The gentle curves of her 65-year-old body long ago succumbed to gravity, and muscular dystrophy makes it difficult to walk without two canes. But at the Issaquah nudist camp, she gathers longtime members, children, newcomers and, oh, just about everyone into her gentle presence.
"I'm a social nudist," she said. "I like conversation." Whenever a newcomer needs to know the rules — always sit on a towel, don't stare or bother anyone — they are sent to "the woman in the crown." It was given to her by her husband because, as the oldest woman at the camp, she is the unofficial camp queen.
These days there are more visitors than ever as nudism, once a quirky subculture, moves closer to the mainstream. In the last 10 years, membership in the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), the national lobbying and standard-setting group for nudists, has increased 76 percent to 55,000. And Forbes magazine says nude recreation — cruises, resorts and charter flights — increased from a $120 million to a $400 million-a-year industry between 1992 and 2003.
The Pacific Northwest, with its German and Scandinavian roots and love of the outdoors, has long been into nudism. The country's oldest club and clothing-optional beach are in Oregon, and Washington's Fraternity Snoqualmie got its start fairly early in the movement, back in 1937.
In the Puget Sound area today, the Issaquah group is joined by two new clubs: Sun Lovers Under Gray Skies — SLUGS — in Bellevue and Xena's Sanctuary in Enumclaw, both created in the past year. A few years earlier, Lake Associates Recreation Club in Mount Vernon broke away from the Lake Bronson Club in Sultan. And many other clubs across the state also have formed within the past 10 years.
Members say they are attracted to the comfort of being in nature without a swimsuit, meeting each other without the class distinctions of clothing and the relaxation that comes when stress is shed along with garments.
While nudism appeals to a variety of people, according to Carolyn Hawkins, spokeswoman of the AANR, statistically there are twice as many male nudists as females. They are typically 35 and older, have some college education and a higher-than-average household income.
Hawkins believes the increase in nudism is due to people seeking ways to relieve stress and because society is more comfortable with the idea of nudity now, the more casual mores of other cultures having finally crossed borders into ours.
"You want to relieve stress, take off your clothes," Hawkins said.
The nudist family
While there are still critics who question the morality of nudism, many nudists are conservative Christians and some even have specially designated clubs where they combine nudity and their religious faith. Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, belong to the LDS Skinny-Dipper Connection, www.ldssdc.info, which is not sponsored by the church.
Nudism came to the United States 74 years ago from Germany, and over the years different philosophies have developed of what nudism is supposed to be. Nudism American style has evolved into not only the traditional swimming, sunbathing and volleyball but into fishing, church services, dinners and all sorts of other activities.
German-born nudist Roman Merys, 77, of North Bend, said the European style of nudism is to enjoy the sun. The American style goes to the extreme. Not only do Americans do outdoor activities nude but "they go bowling nude. They go dancing. Whatever, that's not for me. Nudism is nature, sun and water."
There are now second and third generations of nudists here — like the Heistands' children and grandchildren and Chase Maki, 39, of Enumclaw, who works in quality assurance in the aerospace industry.
Maki grew up in Southern California, the daughter of nudists, and can't imagine a healthier lifestyle. An attractive woman with a brown ponytail and a baseball cap, she is raising her children, 11-year-old twins, as nudists.
"When we come to the club, they are naked by the time they get halfway up the road," she said as her son and daughter ran off toward the pool.
Her daughter says she likes coming to the camp, has many friends and is unfazed about her lack of clothing. But she admits she doesn't tell her friends at school "because they wouldn't understand."
While the late Dr. Benjamin Spock was among many who spoke against allowing children to see parents nude, others, which included the late anthropologist Margaret Mead, share a belief that nudism in families is natural and that extending it to a camp where nudism can be safely practiced can be constructive.
Background checks required
AANR camps bill themselves as family places, and children are frequently in attendance. Before allowing any visitor or prospective member inside, most camps will do a computerized check for sex-crime or other violent-offense convictions. Even so, nothing is foolproof.
In 1992, in an incident not directly related to the camp, a Fraternity Snoqualmie board member was asked to leave after his arrest in Kent for taking indecent liberties with a minor. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, his record of sex convictions in Canada only then coming to light.
"We're not perfect," said past President Neil Thorene, who joined in 1992. He added that similar incidents happen in churches and among Scouting groups, and that the camp does try to police members' and guests' behavior and does background checks.
Where adults are concerned, nudists champion their causes with evangelistic fervor, claiming that nudity promotes emotional and physical health and, by demystifying sex, can help end pornography and child sexual abuse, while also making women comfortable with their bodies.
On a sunny day in the shadow of Tiger Mountain, tanned and uninhibited members lounged on the lawn like sun-dazed sea lions, sliding into the pool for a lap or two, reveling in their lack of tan lines — unlike the "cotton tails," as they call those who have pale skin from wearing swimsuits.
There are no Barbie and Ken bodies here, nudists point out. They say that's because Barbie and Ken don't naturally exist, and the point of nudism is to become comfortable with one's body no matter what shape, viewing it — tummy rolls, cellulite, pancake butt and all — with acceptance.
Ellen Woodall, who was a University of Florida graduate student in anthropology when she did a study on the nudist movement several years ago, says the claims are more rhetoric than reality. Nudist resorts have sculptures of idealized male and female figures for sale. Ads in nudist magazines depict the airbrushed perfect bodies seen in other publications. Cosmetic surgeons give consultations and talks at nudist resorts. And there is gossip and snide remarks among members about the less-than-perfect shapes of some.
Woodall, a nudist for 15 years, also disputes claims that nudism is nonsexual — at least at the pricey resorts that feature lingerie shows, rooms with mirrored ceilings and other settings promoting intimacy.
However, Northwest nudist camps are like the Northwest — earthy. At Fraternity Snoqualmie a woman with a tan, no teeth and a Harley-Davidson logo tattooed on her butt enjoyed the pool with others — including one who drove away in a Lexus.
Over the years, Gary Lou Heistand has seen it all — shy members, those asked to leave for promiscuous behavior (which could mean wearing a thong swimsuit), the toddlers who grew up to be teens and her friends who are growing old with her.
It was 1959 when Heistand, a hairstylist, and her husband, now 71 and a retired Garfield High School shop teacher, heard about Fraternity Snoqualmie and decided to take a drive.
"I always hated wearing swimsuits because they would never fit me right," she said. They found the camp up a winding dirt road. There was a swimming hole and a meadow ringed in trees. It was peaceful. They took the dare. They say it felt natural and they not only came back but adopted it as a lifestyle, sometimes going nude around their Beacon Hill home and raising their daughters to feel comfortable with nudity.
"Here I can read. I can talk. I can sleep or just sit in the sun," all without clothes, she said. "And no one ever says, 'Boy, you are really fat!'
"I'm just me."
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or email@example.com