Back to nature
You are walking on the soft grass beside a beautiful river, the sun is shining, people are camping and picnicking and in the distance you can hear laughter over the splash of the pool.
Greeting fellow holidaymakers as you walk past, you suddenly stop dead in your tracks as you realise you are completely naked, and what's more, so are they.
Is this one of those embarrassing moments in a dream? No - you are at one of New Zealand's most unique holiday locations, and no one cares a jot about your lack of clothes.
Katikati Naturist Park has operated for almost two decades, an oasis of privacy down a bush- lined track just outside the township. A permanent population of 17 residents live there fulltime in impressive static caravans and a regular contingent of visitors come back each year keeping the park's occupancy near maximum most of the summer.
With chalets, campervan and tent sites, the park is the only naturist holiday site in the country that has a clothes-free policy all year round, and allows members of the public to stay there without being affiliated to a club. Day visitors are also permitted, and it is popular with locals from Tauranga and the surrounding area who want to find a real getaway on their doorstep.
Having been curious about naturism since discovering that my private and quite proper grandparents had, at one time, quietly practised it for several decades, I decided, major nerves aside, to investigate the possibility of taking my husband and children with me to give it a try.
Conversations with my grandmother, and plenty of reading on the subject had brought up the same thing time and again - the positive effect on confidence and body image purportedly gained through naturism.
Like many women, I've always been pretty self-conscious about my body. Paranoid about my wobbly bits or my tallness, I seemed to always judge myself as not quite fitting society's model of ideal Now, at 33 and with two children, I'm finally starting to see my body differently - as a beautiful, healthy, and completely acceptable example of womanhood. This has been a reasonably slow process, but spurred on particularly by the fact I am raising a daughter and am acutely aware she is learning from my own example. I am interested in any methods that will contribute to this positivity, which is where trying naturism comes in.
So far, it has been the fastest and most effective method of promoting positive body image that I have come across. It wasn't easy to start with though.
Biting the bullet and booking a stay at the Katikati park, I quizzed owners Kevin and Joan Sampson closely over the phone about whether I absolutely had to take everything off.
They reassured me that everyone would be understanding of my apprehension, having all been through it themselves, and while not compulsory, nakedness was the etiquette if the weather wasn't too cold or too sun burning, and there was otherwise no actual need for clothes. I would, they said, find personal enrichment.
The Sampsons themselves have been naturists since their youth, opting to go entirely naked most of the time, unless necessity dictates otherwise. Frying bacon in the nude is generally not to be recommended, advised Kevin with a laugh, and there are often times when you need to wear shoes.
So, a week later, we arrived at the park - catching sight of our first naked person walking nonchalantly in the distance.
"There's one!" shouted my 6-year-old daughter, as if she had just spotted a wild animal while on safari.
Not 10 minutes later though, once checked into our chalet unit, both children had left a puddle of clothes on the floor and were running gleefully off to the pool, little white bottoms glinting in the sun, apparently completely at ease in their birthday suits. According to Kevin, children almost always take well to naturism.
The other families with young children at the park certainly demonstrated this, with children running around, swimming or playing on the lawns just like children anywhere else. Men too, are said to find naturism more of an easy adjustment to make than women. Several theories abound, including that they have fewer taboo areas to expose, permitted to be topless at other times, and there is also a possible link to the locker- rooms of our sporting culture.
It may also speak of our society's inherent patriarchal nature, where women are more used to being the subjects of sexual objectification, and the premise, "nice girls" don't flaunt themselves.
My husband and I did seem to fit these stereotypes at first. I was still unloading luggage, putting off the moment of truth, while he was already happily naked, except for hat and sunglasses, and looking around for a cold beer.
Eventually, I managed to disrobe, but have to admit to a strategically draped sarong at first. There was apprehension and adrenalin as we first walked from our cabin to the communal pool area, and the first thing I noticed was the level of socialising going on. It was much friendlier than I had seen at any other holiday park.
"We all have something in common from the start," said a bubbly woman from Auckland called Anna.* "Being here, in our natural state, just being naked here together is a great leveller, and it's sort of an activity in itself," she said.
"Nobody knows what anybody's job is unless they choose to tell them, and there's an unwritten rule that we don't talk too much about 'naked camp' in the outside world. It's our special thing."
So after some surreptitious glances around at my fellow naturists, ranging in age, and none of whom had what society dictates is the "perfect" body, I started to relax, managed a swim and began to slowly feel the sense of liberation people spoke about. As I chatted to people sitting nearby, I felt the shackles of superficiality falling away. Here your personality really was what counted.
By the end of day two, I felt as though I had joined some secret community, and the removal from day-jobs, everyday life and the outside world was far greater than I remember experiencing anywhere else. This is perhaps where the key to naturism's relaxing effect lies. I mentally noted how I felt about my body over that time, and would describe it as a fairly rapid decrease in self-consciousness, and a building understanding that it doesn't actually matter what ridiculous notions are fed to us about "perfection". The removal of any wealth, status or affiliation messages given out via clothing placed us all on a more level playing field as humans.
After four days, none of my family wanted to leave and rejoin what now felt like the noisy, coercive and judgmental world outside the gate. This was obviously the feeling among pretty much everyone else. Whenever there was a departure, people waited until the last moments to actually dress - packing the car, having one last swim and reluctantly driving away, waving to the lucky ones who could stay longer. No early checkouts here.
Andrew* and Jane*, a bronzed couple with two young sons, had been coming to the park for four years, and despite initial reservations they loved it so much that they remortgaged to buy a modern caravan and annex to place on a permanent site.
"This is us now - our holiday spot," said Andrew. "We've travelled all over, and this is where we've chosen to come back to time and again. You can't beat it. It's hard to imagine going anywhere else after experiencing the freedom you get here, and naturists - they're just nicer people, you know?"
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Taranaki Daily News