A history professor’s sweeping sociolegal examination of the American nudist movement from its early-20th-century beginnings.
Hoffman exposes the beginnings of public nudity as a legitimate movement in the United States, beginning in New York City all the way back in 1929, when groups of men began peeling off their restrictive clothing and exercising in the nude at the New York Gymnasium. This simple act of doing calisthenics in the buff set off a significant legal debate and controversy in New York, one that would continue for years with few definitive answers as to the legality of public nudity. Hoffman traces the nudist movement in America back to the efforts of German immigrants who wished to see the same principles of Teutonic Lebensreform (“life reform”) gain a foothold in the U.S., which meant touting nudism as a healthy, therapeutic activity rather than an erotic or lewd physical pursuit. Springing directly from this health-conscious nudist ideology came photo magazines such as Sunshine and Health in the 1940s, with its “highly stylized representations” of the male physique; its envelope-pushing photo shoots featuring exposed male and female genitalia set the censors reeling, namely the U.S. Post Office, which refused to distribute such imagery to the public. In order to survive, the nudist movements in America would increasingly resort to camps and cults situated away from the prying eyes of Middle America; however, the struggle to separate nudism from pornography continued. Although written in mainly flat, academic prose, Hoffman’s book ably traces the ideological development of the American nudist movement from its health-and-fitness beginnings to the more politically charged movement it became in the 1960s and 1970s, and on into the 1990s, when a quasi-mainstreaming of recreational nudity began to surface.
An original, well-researched study that would have benefited from a livelier writing style.