The Clothes That Bind

Anthropologists have long been trying to understand the human need to wear clothes. Since we started adorning ourselves, people have fairly consistently covered 80 percent of their bodies. The location of the exposed 20 percent has rotated with fashion trends, with the one obvious exception being the genitals, which usually have been kept under wraps. One explanation contends that when our shorter-legged ancestors started running around upright, they left their more sensitive parts vulnerable to slicing by reeds and grass. An erect stance also put our naughty bits in the forefront, possibly requiring obfuscation to allow for periods of undistracted work. Others insist the opposite is true, that clothes enhanced our attributes and concealed our flaws.

What we wear certainly defines our status and helps project an image about ourselves, but at a nude social gathering like the monthly meetings of the Healthy Hides of Houston, everyone is exactly as Allah made them, without class distinction. If you think nudism is an excuse for organized voyeurism, think again. These are not the models from Calvin Klein commercials. The youngest members look to be about 40, and the majority are not, as they say in the classified ads, height-weight proportionate. The photo albums they proudly hand to prospective members at clothed meetings show the body in all its drooping, disproportionate glory. Rather than to entice, these folks claim to take it off for the feeling of freedom it gives them.

According to one member, Peggy, "You have a vision of what women are, and when you're into nudism, you see all types." Mary was married 15 years to her first husband without once standing naked in front of him, but seeing all varieties of people in the group has taught her to love her body. Judy overcame her inhibitions and bared it all after 13 years in a convent.

These ladies are the exception. In fact, the group's claims to asexuality are undermined by one simple statistic: Men overwhelming apply for membership -- virtually all of the women have joined at the behest of boyfriends and husbands. Only by enforcing one-to-one policies have clubs like Healthy Hides managed to keep a balanced ratio, though there are still six more men on the current roster of 60. Not only do men get more out of seeing the opposite sex au naturel, but women tend to have more complexes about body image. Men's largest hang-up seems to be, shall we say, unwanted displays of excitement.

"Guys worry about that," says Hides promoter David. "The fear alone is enough to kill anything."

The monthly party might include dancing, a murder mystery or, ironically, a costume party (past attire has consisted of CDs and grocery store stickers). At times, their activities hint at an outlet for repressed desires (mutual body painting comes to mind). Any Hide will tell you, however, that it's all in the name of a healthy return to nature.

Hosts of the parties need not worry about one thing: Every guest is required to carry their own personal towel at all times to protect the furniture.

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Dylan Otto Krider