How Being Naked For The Weekend Helped Me Love My Body

At the Gay Naturists International Gathering, I had to ditch my clothes to find comfort in my own skin.

I was standing naked in the dining hall with only my leather Converse hat on as a sort of security blanket. I’d arrived at the Gay Naturists International (GNI) Gathering, an all-nude retreat in the Pocono mountains, just in time for dinner, but felt uneasy about it all since it was my first night there. I kept thinking, Don’t look down, don’t look down, in an effort to convince myself that I wasn’t naked and standing in a line, waiting to serve myself Mexican food, buffet-style.

They had tacos and burritos to start, churros for dessert. Not the sexiest food to eat naked, but I was starving, so I placed two tortillas on my plate with meat-filling. I skipped the refried beans for obvious reasons.

GNI

There were a couple of hundred naked men in the hall, many of whom were huddled around tables in groups, eating and chatting. It reminded me of a high school cafeteria from my youth—and made me just as anxious as one. As I walked back through the hall with my food tray, I felt like everybody I passed was staring at my penis, which was shriveled from nerves. I decided it was all in my head, that nobody was staring, but my decision didn’t make me feel any less aware of my nakedness. To say I was apprehensive about my undress would be an understatement. But I was there to write a guide on how to be a non-anxious nudist. Obviously I had a lot to learn myself, but I figured that something like the Gathering was the perfect place to do it.

Growing up, my mother always warned me against getting naked in the change room after swim lessons. I was to cover up with a towel when putting my bathing suit or taking it off. Otherwise, she claimed, someone might try molest me. I figured this was the origin of my anxiety about nudity today. But it’s not just my mom who is to blame. As a society, we’re taught that the naked body is worse than extreme violence. Federal obscenity law only apply to sex, not gore. Nudity has become NC-17 in our collective consciousness, which is what makes something like The Gathering all the more alluring, and kind of defiant. I was as excited as I was nervous to experience it.

There were other things that concerned me about the retreat, aside from potentially disastrous pairing of nudity with Mexican food. I’d been busy in the weeks leading into GNI that I didn’t get to the gym nearly as much as I thought I needed in order to feel comfortable being naked for days on end. Not only that, but if I’m to be honest, I also worried about my penis. I’m a grower, which means that my cock isn’t big unless it’s erect. I concerned myself with the thought of guys judging my flaccid size, but I knew I needed to get over that. A couple beers with dinner took the edge off.

Brian Becnel

The retreat is a week long, but options include attending only the first or last half, or to arrive early by a few days, when nudity isn’t mandatory. Peter Karlovich, vice president of GNI, says that it’s a good option for newbies who may be nervous and want to ease into it. Clothes aren’t permitted on the days following. I decided to attend for part of the last half, and brave it anyway. Sink or swim, I suppose.

I did, however, opt for a private room in the infirmary instead of a shared cabin like most of the other guys. The bunkhouse style cabins house eight to 12 people, offering more of a summer camp experience, but I felt the private room might be necessary in the event that I needed breaks from the nudity. Some people seemed surprised that I was staying on my own since most appeared to be comfortable with their nudity and were there because they enjoyed being naked. It wasn’t that they were trying to overcome their fear, like I was.

There was entertainment in the auditorium every night at eight from the Sunday on, so I headed there shortly after dinner. They had a variety show on the Tuesday, a karaoke contest on the Wednesday and even Lady Bunny performing on the final night. That particular evening was the Mr. GNI contest, which was sort of like Miss America, where contestants were to be judged on poise, personality, appearance, and their dedication to naturism.

Brian Becnel
As I waited in the auditorium for the show to begin, holding a beer between my knees, I realized there was every body type there: Lean, long, stocky, muscular, chubby, young and old—one of everybody, it seemed. There were a variety of penises too from mammoth members to some tiny things. There were growers, showers, circumcised, uncut—you name it. It gave me some peace of mind to see people so comfortable with themselves, regardless of their look.

I still had trouble looking down at my crotch though, like the situation would become too real if I did: I was in a sea of nakedness with nothing to hold onto. Despite the momentary comfort of realizing all the body and cock types, I still would’ve loved for nothing more than a massive quilt to cover myself up with. But there was no quilt and no going back.

A barn on the other end of the resort had been converted into a dance club, equipped with extensive lighting and lasers, fog and snow machines as well as a sound system. They had a DJ spinning every night starting at 10:30 p.m. I ended up there sometime after that. I grabbed another beer, went out to the dance floor, and began bouncing, allowing my junk to play between my legs, as if somehow I had gotten over my anxiety about being so exposed. Who knows what I looked like as I moved, but I had so much to drink by then that I didn’t care. Alcohol became my strategy for dealing with it all, but I knew it wasn’t practical—not if I wanted to sustain myself for the entire weekend.

The next afternoon I decided to explore the grounds, searching for ways to acclimatize myself to daytime nudity. I figured that if I engaged in some of the activities it’d help me be cool. There were things like manscaping, yoga, oil wrestling, paddling (the sport, not the fetish), as well as something they call, Naughty by Nature, which is an hour of watersports (the fetish, not the sport). Naughty by Nature happened across the lake as it was the only place where public sex is permitted.

Brian Becnel

I didn’t have a particular plan for the day and decided to wander instead. I walked past the dining hall and found a large Slip ’N Slide by the upper pool where the guys who set it up were lubing people in Palmolive dish soap to help them jet across the plastic surface. Some flew by in compromising positions with their legs up and asshole beaming. It was mesmerized, watching these naked man bodies slipping ‘n sliding so free. I could never do that, I thought, but I wanted to. When asked whether I wanted to give it a go, I declined and made some excuse.

I continued down to the lake and followed the shore, passing two guys playing bocce by the gazebo. I walk by several others too and said “hello” each time, and they said “hello” back. At one point I could hear “I Love the Nightlife (Disco ‘Round)” by Alicia Bridges playing in the distance and thought how, despite my uneasiness, there was something enchanting about GNI. Bohemian, even.

I found my way back to Regatta Beach at 2:30pm for Drag Races. Not RuPaul’s, but an actual race where teams of men run back and forth (naked) trying to assemble a drag outfit from piles of shoes, clothes, and accessories on either end. I found a spot in the grass and took a seat but suddenly became aware of my body. I could feel the folds in my skin bunch at different parts around my stomach and sides because of the way I was sitting. Two guys sat on either side of me, trying to recruit me for the race, but the last thing I wanted was to be the center of attention with the way I was feeling.

There was a regatta immediately after Drag Races. I was asked whether I wanted to compete again, but this time it was by this guy who I’d met earlier in the day who was also staying in the infirmary on his own. I said no at first, still feeling self-conscious, but changed my mind almost immediately. I figured, why bother driving for seven-plus hours to the Gathering if I was just going to sit around and watch? If I wanted to get over my fear and insecurity, I knew it’d help none, so I got up, went down to the water and put a life jacket on.

Brian Becnel

Kayaking naked made me think of a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry realizes that he’s dating a nudist. He concludes there’s a “good naked” and “bad naked”; bad naked involves his lady friend exerting herself in the nude, like, when she struggles to open a frustrating pickle jar and uses her whole body to Jerry’s disgust. While kayaking, I exerted and exerted, feeling every muscle in my body flex as we glided across the lake. I know it was supposed to be bad naked, looking like that without any clothes on, but it felt good.

Ralph Bruneau, the reigning International Mr. Leather and last year’s Mr. GNI Leather (they have a leather contest, too) was at the retreat for most of the week. Bruneau, who was a therapist by trade, explained that the best way to deal with anxiety is to overcome fear through immersion—to confront it directly, which I guess is what I was doing. It could account for how confident I felt about my naked body after the regatta.

Later on at the daily social hour, I met a group of middle-aged guys from across the country, from places like Michigan and California, who invited me to join them for dinner. After we ate, some of them went down to the volleyball courts to play while the sun set, so I tagged along to that, too. I hadn’t played in years, but after the regatta, I was feeling pretty confident about doing so naked. I got right into it, giving it my all, leaping, volleying, serving, and bending over to pick the ball up from the sand. Every crevice of my body was exposed to the people watching off at the side and to my fellow players too. I found that I was almost making a mockery of the fear I had only 24 hours ago, as I accentuated my movements so that I was all of my nakedness. My testicles were flopping about. I could feel them, free and uninhibited like they were always meant to be. I had no problem looking down at my crotch, not anymore, and didn’t care who was looking at it either. And I wasn’t being paranoid earlier. People would check out each other’s junk; it was hard not to, but it just didn’t bother me.

By sundown, I decided I was a naturist.

Brian Becnel

Later that night, I made my way over to Karlovich’s cabin, where drinks were being served. I caught up with some of the guys there who I’d had dinner with and we chatted like old friends even though we just met. I felt this sort of camaraderie between us, and with most other people who I met during The Gathering since we just let it all hang. My new friends introduced me to their friends who then later invited me to join them at the nightclub for some more dancing. I went there for a bit and then checked out the after hours dance party across the lake, which was far more orgy-esq than dancey. Many people end up across the lake each night, looking for sex and it can get hot, but it wasn’t for everybody. I spoke to one guy who was adamant that he was at The Gathering for the naturism alone and I figured there were a lot of others who were the same.

I was so unfazed about being naked after that volleyball game that I almost forgot that I didn’t have any clothes on that whole night. It was the most natural thing in the world. Like Bruneau suggested, I just had to tackle my fear head on. I realized there’s no naturist boogeyman that’s going to get me. I didn’t melt when I took my clothes off.

If you’re curious about it, you really have nothing to lose—except some fabric.

Mike Miksche has written for The Advocate, Slate, Vice, Lambda Literary and The Gay and Lesbian Review.
@MikeMiksche