When police officers arrived at a Planet Fitness in Plaistow, New Hampshire, late last month, they found 34-year-old Eric Stagno naked in a downward dog yoga position. Gym-goers said they felt “disgusted,” “sick” and “unsafe.” For his part, Stagno explained he was under the impression that Planet Fitness was a “Judgment-Free Zone™.” And so, he stripped down, left his clothes at the front desk and did some separate leg stretching on a communal yoga mat.
Stagno was charged with indecent exposure, lewdness and disorderly conduct — the standard trifecta of charges in most U.S. states for donning one’s birthday suit in public. But there’s some variation depending on the state. Being topless in Seattle, for example, is legal. You can go naked at all public beaches in Miami. And boys swam naked in Chicago high schools until the early 1980s.
Men, in particular, lead a “clothing-optional” lifestyle for a variety of reasons:
- Gameli Anumu is a self-proclaimed “naked activist” whose life’s work has been protesting San Francisco’s 2012 public nudity ban.
- Pastor Allen Parker, a 58-year-old lifelong nudist who preaches from the pulpit naked every Sunday at White Tail Chapel in Ivor, Virginia, views nudity as “the great equalizer.”
- Robert John Burck, aka “The Naked Cowboy,” has built a career bearing all in public, having spent the last 20 years singing sad country songs in a G-string at the corner of 45th and Broadway in Times Square.
- Trent Nielsen, a 47-year-old two-time competitor on Naked and Afraid says being naked was more of a nuisance than anything, particularly when he awoke to find 40 ticks digging into the head of his penis.
I recently spoke to each of them about letting it all hang out and discovered that the choice to bear arms (and all else) is far more complex and brave than it seems at first blush.
Pastor Allen Parker
I’m the pastor at White Tail Chapel, a clothing optional church in Virginia. Our services are similar to what you’d see at most non-denominational churches — we sing, we read scripture, we pray — the only difference is that most of us are naked.
I’ve never liked wearing clothes. They just don’t hang right on me. The house I share with my wife and 29-year-old son is clothing optional. If you come over unannounced on a weekday evening, you’ll likely walk into a house full of naked people.
Personally, I find it easier to study the word of God if I don’t have any worldly trappings on me like jackets or heavy shoes. I find the clothing requirements at other churches to be pretentious: Corinthians tells us to be of modest behavior. When Christians express their displeasure about the White Tail Chapel, I remind them that many of Jesus’ most important moments happened in the nude. He was naked when he was born; he was naked when he was baptized; he was naked in the upper room while washing the feet of his disciples just before his crucifixion (during which he also was naked).
I’m no Robert Redford. We’re all carrying a little extra weight. We all have scars. But when you’re naked and standing in a church without any clothes on, nobody can tell if you’re the richest man in the room or if you’re a pauper. There’s a lot of benefit in that.
We usually open with prayer and sing a song. Then I say, “Look at the people around you. Give them a hug and tell them you love them.” It’s a little disarming, especially if it’s your first time being there. This isn’t a sexual thing at all, though. It would be no different if you were hugging your aunt or uncle.
Activist Gameli Anumu
When I moved to San Francisco in 2013, public nudity had just been made illegal by a new ordinance. I vowed to do what I could to push back against this cultural gentrification. In particular, I attended protests against the nudity ban and put my body on the line to protect the ability of people to freely express themselves. Being naked and expressing myself in a way that’s not in line with social norms feels like being a part of the forward edge of a civilization. Like the tip of the sword cutting down this country’s history of intolerance, racism and sexism. It’s very empowering.
For me, any social construct is inauthentic. When you’re in a space where most aren’t wearing clothes, you can’t tell how much money people make just by looking at them. Also, when people are nude, it makes them more androgynous, and you realize how much more similar human bodies. Clothing accentuates our different body characteristics while nudity accentuates our humanity and the original primates we are.
Still, the first couple of times I got nude in public was fairly nerve-wracking: How are people going to react? Is my body disgusting to others? But once you remove your clothes and experience how supportive most people are of public nudity, it becomes as natural to be nude as anything else. (Full disclosure: My feet are never nude; I usually have a couple of accessories with me, too — like a utility belt to keep my phone, wallet and keys in — and a pair of underwear and a tank top for when I need to travel again.)
Of course, there’s been a couple of times when not-so-great things have happened while nude. One time at the Folsom Street Fair, someone grabbed my penis, which wasn’t cool. And another slapped me in the balls when they walked by, which was even less cool.
Robert John Burck (aka The Naked Cowboy)
Being naked always gets attention. In fact, there have been several copycat cowboys and cowgirls. Every couple years someone says, “Move over Naked Cowboy. There’s a new naked guy a couple blocks away.” I’ve heard that for 20 years. But I’m still here.
It all started in 1996 when I responded to an ad in the local paper that read, “Nude models wanted.” It turned out to be a gay guy with three buddies in a condo posing as artists. Didn’t matter to me, though — it was 20 bucks an hour to stand naked and have guys draw me.
One of the guys told me I could be a model, so I started taking photos to modeling agencies. Next thing I know, I’m shooting Playgirl magazine on Venice Beach. I started with a pair of jeans, flannel shirt and a cowboy hat, but nobody paid attention. Then the photographer said, “Why not just play in your underwear?” That’s when I transformed into a boisterous busker in briefs, cowboy boots and a hat. The Naked Cowboy was very successful on the boardwalk. I did it again, and again, and again. I planned to become the most celebrated, grandiose entertainer of all time.
Soon, I was driving across the country in my underwear, stopping in different cities along the way. I’d call the police on myself and then lure the media over. It worked every time. After two years, I traveled east because someone told me the cities were closer together and I could get arrested every three hours instead of every 12.
I eventually landed in Times Square. I walked up to Howard Stern’s studio and said I was there for the Stern Show. They sent me right up. I started going to Fox & Friends, Good Day New York and the Today Show, too — I’d jump out of a trench coat in front of the cameras.
I get up at 6:45 a.m. and check Facebook to see what kind of views I got on the video I put up the previous day. I get to the city at about 9:30 and on the Square by 10. From 10 to 7 p.m., I sing, sign and play — picking up girls, taking pictures, smiling, and rock ’n’ rolling. I have three albums worth of stuff — “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” that kind of stuff. I encourage people to touch me wherever, but unfortunately, it rarely happens — except for one time in New Orleans. A little old lady grabbed my balls and said, “Just wanted to see what you got there, buster.”
Most nights I work out, have a glass of wine and bang my wife.
I basically starve myself to stay as lean as I can. I’ve eaten Chinese food every single day for five years: Steamed chicken, steamed broccoli and steamed rice. If I work the full eight hours, I’ll hopefully take in $500 to $600. Weekends are a little better. But I need to work my ass off to make that.
I get some negative responses, but it’s infrequent. Guys say, “Go put some clothes on.” I say, “Put your fucking muzzle on.” You learn to have the meanest, quickest response possible. There’s a phrase for every circumstance. When it’s 100 degrees and they say, “Are you hot?” I say “No, I’m freezing.” If it’s freezing and they say, “Are you cold?” I say, “No, I’m sweating my ass off.” Sometimes, mostly younger kids will be like, “You ain’t got a dick.” And I say, “Well, bend over. We’ll see.”
Again, I’m ready for anything.
Trent Nielsen of ‘Naked & Afraid’
I’d never been naked in front of people like that before. The first day they said, “Okay, take your clothes off.” And just like that, I’m buck naked on the side of a river with a crew of about 30 people looking at me and asking me questions. I felt like an idiot. When I walked around the corner and met my partner Annie, though, a weight lifted off my shoulders because everybody was looking at her instead of me.
Then they gave us a map and said, “We’re just here to document you.” That’s when it got real. Hiking, working, chopping down trees — all with no clothes on. Things hit you in places you don’t want to be hit. I’d be walking through the jungle, and these razor-sharp leaves would give me nasty paper cuts.
The totem pole of hierarchical needs changes drastically in a survival situation. When you’re at home on your couch, well-fed and well-slept, it’s totally different to be naked than if you’re out in a jungle in Belize or in Africa, sleeping on dirt with the bugs. You’re always on the lookout for shelter. You have to constantly build fires to stay warm. There are so many critical things to worry about that nudity becomes a non-issue.
If anything, it was a nuisance. The bugs are ever-present. There were so many times I wished for shoes so I didn’t have to watch where I stepped and could look around to watch for animals. You can never cover up from the sun either. Then, at night, you just pile leaves on you and build the fire bigger.
It’s amazing how comfortable clothing makes you feel. Clothing is first and foremost amazing shelter. When we’re awoken in the middle of the night by a scary dream and pull the covers up over us, they obviously won’t stop the Boogie Man, but it sure make us feel safer. Now think about being totally exposed at all times. Your mindset shifts.
Being naked definitely helped me connect with Annie better. At night we’d snuggle and cuddle, but not sexually. We were each others’ survival tool and did whatever necessary to make the survival experience more comfortable: Wrapping our arms and legs around each other, grabbing boobs, whatever. Along those lines, pretty much every woman that goes out there knows men can’t always control their penis. We’d joke about it and say, “Well, here comes Mister Unpredictable.” It’s not a big deal. I’d wake up with an erection that was poking her in the lower back, and she’d just say, “Good morning, to you too.”
There was one night when I mistakenly rolled off the cot and ended up in the dirt. We were asleep for maybe two hours, and I felt something bite me on my penis. The sun was coming up, and I brushed something off of me. As I brushed, though, I felt more pain. I counted 40 ticks on the head of my dick. They were in a perfect circle around my pee hole. I was just like, “I hope they didn’t go down there.” Especially because the ticks in Belize aren’t like the ones in North America. They have little fish hook legs that dig in; then they bury their head in, too.
I was a bloody mess after 90 minutes of picking them out. The end of my machete was bloody too, because I had to dig some of them out with it. I’d grit my teeth and cringe as I stuck the knife under them and pulled out a hunk of skin. Needless to say, it was a horrible, horrible experience.