Naturists - people who practise communal or social nudity - say they are often misjudged as "perverts" or "swingers", but they believe it's a lifestyle that creates a more tolerant society, boosts self-esteem and improves mental and physical health. Annemarie Quill reveals all ...

Matt, 30, is not a nudist but likes to play mini golf naked.

Sophie, 25, went skinny dipping and never put her clothes back on.

Mark, 47, was painfully shy and couldn't look in people's eyes until he discovered naturism - now the car mechanic looks forward to the end of the day when he takes off his boots and everything else.

Ellen, 53, grew up in a naturist family and now goes on 'nakations' all over the world.

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Marie, 46, lives naked at home and on family outings and says the naturist lifestyle has instilled self-esteem in her three children.

Amina, 37, a former chef from Sweden, has opened a Tauranga cafe where people can enjoy her home baking naked.

Tom, 50, owns the only private holiday resort in the North Island for naturists.

Glenne, 68, runs a Bay of Plenty naturist group which has 948 members.

Matt and Sophie

Matt Nichols, 30, playing mini golf with his partner Sophie Proffitt, 25. Photo/John Borren
Matt Nichols, 30, playing mini golf with his partner Sophie Proffitt, 25. Photo/John Borren

"I don't introduce myself, 'Hi my name's Matt, I'm a nudist'."

Matt Nichols, 30, is playing mini golf with his partner Sophie Proffitt, 25.

He's Canadian, she's English. They are both stark naked.

They are on 'nakation', the term for holidaying without clothes, at Katikati Naturist Park, the only private nudist park in the North Island and one of only two private naturist holiday resorts in New Zealand, although there are 17 landed clubs around the country.

The couple spotted a road sign pointing to the naturist park on the highway towards Tauranga, and turned down the 1.5km rural lane to discover the camp, set in 5.7 hectares of native bush alongside the Uretara stream.

It's their first time in a naturist camp.

"If you had asked me five years ago would I be in a place like this, I would have said no. To the outside, it may seem weird but it's really not. It's chill, relaxed."

There's an assumption that being naked around others is a sexual thing, he says.

"It is not about that at all. It is not about hooking up. We are not swingers or anything. Maybe when I am older."

Nichols first tried being naked among other people in California four years ago.

"Society tells us it is normal to wear clothes, but I like trying new things in life and experimenting as much as possible.

"At first, it was nerve-racking. As soon as you take your clothes off, you realise everyone is the same. There's no reason to be shy. It's liberating."

Matt and Sophie enjoying the flora and picturesque grounds. Photo/Jaden McLeod
Matt and Sophie enjoying the flora and picturesque grounds. Photo/Jaden McLeod

Proffitt agrees. She made her textile-free debut five years ago in Australia with a group of friends.

"We went skinny dipping in the ocean. When we came back to camp no one put their clothes back on and we finished the road trip naked - even driving naked."

The couple, who have been together three years, like to get naked when they can on beaches or "somewhere where people won't have a problem with it", says Proffitt.

She has encountered some negativity.

"A woman came up to me when I was sunbathing topless and said 'this is a family place and my 11-year-old son is staring at your boobs'."

I thought that was her problem, not mine, but I never want to cause any trouble so I covered up."

Like Nichols, she is disappointed that naturism is marginalised.

"The perception needs to change that it is weird or disgusting. It is not perverted. It's just natural. Everyone is born naked. We are the only creatures who wear clothes, so clothes are weird if you think about it like that.

"It is not that I don't enjoy wearing clothes, I do. I also like being naked. It shouldn't be weird to be your natural self."

Being naked is a great leveller for young people who are always "worried what people think of them", and liberating for women particularly to embrace their bodies more positively.

"If everyone could see everyone all the time they would realise everyone has imperfections, everyone has lumps and bumps ... it is just normal. Don't worry about it."

Warm welcome from Amina and Tom

Amina and Tom Carrigan who own the Katikati Naturist Park. Photo/Supplied
Amina and Tom Carrigan who own the Katikati Naturist Park. Photo/Supplied

The camp's reception is like any holiday camp with tourist leaflets, maps and icecreams.

There's a scent of lemons and cinnamon.

Swedish owner Amina Carrigan, 37, a former chef, sells her signature saffron buns and Scandinavian rye bread alongside her jewellery designs. She painted the large rocks on the mini golf course as colourful ladybirds.

Beyond the reception, a red and white barrier signals the entry into the camp from which point clothing is "not optional".

Co-owner Tom Carrigan explains.

"Clothes are non-optional - that is the bottom line. But we are not sadists. We get that everyone needs to cover up occasionally - if you're cold, or sunburnt or when you're barbecuing, near a hot grill, you probably want to put your willy away for safety reasons.

"Other times, walking around, doing the washing, in the lounge area, sauna, spa and pools, playing petanque, just hanging out - people are naked and that's how everyone likes it."

Katikati Naturist Park co-owner Tom Carrigan in front of the petanque area. Photo/John Borren
Katikati Naturist Park co-owner Tom Carrigan in front of the petanque area. Photo/John Borren

Carrigan says there is increasing demand in New Zealand for places to "nakation" for people like Nichols and Proffitt, who like to be naked at home and want to find a place where they can on holiday.

Holiday camps can be "a gateway to naturism" for those curious about the lifestyle.

"If you are unsure, haven't done it before, but have an open mind, come in and take your time. We find most people get into it really quickly, enjoy it, and after a while there is nothing to it - they just are."

The Carrigans recently opened a Swedish Cafe on site where day visitors can come and eat lunch with clothes on ... or off.

There are plenty of first time naturists who come to the resort, including some who arrived at the camp not understanding that it was a no clothes venue.

"Some people see the 'naturist' sign but do not know what naturist means, so they turn up thinking it is a site where they can admire New Zealand native plants and birds".

And they will.

Bay hot spot

The vast grounds are populated with thousands of native trees surrounded by the Kaimai mountain range. In the humidity of summer, those hills are cloaked in a Lord of the Rings mystical steaminess.

Purple flowers, pot plants and tropical flora are flourishing - the groundsman is also a naturist.

To the soundtrack of native birds, guests bush walk along the rocky stream, spot eels or bathe in its cooling pools.

A steeper tramp is rewarded by a sweeping view of the Mount.

So anyone seeking nature in this resort will not be disappointed.

They will also encounter up to 200 peoples camping naked - it has a motel, three chalets, kitchen cabins, tents, campervans and caravans.

The heart of the camp is the sauna, pool and spa area where guests sunbathe, swim, steam, and socialise.

A recreation room with loungers hosts movie nights.

The nudioke (nude karaoke) on New Year's Eve is already sold out.

A world map on the wall by the pool table marks memories of visitors in pins.

Carrigan estimates 80 per cent of visitors are New Zealanders. Among the Europeans Germans, Dutch, and French dominate, although pins are dotted as far afield as Egypt, Israel and even Iran.

"An Iranian couple, who told us if they did it in their own country they would be beheaded."

Bay of Plenty locals are day visitors, with some regularly coming each weekend even in winter, says Carrigan.

"Some people live openly that they are naturists, some like to fly under the radar and wouldn't want people to know they come here."

A man in the spa said he didn't want to be identified because of his government job.

Twenty people have moved to live permanently on site all year round, including a beauty therapist.

Carrigan says naturist trends have changed from the 70s when naturists tended not to shave or can't wear body jewellery or tattoos.

"The trend now is to have hairless pubic areas or be manicured ... but it is not a rule. It's not like you're inspected at the gate or anything. It's just not like the 70s stereotype of long-haired hippies that people may think, although if that is the way you like it, fine by us too."

Visitors who do turn up not realising the modus operandi often decide to stay. Carrigan estimates eight out of 10 do.

Carrigan tries to welcome everyone but would weed out anyone if they had "wrong intentions".

"We are a family friendly camp. Once a campervan of a family with three kids, 3, 6, 8 from Auckland arrived not knowing, and they were like, 'oh sorry not for us'. Two hours later they were back as they hadn't found any other accommodation, they liked the site and thought they would just try it for a night. They stayed the whole summer and now come back every year."

Dispelling myths

Ellen Gebel and Bernhard Wiesler chat with Tom Carrigan in Katikati Naturist Park's reception area. Photo/Jaden McLeod
Ellen Gebel and Bernhard Wiesler chat with Tom Carrigan in Katikati Naturist Park's reception area. Photo/Jaden McLeod

While guests mostly are couples or friends, there are some singles and families too.

Carrigan wants to dispel the perception there is deviancy in naturism.

"If anything children are safer here than they are at other camps because we watch out for any inappropriate behaviour and anyone would be out straight away."

The New Zealand Naturist Federation's stance is that naturism is "absolutely" safe for children, and says on its website,

"Naturists do not deny the sexual nature of human beings, but they reject the all too prevalent view in our society that nudity and sex are synonymous and that children should be "protected" from nudity regardless of context. Nude is not lewd."

Guest Ellen Gebel, 53, says there is no perversion in naturism.

A naturist all her life, she was used to being naked around others as a child growing up in Germany with parents who were naturists.

"There is nothing sexual about a naturist ... I would say it is sensual ... the feel of a breeze on your body, the water in lake or pool ... Free in the air, the sun, everything ... it's healthy.

"After swimming without togs you would think it was crazy to put them on and have them stick to you."

There are other advantages.

"You never have to worry about what to wear or pack."

When she met partner Bernhard Wiesler six years ago, he had not tried it but watching them chatting by the pool with nothing on but sunscreen and an orange juice you would never know.

Ellen Gebel, 53, and partner Bernhard Wiesler, 52, regularly go on nakations together. Photo/John Borren
Ellen Gebel, 53, and partner Bernhard Wiesler, 52, regularly go on nakations together. Photo/John Borren

"He is coming along nicely," laughs Gebel.

Since meeting, the couple have enjoyed several nakations, and are now en route to Wellington where the New Zealand national naturist festival runs for seven days with hotly contested sports trophies and leisure activities.

Naked New Zealand

Donna Miller, president of the New Zealand Naturist Federation, which is launching a new campaign called Love the Skin You're In. Photo/Supplied
Donna Miller, president of the New Zealand Naturist Federation, which is launching a new campaign called Love the Skin You're In. Photo/Supplied

New Zealand is a hot spot for naturists, attracting visitors from overseas as well as homegrown naturism enjoying a boom.

Last year, for the first time in its 70-year history, New Zealand hosted the International Congress of Naturism with guests from 23 countries.

New Zealand is a tourist destination for naturists says Donna Miller, president of the New Zealand Naturist Federation (NZNF).

"More members are travelling overseas to naturist resorts in Europe and making contacts telling them about our country. The [International] Congress certainly put New Zealand on the naturist map in a far greater way."

The NZNF has 1683 members around the country and 252 in the Bay of Plenty region. The national gender ratio is 60/40 male to female.

While 51.3 per cent of members are over the age of 60, Miller says there's a steady increase in members particularly from a younger demographic.

The federation is supporting a youth movement to organise social gatherings.

Miller thinks a combination of social media and a general shift towards a more tolerant Aotearoa has helped drive more people to take an interest in naturism.

"Society, in general, is becoming more accepting of all cultures and lifestyles ... members are more willing to tell people of the benefits of naturism."

This month the federation launched a campaign to raise awareness called 'Love the Skin You're In', with a focus on wellness, inspired by recent attention on mental health campaigns.

"There has been a lot of focus and media attention this year on mental health awareness.

The issues these people face often affect those closest to us and we want people to know that getting close to nature, and taking their clothes off could be a freeing experience that can assist them in their road to better mental health."

Miller says how a person feels about their body is often the biggest barrier to them trying the lifestyle.

"We want to let them know that a lot of us have been where they are, and that once they take that first step, they realise that people are interested in them, and no one cares what their body is like. Then, that assists the person to begin to see themselves in the same light."

It's a campaign close to Miller's heart.

At 47, a company finance manager, she is open about her lifestyle, but was "scared" at first to 'come out'.

Naturists may be apprehensive because of prejudices other people may harbour, she says,

"It shouldn't be 'a dirty secret'.

Some of the federation's members say they feel they cannot tell everyone they are a naturist because of their profession,

"We have members who feel they have to hide it because of their job - school teachers for example who do not tell because they think people would judge."

She hopes the new campaign will encourage people to be more open-minded.

Numbers of naturists in New Zealand are far greater than the federation's members says Miller, with other groups not affiliated to the federation peppered throughout the country.

'Not a swingers' club'

Bethlehem local Glenne Findon runs the Bay of Plenty Naturists which has 948 members. Photo/John Borren
Bethlehem local Glenne Findon runs the Bay of Plenty Naturists which has 948 members. Photo/John Borren

Bethlehem local Glenne Findon runs the Bay of Naturists group which has 948 members, with 406 living in the Bay of Plenty. The ratio is also 60/40 male to female, with 74 per cent couples and 26 per cent singles.

The group runs regular social events in the Bay such as beach meets or walks.

Findon, now 68, has been a naturist since the 70s.

Reclining in a bubbling spa in her backyard, she acknowledges a stereotype of the "retirees who like to spa naked", but says the lifestyle attracts all ages.

"The lifestyle is appealing because it is a great leveller and so boosts self-esteem,
particularly for women. We are naked, but there is no judgment of body shape."

Findon says people who have not tried it (some naturists refer to these people colloquially as 'the textiles') are curious about the lifestyle.

Or think it's about sex.

"We are not a swingers club having key parties. We are not a dating service.

"It's about socialising with like-minded people who enjoy a heightened sensual experience of the elements."

The group's philosophy includes self-respect and respect for others.

There is naturist etiquette - putting a towel down wherever you sit, looking into the eye, not downwards or staring.

"Just common sense and respect really, exactly the same as you would when people are dressed."

A younger section of the group "taking it on" includes families embracing the naturist lifestyle to not only have fun together, but because they say the lifestyle embraces tolerance and can help foster confidence and self-esteem in adults and children alike.

Family friendly

Athenree family Mark Horst, 47, and Marie Freeman, 46, live the naturist lifestyle. Horst suffered from debilitating shyness while growing up. Photo/Jaden McLeod
Athenree family Mark Horst, 47, and Marie Freeman, 46, live the naturist lifestyle. Horst suffered from debilitating shyness while growing up. Photo/Jaden McLeod

Like Athenree family Marie Freeman, 46, and Mark Horst, 47, and their three children.

When Horst was growing up he suffered debilitating shyness.

"I had anxiety as a kid, I suffered extreme shyness over things like meeting new people or talking to them. I found naturism to be a great equaliser to help me connect with people because you are always looking at the eyes."

A car mechanic working in temperatures of up to 30C, Horst says he loves coming home and taking his boots, and then everything else, off.

"It really does drop the stress levels."

The family are naked at home and on family outings where they can, such as at the stretch of Waihi beach which has a free beach access at carpark 34.

"Free beaches" are designated areas of beaches throughout the country where nudists use, and are listed by Free Beaches New Zealand which describes itself as 'family-friendly'.

As Freeman and Horst stretch naked on their beach towel, a clothed woman strolls past along the water's edge with a labradoodle.

Two walkers in active wear stride purposefully across the sand, but then double back when they reach the free beach section.

Marie Freeman said she wanted to offer her children her Kiwi childhood experience

"running at the beach and swimming naked was acceptable ... it felt free and I wanted my own kids to experience that, to be childlike, natural and playful.

"We are not naked 24/7. What we are saying is it is okay to partake in naturism when you feel like it.

"Our children have all made up their own mind, there isn't really any discussion or thought. They'll just leave their clothes off, or if the younger ones are feeling so inclined, they will strip off and have a lovely swim," says Marie.

Freeman is aware her family lifestyle may bring criticism, but would like people to understand naturism before rushing to judgment.

"There is a lot of misconception ... and that is based on people's belief that the naked body is something to be ashamed about ... and it is not.

"I love my body...all parts of myself, because they've served me well, kept me alive, housed my pregnancies."

Working as a healer, Freeman has seen clients whose negative self-image has led to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety or addictions, or physical illness.

"If you have constant negative thoughts towards yourself, they have responses in your body ... I've buried some people, not being able to love themselves literally killed them."

Freeman wanted to instil in her children a healthy appreciation of their bodies, and has seen already its positive influence.

"They have a well-rounded view of the human body, nudity and sexuality. This overrides the over-sexualised images and perceptions they are bombarded with on social media."

Freeman advocates for a positive image of naturism.

"I am not saying everyone should be a naturist ... of course it is up to you ... but the perceptions around naturism need to change...about what people think we are doing or saying it is harmful to kids, or offensive. We are just doing normal everyday activities. We are appreciating life, enjoying nature, being tolerant towards others, how is that harmful?"

Rather than harming, she says it's healing.

"When you're playing in the waves, enjoying the sunshine, you forget you have no clothes on, because you get out of your head, into your body.

"You're healing old perceptions and old beliefs ... they are the harmful things. Nothing that can make you stronger than making yourself the most vulnerable...

"Being naked."

The law

There is no specific offence for being naked in public. Each incident of nudity reported to police is dealt with on a case by case basis and may fall under the following offences depending on those circumstances:

•Sections 4 and 27 of the Summary Offences Act 1981 which refer to offensive behaviour and indecent exposure.
•Section 125 of the Crimes Act 1961 which refers to 'indecent act in a public place'.

Source: New Zealand Police

What is naturism?

A way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity, with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others, and for the environment.

Source: The International Naturist Federation

Benefits of naturism

•Mental wellbeing
•Relaxation
•Enjoy nature's elements on your skin
•Connection with nature
•Relieve stress
•No clothes restrictions e.g. soggy togs
•Boost self-esteem and confidence
•Acceptance of all body shapes
•Recreation and enjoyment
•Socialising with like-minded people
•Quality family time

Source: Bay of Plenty Naturists, NZNF. For more information, visit: gonatural.co.nz

By the numbers

•Bay of Plenty Naturists group has 948 members, 406 live in the Bay
•74 per cent of members are couples and 26 per cent single.
•Families with children are also members
•NZ naturists' national male to female ratio is 60 per cent men to 40 per cent women
•There are two private naturist holiday resorts in New Zealand and 17 landed naturist clubs
•The Katikati naturist park hosts up to 200 guests including children. Twenty locals live there permanently.

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