find hooking up empowering, they see it as a “necessary evil” in developing a relationship. But because hooking up is seen as slutty, women turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking; “If you hook up drunk, you can always attribute your sluttiness to the influence of alcohol… Hooking up drunk is a strategy to disavow agency and sexual desire — two ingredients in the definition of a “bad slut.””

I Am Not a Slut is a fascinating, important book about how slut bashing (overt bullying), slut shaming (a more subtle form of policing women’s behavior) and the sexual double standard damage young women, especially in a culture in which images, videos, and taunts can be spread with such ease and impunity. I had some objections to how she portrays slut-shaming as something that happens to nearly every woman, and I wished Tanenbaum had written at more length about slut-shaming on the internet more broadly (rather than focusing only on how it affects young girls), but I thought it was a thought-provoking book that’s definitely worth a read.

I would highly recommend this book to parents and educators. In addition to the great information in the body of the book, I Am Not a Slut contains appendices with “Dos and Don’ts for Parents of Teenagers and College-Age Children,” a “Slut-Shaming Defense Toolkit,” and resources for further reading. It’s flaws aside, this is an excellent book about the complex sexual pressures young girls and women face.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.

Book Review: Flappers by Judith Mackrell (#JazzAgeJan)

The 1920s were a decade of massive social change. Prosperity and excess abounded in the wake of WWI, jazz swung into popularity, and new attitudes about art and sex were on the rise. Amid this atmosphere of adventure, the flapper was born. She wore provocative clothing, attended wild parties, challenged social norms, and was sexually liberated. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell shines a light on the lives of six women who defined the Roaring Twenties: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker. Mackrell follows these women through London, Paris, and New York as they blaze their unforgettable trails.

Aristocratic Diana Cooper was active in London’s intellectual Coterie, a sort of precursor to the Jazz Age, in the 1910s. The darling of London, she was a celebrity even before she became a star on stage and screen.

Nancy Cunard, a fellow member of the British upper class, was a wild party-girl-turned-poet who became involved in the Paris literary scene, and later, political activism.

After escaping from Russia in 1917, Tamara de Lempicka found her way to Paris, where she became renowned for her Art Deco paintings and sparked scandal with her sexual relationships with both men and women.

Raised in Alabama, Tallulah Bankhead embarked on her pursuit of celebrity at age 15, when she won a movie magazine beauty contest and moved to New York to become an actress. Known for her hard partying, she made splash in London, where she earned a devoted following on the stage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda is perhaps the most famous flapper; she hosted parties from her bathtub, dove off cliffs, and lived a wild, turbulent lifestyle in New York and Paris before her life was taken over by mental illness.

Born in a Missouri ghetto, Josephine Baker rose to fame in Paris, where her erotic dancing became a sensation. As Europe went crazy for all things African, the dark-skinned Josephine made waves with her nearly-nude performances.

Flappers is a fascinating book about six infinitely interesting women who were ahead of their time. However, as with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I had some trouble with the format. Each woman’s story is told in halves (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A | 1B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B), and by the time I got to the second half of one lady’s story (200 pages after the first half), I had only hazy recollections of the the first section. I understood the purpose of weaving their stories together this way, but it made absorbing each story more difficult for me.

Despite my trouble with the format, I thought this book was wonderful. It is impeccably researched, and Mackrell brings each woman to life while highlighting their significance both during the 1920s and the decades that followed. A must-read for anyone who loves the Jazz Age or is interested in the roles of women through history.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.