When executive Stuart Whelan first decided to visit a nudist beach, he didn't tell his wife. But she had suspicions he'd been up to something.
"When I got home she looked at me and said 'Where have you been? You're just beaming'", he says. "I'd always planned to tell her, and she said 'Wow ??? I've got to have some of that.'"
Thus began a journey that led Whelan, in his early 50s at the time, and his wife, from their corporate life in Sydney to owning and operating a naturist retreat in Nelsons Bay. For Whelan, getting naked in nature was "transformational".
"I realised that I was experiencing the environment in a way that I hadn't experienced before. I was looking out over the harbour??? and the bushland. I really felt connected with it," Whelan, now 60, says. He also felt the stress of corporate life melt away. "I felt immediately at peace. It was like peeling off vestiges of my workaday world and just allowing me to be who I am."
Self-acceptance is at the heart of naturism, acting as an antidote to the common messages about what an acceptable body looks like. "All those things get washed away," Whelan says. "I've felt a lot more comfortable and confident in myself being a naturist than I was before."
And naturism is about much more than getting your gear off. Whelan explains that going clothes-free is part of a holistic lifestyle embracing respect for self, respect for others, and respect for the environment.
Following these philosophies helps strip away the judgmental attitudes encouraged by contemporary living. "In a naturist setting ??? we do away with so much of the 'otherness' of another person," Whelan says. "There was a chap who was resplendent in multiple tattoos and beard who, if you saw him in his biker leathers, you would treat with some trepidation. On the beach, he was just someone who was enjoying the day with the ocean and the sand just like everybody else."
This removal of indicators of status encourages conversation with people from all walks of life. On a textile (clothed) beach you'd be unlikely to speak to anyone, at a nude beach people interact freely.
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"When you go down to a nude beach people are much more open to ??? discussion; they're just a friendly group. We've met some very interesting and long-term friends from our time at Cobblers Beach in Sydney."
And if you're thinking that the friends made at nude beaches come with "benefits", you're way off. Whelan says that naturism is not about sexuality, but sensuality: feeling the breeze on your skin and the sun on your back. He explains that nudity has been falsely sexualised and there's a big difference between being naked and cavorting on stage as a strip-tease artist.
"As far as seeing the opposite sex is concerned, there's no titillation ... It's all there," Whelan says. "People that are new to the lifestyle say that they feel that they're speaking more to the person because they're making eye-contact. And it's not because ??? I don't want to look at their naked body. You forget you're naked. You're comfortable in your own skin."
For 48-year-old Jenni Parry, becoming comfortable in her own skin has been the best thing about going naturist. "I'm a bigger girl???I have boobs, I have a bum and I have a belly," she says. "I can look at myself in the mirror ... and say 'you're good, I like you'. I just love what I look like."
Unlike Whelan, Parry, from Queensland's Sunshine Coast, grew up with nudity. On the family farm, skinny-dipping was the norm. She always loved the feel of sun on her skin, but it was only six years ago when a friend suggested attending a naturist weekend that she took nudity to the next level.
Since then, Parry hasn't looked back. Her fears slipped away as she was welcomed by the community. "It's the most inclusive and relaxing group of people I've ever come across. People I met that day are still some of my closest friends," she says.
Parry agrees with Whelan that one of the greatest things about naturism is the lack of judgment. "Nobody asked me where I worked, how old I was, what I did for a living," she says. "There are people who are millionaires, and to look at them you'd never know."
And Parry reiterates that naturism is not about sex. "You wouldn't do anything at a nudist retreat that you wouldn't do at a normal caravan park," she says. "If someone said 'can you name the people at the camp ground with the five biggest appendages', I'd say 'no. I can name the person with the best laugh ... and who cooks the best.'"
Whelan reiterates how enjoyable the naturist lifestyle can be, "I think it's something that more people should try because it is such a liberating experience. [It] makes you appreciate what being human is truly about."
The story Why Stuart gave up his corporate life to run a naturist retreat first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.