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The intellectual rebel
Lee Baxandall argued for the legitimization of naturism, instead of its normalization—so should we
“There’s no point to having sharp images if you have fuzzy ideals.”
Naturism has been thoroughly commodified into an easily-digestible consumer product, almost wholly separated from (some will argue unshackled from) the principles and philosophies that once defined it. As a consumer product, naturism must now remain responsive to the ever-changing whims and desires of the marketplace to maintain and expand its customer base. Subsequently, this ever-encroaching consumerist mentality puts the movement at the mercy of an increasingly impatient and anti-intellectual market, which rejects most anything nourishing, challenging, or thought-provoking in favor of trends and fads. Contemporary naturism is whatever the market tells it to be.
Today’s naturist leaders call for the normalization of nudity within the mainstream, effectively asking how we might be homogenized into a middle-American society increasingly preoccupied with fast food, lowbrow entertainment, celebrities, influencers, and outrage-fueled social media platforms. Given the mainstream’s propensity for diluting complex ideas into more familiar concepts and experiences, this is a troubling proposition.
One could argue that the American naturist movement reached its intellectual crescendo in the 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership of Lee Baxandall. While nudist magazines had largely dissolved into soft core pornography in the late 1960s and indeed throughout the 1970s, and many nudist parks had begun to embrace more subversive (and profitable) activities – nude pageants, lingerie dances, and swinging – Baxandall sought to reconnect the movement to a larger purpose, intertwined with feminism, environmentalism, intellectualism, and social justice, informed by his decades of work as a writer and political activist.
Born on January 26, 1935, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Lee Baxandall attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1957 and a Master of Arts in English in 1958. He was widely published, mostly in progressive political and visual/performing arts journals, including Drama Review, The Nation, New Politics, The National Guardian, Liberation, Chalk Circle, Partisan Review, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and New German Critique. He translated or edited several books, including Wilhelm Reich’s Sex-Pol: Essays 1929-1934, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War, Marxism and Aesthetics, and Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Baxandall’s essay Spectacles and Scenarios: A Dramaturgy of Radical Activity is included in Mitchell Goodman’s 1970 anthology The Movement Toward a New America: The Beginnings of a Long Revolution. On the title page of the anthology is a graphic that features the last names of its various contributors: Chomsky, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Ginsberg, Thoreau, Malcolm X, Sartre, Genet, Baldwin, Hoffman, and “assorted freaks, students, soldiers, revolutionaries, liberated women, radicals and foils.”
The first name on the page? Baxandall.
The Baxandall way
Baxandall was a crucial figure in the earliest naturist and free beach initiatives. He helped form the Free the Free Beach Committee in 1975, distributed the first issue of Free Beaches newspaper and the groundbreaking skinny-dipper issue of the Green Mountain Quarterly in 1976, established The Naturist Society in 1980 and published the first issue of Clothed With The Sun (renamed Nude & Natural) in 1981. He was instrumental in forming the Naturist Action Committee in 1991 and the Naturist Education Foundation in 1993.
Baxandall made crucial inroads within the mainstream press, seeking not to normalize naturism but to legitimize it. A striking example of this can be found in the June 1989 Milwaukee Magazine feature on Baxandall titled Skin Deep. While the article provides a brief overview of Baxandall’s naturist activism and philosophies, what stands out is its depiction of the naturist leader as an accomplished author, activist, playwright, and thinker whose seemingly radical ideas about nudity warrant legitimate consideration. Columnist James Romenesko introduces Baxandall as “a widely published intellectual rebel (who) heads an organization where clothes definitely don’t make the man.” Romenesko goes on to identify Baxandall as “one of Wisconsin’s best-selling authors, as well as one of its most published intellectuals.” In the interview, Baxandall says of his parents, “They didn’t force me to buy into routines of conformity, which I think most kids are emotionally blackmailed into buying into. I think I was left with this quiet, kind of contemplative spot in the middle of my psyche, that I could look at things and evaluate them and reach truly independent judgments.” Baxandall possessed “a cynical streak in him that one usually doesn’t see in fresh-faced kids,” Romenesko writes, pointing to an incident in which a twelve-year-old Baxandall stood outside the Times Theater in Oshkosh, staring at the poster for an unidentified historical film, with its imagery of “heroic male chest and swords and chariot wheels,” thinking to himself, “that can’t be true.”
Romenesko ponders how Baxandall’s youth of questioning fables, political propaganda, and societal absolutes helped him become an influential naturist activist in the 1970s. Baxandall’s belief that naturism represented “nudism with more” became the foundation of his naturist activism, a point he seems to have made in his interview with Milwaukee Magazine. “A naturist is not the same as a nudist,” Romenesko writes. “A naturist removes his clothes with some thought – with a set of values.”
What’s remarkable about the Milwaukee interview is that Baxandall—and his naturist philosophy—is treated with respect, if not admiration. This article was published in a mainstream magazine filled with restaurant reviews and summer fashion reports during a more conservative era in the United States. It would have been easy for the journalist to disparage Baxandall as an aging 60s radical with extreme ideas or to treat him as a harmless and perhaps amusing eccentric. Instead, the writer appears genuinely curious and, most of all, respectful of Baxandall’s views. Compare this to nearly every mainstream article concerning nudists and naturists that has been published in recent years. What has changed?
Simply put, naturism has become a business. We no longer seek an ideological demystification of naturism, to control the media narrative, or to proactively curate more accurate and thought-provoking coverage. We don’t demand to be taken seriously. We want attention. To be seen. Instead of seeking legitimization, we seek normalization.
Legitimization over normalization
Normalization and legitimization are two distinct concepts. Normalization refers to the process of making something seem acceptable in society by progressively increasing its familiarity. Legitimization involves creating a narrative or ideology articulating and justifying certain beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes as socially valuable. Normalization and legitimization represent different aspects of social change and have unique implications. It’s essential to acknowledge that normalization involves conforming to societal norms and standards—requesting a place at the proverbial table—while legitimization involves defining and defending individuals’ or groups’ differences and unique qualities and exploring how diverse ideas may coexist. While normalization may include a pressure to conform to a uniform set of standards and a pressure to homogenize, legitimization encourages acceptance and celebration of diverse values.
In our drive to be normalized, to seem relatable, we put aside talk of principles and philosophies and stick to lightweight topics like pickleball and “nakations.” Unable to articulate a cohesive philosophical rationalization for naturism, we giddily babble about how much fun it is to eat naked, do chores naked, swim naked, drive naked, etc. We don’t take ourselves seriously, and our only goal is to be normalized—not legitimized—by an increasingly intellectually incurious and unserious society. Today, our advocacy efforts appeal to people's emotions rather than their intellect. “It’s fun!”
What Baxandall demonstrates in his Milwaukee Magazine interview is how to advocate for legitimization in the mainstream and establish a space in the dialogue for divergent ideas and beliefs. Of course, most of us can’t walk into an interview with a bibliography of publications as impressive as Lee Baxandall’s, and we operate in a very different media environment than existed in 1989. Compelling and thought-provoking journalism has largely been replaced by lowbrow clickbait entertainment masquerading as legitimate news. The most successful naturist figures are the ones putting their bodies on Twitter and feeding our society’s insatiable hunger for celebrities, not the ones writing scholarly essays. It’s unlikely that Baxandall could have achieved today what he did in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It’s doubtful that he could have broken through the endless barrage of noise and selfies and memes with his philosophical and political diatribes, particularly now that low-quality “content” can be monetized and at least one social media platform is paying those who can generate clicks and increase the reach of its dwindling advertisers
Still, we can—and should—strive to be taken seriously and to gain the respect of those who engage us, not simply their bemused acceptance or whatever tiny niche within the mainstream they may be willing to carve out for us. How do we achieve this? As Baxandall demonstrated throughout his career as a political activist and naturist organizer, clear and confident communication of our beliefs, backed by facts-based arguments, can help counteract anti-intellectual attitudes, promote critical thinking, and help to encourage an open-minded and intellectually curious dialogue between naturists and non-naturists.
“Antidote to civilization”
Lee Baxandall once proposed that naturism represented an “antidote to civilization.” Unfortunately, many in the nudist and naturist movements now embrace the idea that nudism and naturism are merely products to be bought and sold within that civilization and that we must remain responsive to the shifting desires of the consumer. If we adopt Baxandall’s version of naturist advocacy and activism—an intellectual rebellion against irrational societal taboos and unnecessary repression, one that demands respect for our unique ideals rather than a passive, self-sacrificing integration into a broader society—we potentially achieve a meaningful impact in that society, instead of just a superficial, perhaps begrudging tolerance for our existence. 🪐