‘Running Around Naked’ book review
A nudist appreciation of Jelaine Lombardi's nudist family memoir
Running Around Naked is not your everyday memoir. It is a true story that entices the reader to peek over the fence into the life of a girl whose normality was found within the confines of a nudist camp. Jelaine Lombardi takes readers along through her upbringing in the Seminole Health Club, a now-closed south Florida nudist camp once owned by the author’s parents, Jan and Chuck Youngman.
This book is not just about nudity; it's about growing up, straddling two worlds, and finding ones’ way. Lombardi's story is a genuine reflection of an adolescence that many might find unconventional but is narrated with such candor and truth that it feels familiar and funny, embarrassing at times, and remarkably real.
Lombardi's writing allows the reader to traverse with her between two worlds that could not be more distinct. On the one hand, the casual, free-thinking camp, and on the other, the uptight, judgmental world outside. This dichotomy between Jelaine's life in the nudist camp and textile society is something she navigates with humor, honesty, and vulnerability. Reading along, you share in her triumphs and challenges. This is a human story, rich and full of life, and it grabbed me from the first page.
Growing up in an unconventional environment, Jelaine experienced many of the stresses that being a child in a family business often brings, but with some circumstances that are wholly unique: acting in nude plays, participating in nude beauty pageants, traveling the country to nudist conventions, etc.
Appreciating the nudist history
For those not accustomed to the sometimes insular culture of social nudism, it might feel like a nostalgic look at another world. For folks like myself who have a familiarity with the world of nudist clubs and conventions, I believe the setting is all the more rewarding to behold.
Before reading Running Around Naked, I was already somewhat aware of the former Seminole Health Club and their live productions, having dug into the 90 year history of the play Barely Proper somewhat recently for a separate Planet Nude article.
Lombardi writes about performing in this and other nude plays weekly while growing up, cast alongside other camp members. Through her firsthand accounts, I learned many aspects of this history that were new to me, including the existence of the club's original film version from 1972, the only known remaining copy of which the author has generously donated to the American Nudist Research Library recently, ensuring its preservation.
I also really enjoyed hearing stories about the nudist movement of the 1970s and 80s era in which this book takes place. Accounts of nudist conventions at other clubs near and far, and of nudist figures encountered, were a joy to read.
Lombardi mentions some actual individuals I am familiar with from my own research, names like Forrest Emerson, a one time president of the American Sunbathing Association (now AANR). The name Tom Chittenden comes up multiple times in the text, a name I recognize for his advocacy for Florida nude beaches as the president of South Florida Free Beaches in the 1980s.
Fresh off the recent summer AANR convention at Solair Recreation League in Connecticut, the stories of this aspect of Jelaine’s nudist experience served as a reminder that some things never change.
In addition to the conventions and nude plays, the Miss Nude Florida and Miss Nude World events depicted in the narrative give this story a unique glimpse into the pageant culture that was once much more prevalent within the nudist community; a conflicting chapter in nudist history. Despite the mixed feelings they may bring, the beauty contests provide a vivid backdrop for Jelaine's journey through the self consciousness of adolescence.
Jelaine narrates her story with a voice filled with honesty and vulnerability. The writing captures the innocence of childhood and the confusion of adolescence with a sensitivity that makes it relatable. It's the authenticity that resonates throughout the book that makes her experiences so engaging, whether it's the innocence of youth or the more complex struggles with growing up, family and community, self-confidence and acceptance.
At times, it feels a little like entries in a diary, and that may be because Jelaine’s real teenage diary seems to have been the basis for at least some of the story that’s told. Resultantly, there’s an unstructured quality that can at times feel meandering. However, due to the compelling characters, short chapters and enjoyable prose, I was never once bored or lost.
The second half of the story introduces a virginity arc around teenage Jelaine, followed by exploring a series of romantic flings with boys and men, a few who are definitely too old for her. It felt a little bit unsettling having thus far followed the character only as a child, but I believe that was the writer’s intent. I admired the obvious truth of it, reflecting a real experience of being a girl that is sexualized too young, not necessarily because of a childhood spent in a liberated environment, but because that is the adolescent female experience in America, regardless of whether you’re nude or clothed. That is a theme that is evident in this story.
A worthy read
Running Around Naked is a unique story in its own right, and you don’t need any additional context to enjoy it. But with an appreciation for nudist culture and history, the story is enriched.
The nostalgia of the prose reminded me at times of another book by the daughter of nudist camp owners, called No Shadows Fall - Born into Naturism: The Story of Spielplatz. Lombardi’s book shares a romantic quality with the thirty year old memoir by Iseult Richardson, which details the establishment of Spielplatz naturist club in England in the 1930’s from the perspective of the daughter of founders Charles and Dorothy Macaskie.
In both books there is a sense of history that is being not just retold but relived through the author’s viewpoint. It's the intimate connection to the real story that makes Running Around Naked more than just a memoir but a piece of living history.
The humor and quirky family dynamics in Running Around Naked are also at times reminiscent of the excellent graphic novel, I Was Seven in '75, by Ellen Forney, a hilarious account of a summer spent with her nudist family at New Jersey’s Sunshine Park. Like Forney, Jelaine's family members are generally portrayed with affection (excepting perhaps her dad), but with many of the characters, especially her mom, it's their idiosyncrasies that make them endearing.
The familial setting, the nostalgic era in which it takes place, and the interesting subjective backdrop of a family nudist camp all add to charm of Running Around Naked, making it a delightful and engaging read.
I enjoyed it during my late summer vacation, often lounging around naked by the pool. 🪐