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Even if you don't lose your clothes, you must lose your inhibitions

The woman in front of me is not only a giant, she's starkers - if you don't count the running shoes and sunnies.

She's looking right at me and beaming. A yellow sarong billows impressively behind her back.

Her partner is standing beside me, keen to introduce me to the poster girl of the New Zealand Naturist Federation.


But first we see this life-size poster of 60-year-old Glenne Findon, with the words above her smiling face: "Shed your stresses with your clothes."

When Glenne does appear in the flesh, she's got the same smile but is dressed more modestly in a long white shirt which is buttoned up the front.

Partner Colin Basire is wearing a multi-coloured sarong and a grey "gonatural" T-shirt. "It's a bit cooler today," he tells me in explanation.

Contrary to belief, naturists don't always go nude - but they certainly feel more comfortable doing so.

And today, on the Bay of Plenty Sun Club's open day at their camp ground at Matata, many of the members have covered up - but only partially in some cases.

This makes it hard to know where to look and I fight hard to keep eye contact.

Barry Dixon, president of the Bay of Plenty Sun Club since April, is watching a few trouserless members target shooting, and apart from his green Stoney Creek jersey, has nothing else on.

The Matata resident is careful about how he takes his seat at the picnic table where a group of naturists have gathered for our interview.

I'm dressed in shoes, jeans, T-shirt and jersey and while I don't quite stick out like a beacon, I sure feel over-dressed.

All the Sun Club members are here for a "nakation" and their stories about how they became a naturist differ.

Glenne, who lives in Bethlehem, tells me her ex-husband introduced her to the joys of going naked in the early 1970s. They went to a beach weekend at Ohope with the Bay of Plenty Sun Club and Glenne says at first she resolved to stay in her bikini while everyone else stripped.

"I was the reluctant partner. I sat in my bikini on my beach towel while everyone else was naked. After a while, I thought 'why not?' I was more conspicuous with my bikini on than not."

Over the years, naturism had boosted her self-confidence.

"The first time you try it you're a little bit apprehensive but once you've done it, you never go back."

Nods around the table follow.

"Before I was a naturist I was shy, reserved, introverted. I was not confident in myself at all. It totally changed me. I had acceptance of my body and myself.

"Many people, especially women, think their body isn't good enough to bare in front of others but as a naturist, people are accepted for who they are, not what they look like.

"We're not all models. Everybody's got scars, bumps and lumps. Women that have had babies have stretch marks. We don't notice that."

Glenne says it's understandable for newbies to feel embarrassed but they talk to one another "eye to eye".

"Often we'll come home from the club and we can't remember who was dressed or not."

Colin, who met Glenne when he and his late wife were members of the Waikato Outdoor Society (WOS), agrees.

He surprises me when he tells me the clothed world, or "textile world" as he calls it, unnerves him more than the naked one.

"In the textile world, I would get very concerned about standing up and speaking publicly. In the naturist environment I'll stand up totally starkers and feel at ease."

He and Glenne, who have been together for four years, regularly walk around their house naked and have sarongs at the ready in case there's a knock at the door.

Glenne even has a photograph of herself, naked among daffodils, hanging on canvas in the dining room; and the pair do life modelling together.

During our interview Glenne, who is perhaps feeling the heat as the sun peeps from behind clouds, unbuttons her shirt.

For non-naturists it can be awkward being around so much bare skin but for those who do it, nudity is nothing to be ashamed of. And contrary to belief, naturists are no more sexually liberated.

"We're no different from textiles," Colin says. "If anything, I think we're more conservative than textiles."

"Skimpy clothes is more sexy than nude," Glenne chips in. "If a woman was in a bikini, I don't think [members] would be taking any notice of the naked people."

Heather Hooper and Keith Stewart are visiting from their club, WOS. The pair live on WOS grounds and go naked every day except when "it's really cold".

Andy and Liz Bawn, holidaying from Devon, England, have been naturists for 30 years. Andy, who today is clothed, says he loses his identity when he loses his clothes.

"I think a lot of life in general is around who you are and what you do. Here you can't tell the difference between the dustman, the baker or the doctor. You can relate to people as people."

But what about the pressure to look good?

Glenne responds: "If you haven't got the perfect body, oh dear. What's unusual about that?"

Most of the club's 50 members are aged 30-plus and they're all shapes and sizes.

"You can't put a naturist into a box," Glenne tells me.

I have to say though, and I do, that some people surely find their naked behaviour a little odd?

"We're normal people that do normal things without our clothes on," Glenne says.

"People think the only things you can do naked is have a shower and have sex. And because you can only have a shower and have sex we must be at it all day, which is not true."

The club believes, if anything, that naturism is more accepted nowadays with the rise of popular culture.

At one time, it operated in a sort of "secret society".

And while people might imagine naturists seeking to do everything naked, Glenne says no.

"True naturists don't want to offend anyone. People that strip off at the cricket are exhibitionists, that's not us."

Colin agrees: "We wouldn't mow the lawn or garden out the front of our house naked."

And last year when a group of naturists did the Otago Rail Trail, they kept their clothes on when cycling through populated areas.

"We didn't want to shock people," Colin says.

Having a club means they're not making people outside it feel uncomfortable.

They are also cautious about skin cancer and are careful to slip, slop, slap.

"Most naturists are more aware of it than anyone," says Pat Dixon, who became a member of the Bay of Plenty Sun Club 12 years ago.

They dress up when it's cold and there's no rule you have to go naked - except in the pool.

"People think you've got to come in the gate and put your clothes in a box and you don't touch them until you leave," Colin says with a chuckle.

Looking around today, I can see no fully naked bodies.

But as if on cue, across the lawn from our picnic table, a woman casually loses her blouse.

No one blinks an eye.

At the same time, Des and Margaret Duthie of Auckland are walking around in T-shirts and no pants.

Des, hands on hips, and dressed in aviator-style sunglasses and blue shirt, is undaunted at meeting me when he has nothing on below.

He and Margaret have been sun club members since 1975 and like the fact clubs have reciprocal rights, meaning you can visit clubs in other areas.

New Zealand has 20 sun clubs and more than 1500 members.

The NZ Naturist Federation, of which Glenne is communications officer, is seeking more members.

"There are many closet naturists in New Zealand and we would like to help them become social naturists," she says.

They do, however, have to be careful about screening out perverts.

To counter this, club applicants meet with other members and are allowed three free visits before joining. Members are always on probation.

The Bay of Plenty Sun Club has 50 members - their oldest is 85.

He won't give his name but has been a member of various sun clubs since 1952.

"We lived out in the country when I was a child and naturism wasn't a problem [to be] just as we were created," he tells me.

"It's beautiful. It's the freedom. Fresh air all around. You feel better and stronger. It's liberating."

Annette Gardner brought her two children up as naturists and joined when husband Ashleigh began exhibiting signs of arthritis.

"The sun was good and eased up the arthritic pain," she says.

Children enjoy the lifestyle but can start to feel uncomfortable about it in their teen years. Pat says children at school have been questioned over why they don't have tan lines when they strip for physical education lessons.

But all in all, nudity is far more acceptable nowadays.

Colin still remembers the day he decided to fess up to his neighbour about his lifestyle. "I was telling my neighbour I was going out to a friend's place who just happened to have a swimming pool. And then said, 'Um, I'm actually going to a naturist club'.

"He said: 'Actually, I thought that's what you'd been up to'.

"The general reaction we get is people want to know more," Colin says.