The contradictions of American nudism

An arm and a leg around a campfire.
geetha thurairajah, As We Were. 2016, acrylic on canvas. 36 × 48”.

I am standing on a table at camp. Maybe because I am standing on a table someone suggests that Jake take pictures of me this summer. “Judy would make a gas model,” says Ezra (gas is Sixties slang for awesome). Jake agrees. I would be a gas model. We start photographing that week.

And thus are inaugurated two momentous changes in my life: I become the object of the male gaze. And I fall intensely, erotically in love. 

These developments are mutually reinforcing. The object of my desire is the gazing subject. I desire because I am — or imagine myself to be — desired. I imagine I am desired because a man is looking at me. This man is looking at me with close and prolonged attention, through a viewfinder, which hides him and exposes me. A few years later, I recognize myself in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” he wrote, not approvingly. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” The feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey calls this the male gaze. Onscreen, a woman’s sexuality is defined by her “to-be-looked-at-ness.” With Jake behind the camera, I am an actor in the drama of myself. 

But theory is, well, theoretical. And I am a specific girl, at a specific time, summer 1967, in a specific place: Tamarack Farm, a camp for teenagers and one of a quintet (there will eventually be eight) called the Farm & Wilderness Camps, on the edge of the Green Mountains in Vermont. Jake is the counselor in charge of camper-built construction projects and the unofficial camp photographer. Lean, bearded, and blue-eyed, he has traveled with the guerrillas in Mozambique, drives a Volkswagen bus, and meditates at an ashram, a word I hear for the first time that summer. I am 15. He is 26, ineluctably glamorous.

There’s another factor that makes the situation unique, that elbows in on this gendered dance of voyeurism and exhibitionism. At camp, we are, sometimes, naked.

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