When 16-year-old Danielle Faber attended Youth Leadership Camp last year in California, she swam, played volleyball, sang campfire songs and did arts and crafts.
“My favorite part was when we made a 20-foot ice cream sundae,” the New River teenager said. “We were supposed to eat it, but the whipped cream cans ended up in the wrong boys' hands and it turned into an ice cream fight.”
She smiles at the memory.
“It's basically just like any other kids' camp,” she said. “Just without the clothing.”
For those of you who just spit out your Cheerios, you heard her right. The dress code at camp was the same as for skinny dipping. And before you take another bite, prepare yourself: Next month, there will be a nude camp for kids just north of Cave Creek.
Taking advantage of a trend that has seen nude tourism blossom from a $120 million business in 1992 into a $400 million business this year, the American Association for Nude Recreation is increasing its summer camps for nudists ages 11 to 18.
About 20 to 30 kids are expected to attend the group's first camp in Arizona, which starts July 26 at Shangri La Ranch, a clothing-optional resort in New River. The ranch provides RV hookups, motel rooms and efficiencies, a spa, sauna, pool, volleyball and tennis courts and hiking trails. There's even a restaurant called the Bare Buns Cafe.
“We provide a wholesome place that caters to nudist families,” said 72-year-old Horst Kraus, who has owned the 44-year-old Shangri La Ranch for seven years.
A study by Alayne Yates, retired professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, showed that in cultures where nudity is common, children grow up to be less critical of their bodies. But, not everyone thinks you should let your 'tween get rid of her belly shirt and bare it all.
“That (camp) sounds like a colossally bad idea,” said Marlo Archer, an Ahwatukee Foothills psychologist. “The age range just seems to be real dangerous to me. You've got prepubescent kids right along with pubescent kids. You have kids that are going to be of two different types: Some that sex is the farthest thing from their minds and others that sex is on the forefront of their minds. You are really asking for some trouble.”
While naked summer camp might strike non-nudists as illegal or at least a “Girls Gone Wild” video in the making, nudity on private property is perfectly legal, even among minors, as long as there is no lewdness, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. And camp rules, drawn up by campers themselves, guard against that. “Do not allow nudity and lust to mingle,” they state. “No improper touching. Nudity must not be humiliating, degrading or promote ridicule.”
“Some girl might think a guy is cute, but there are strict rules that prevent it from going any farther,” Faber said. “You don't see people walking around holding hands like you do in school.”
To make sure nothing improper happens, Pat Brown, president of the American Association for Nude Recreation, said the camps run extensive background and criminal checks on counselors, often college students who have been nude campers.
“We also have a night watch,” said second-generation nudist Patty Faber, Danielle's mother and the camp's director. “It's not to keep the kids out of each other's tents. It's to keep people out of camp who don't belong here.”
Because most campers and counselors have been brought up by nudists, being naked is as normal as adolescent angst.
“To me, that makes all the difference in the world,” said Lee Spencer, a psychology professor at Arizona State University. “If you took kids off the street, you'd have lots of trouble. I think that if these are kids whose parents are nudists, I would guess that it's not really going to be a big deal for them. They are less likely to sexualize it.”
Parents and campers said the biggest benefit of the camp is that it promotes a healthy body image at an age when confidence can crumble, and better relations between the sexes when awkwardness normally prevails. In addition to normal summer camp activities, participants attend workshops on body image and attitude adjustment that are designed to build the child's confidence.
“Never have I seen a kid who has a perfect body,” said Patty Faber. “Some kids are less developed, some are heavier, some are skinnier, some are shorter. We have workshops that teach kids that there is no right body type, there is no wrong body type and what you see in magazines is never what you're going to see in your lifetime.”
Danielle Faber said most of her peers don't get to experience that kind of self-esteem boost.
“Most 16-year-old girls are very insecure,” Danielle Faber said. “If I were to bring a friend from school here, they would be quiet and afraid. But I've seen all different body types — fat and skinny — so it's not a big deal for me to get undressed in front of people. I'm more comfortable with my body because I've seen for myself that no one has a body like Cindy Crawford. It's just not reality.”
Even though a nudist summer camp might seem like a normal experience to kids who are raised by nudist parents, some adults worry about the reaction from peers who are still sneaking peaks at dad's Playboy.
“We are raised in a society where sexuality is very, very repressed and if we let loose with that, I don't know if kids are going to have the emotional capacity to deal with that,” Archer said. “Teaching kids that their bodies are beautiful and that you need to honor your body and enjoy it, that's always a good lesson. I just don't know if that's a lesson that's best learned among your peers.”
And as for those college-age camp counselors, Archer said the night watch better be on full alert.
“You cannot tell me that there will not be illegal sex going on,” she said. “It's like putting a bunch of raw meat in a roomful of wolves and saying, 'Don't touch that.' ”