"I’ve never done anything like this before but I’ve decided that instead of hating my body I should put myself out there and embrace it! I look forward to including Gunnison in this new chapter of my life. Anyone have any good advice they care to share?”
That’s an actual question on a Gunnison Beach website. Its author is writing about baring it all at Gunnison — the only legal clothing-optional beach in New Jersey. According to the American Association of Nudist Recreation (AANR), it is also the largest beach of its kind on the East Coast.
Both facts make Gunnison Beach one of New Jersey’s most unique attractions and a potential destination for the more adventurous reader. Yet there’s more than meets the eye.
Gunnison Beach is located on Sandy Hook, the six-mile peninsula that juts out into New York Harbor. The beach takes its name from Battery Gunnison, once part of U.S. Army base Fort Hancock.
The practice of nude bathing at Gunnison is actually a military tradition: soldiers would strip down and skinny dip at the beach. When the base was decommissioned in 1972 the practice continued.
While the State of New Jersey has laws against nudity on state and municipal beaches, Gunnison is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and under the jurisdiction of the United States Federal Government through the National Park Service.
Since the U.S. government is not in the business of organizing nude swimming, community volunteers create social events, a newsletter, and, according to a Friends of Gunnison Beach website, “maintains an ongoing dialogue with the National Park Service and other members of the Sandy Hook community in order to protect and improve naturist recreation.”
Getting naked in public, of course, is a common taboo and results in a variety of reactions and may be the reason that beach visitors from the central New Jersey region declined to bare themselves for the interview — even though one of the first proponents of letting-it-all-hang-out in the United States was from Princeton University: professor and department of psychology chair Howard Warren. His study “Social Nudism and Taboo” was published in Psychological Review in 1933.
After attending German nudist camps, Warren come up with a list of observations in favor of nudism. First, “on coming into contact with a nudist group, the subjective experience of shame and the objective experience of shock tend to disappear at once or after a short time.” Second, “where complete exposure of the body is the universal practice in a group, there is no embarrassment or self-consciousness due to one’s own nudity.” Third, “the sight of the naked body ceases to arouse curiosity. Nudity is accepted as a natural condition,” and finally, “social nudity is not productive of eroticism. There is less sexual excitement, less tendency to flirt, less temptation to ribaldry, in a nudist gathering than in a group or pair of fully clothed young people.”
While Gunnison enthusiasts may embrace Professor Warren’s idea of “less sexual excitement,” the group also recognizes the above equation of nakedness and sex and includes the following as part of a beach going etiquette that it shared: “Respect yourself and others — Nudity is legal at Gunnison Beach; however, lewd and lascivious behavior is illegal and can result in arrest. This type of behavior includes, but is not limited to masturbation, sexual intercourse, oral sex, and lewd or inappropriate comments. If you witness inappropriate behavior notify a lifeguard or park ranger.”
Gunnison has another problem: digital voyeurs, and have noted “Please leave your cameras at home!! It is considered extremely rude to photograph others enjoying themselves at the beach. You should always ask permission to take a photo of someone whether they are clothed or not.” When photographers do not comply, naturalists turn the tables by taking photos of them and putting it on their own websites.
Yet the shedding of clothes exposes another problem. Since entire families practice nudism, including children, intrusive and surreptitious picture taking takes on a darker side. Families need to watch out for suspicious behavior and report it. Arrests have been made. The irony is that the perpetrator is clothed and reflects a note that Warren made that after a person became comfortable with other nude individuals. “Any gesture of concealment becomes an attitude of immodesty.”
A trip to Gunnison Beach from the Princeton area takes a little over an hour — depending on the day and time. In any case the ride provides plenty of time for the questioning that pops up on the website and the Gunnison Beach Facebook page.
And despite the social and psychological benefits Warren argues, the 2011 American Psychological Association report, titled “More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification,” suggests another level of socialization and unconscious prejudice against the unclothed body.
For the report, a team of researchers — representing Yale University, the University of Maryland, and Harvard Medical School — asked two different groups of men and women to look at the photos of two individuals and provide a statement regarding “agency” or the ability to have self-control and intellectually strategize.
The models in the photo were the same for both groups. However one saw models only from the neck up. The other group saw a woman in a bikini top and a bare chested man. While the heads received high agency ratings, the skins were rated as low agency and perceived as having less intellectual reasoning, less inhibition, and a stronger desire for physical experiences or sensations.
A report on the study said its researchers “demonstrated it’s quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency to having a mind interested in experience: all they have to do is take off their clothes.” In short the report suggests that the opera “Einstein on the Beach” is a misnomer.
Back to the road and Sandy Hook is the next stop after Sea Bright. Now once past the fee plaza, Hartshorne Drive — bound on the left by Hudson Bay and on the right by the ocean — is a straight path into the parklands. A few miles later signs appear for Gunnison and into a parking area. Although it seems larger than most supermarket lots, websites warn people that capacity is reached early on weekends. That’s not a problem today.
The entry beach is about a half mile from the parking lot and marked by formal structures that include a refreshment stand, a bathhouse, and shower fountain for cleaning sand off the feet.
Volunteers have been busy raising money for and installing a new walkway. It leads into the long beach area that is divided into two sections: clothed and unclothed — both maintained by clothed lifeguards hired by the National Park Service.
The clothed or suited section is like any shore resort with two exceptions. First there are a noticeable number of people trudging across the sand towards the clothing optional area — intrepid journeyers of all ages, sex, and shape, although middle-aged and overweight white couples seem to tip the scale. Then there is the scenery. In addition to the surf and sand, there’s the nation’s oldest working lighthouse standing sentry and a horizon that unfolds a view of New York City.
In a few minutes one arrives at the clothing optional center. And while a sign announcing “nudist” is obvious, it is not needed: right behind the invisible line that dives the suits and skins are nude volleyball players leaping and lunging.
Then gaze beyond to a hefty middle-aged nude woman dancing to the silent music from her headphones, a nude gathering of middle-aged men and women sharing snacks, a wan nude man mundanely applying wads of gleaming oil to the exposed back and buttocks of a woman face down on a towel, an overweight nude man shouting what sounds like Russian into a cell phone while lounging under the shade of an umbrella, and a bored clothed attendant waiting at the shack that provides chairs and parasols.
It’s enough to make one stop, think, and ask, “Anyone have any good advice they care to share?”
Gunnison Beach at Sandy Hook, Monmouth County, New Jersey, and part of the National Park Services, open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, April 1 through October 31 (5 a.m. to 8 p.m. November 1 through March 31), lifeguards seasonal and during business hours, $15 parking fee between Memorial and Labor Days, www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm, also visit the American Association of Nude www.aanr.com/gunnison-beach.