Old and in the nude

Published September 27, 1997 2:30PM (EDT)

last night I went to see my one of my favorite rebel actors, Harvey Fierstein, do a one-man show at a performance festival in San Francisco. He warmed up the Bay Area crowd by telling nasty little jokes about Los Angeles, which the attending expatriates enjoyed more than anyone.

"So this Beverly Hills woman goes to her plastic surgeon for her 500th collagen-lipo-tuck, and he says to her, 'I'm sick of seeing you all the time. I'm going to put a key on top of your head (I imagined one of my Barbies that had a feature like this) and every time you want another face lift, you just reach under your hairpiece and give it a little twist.'

"A few months go by, and the lady shows up at the doctor's door again. 'What are you doing here? Isn't the key working?' he cries.

"'Oh, yes, it worked wonderfully the first dozen times I tried it,' replied the lady. 'But now look at the BAGS under my eyes!'

"'Those aren't bags, sweetheart -- those are your tits! And if you don't lay off, pretty soon you're going to have a beard!'"

Harvey got a big laugh and I got a bit of an insight -- our amusement was laced with more than a touch of anxiety. Frankly, those of us who still think of ourselves as "young" have no bloody idea what we're going to look like when we are unavoidably and undeniably OLD. For all we know, we are going to sport a beard, and there's no telling where our tits are going to hang, although the rumor is that it's going to be somewhere around our knees.

I'm 39, and one weekend ago, I attended a women's nudist retreat in Palm Springs, where I found myself one of the youngest members of the gathering. Nude recreation is one of the fastest-growing parts of the travel industry, in case you didn't know, and there are a handful of resorts in Palm Springs that cater to the clothing-optional-inclined. At such a spot, you get to sit around the pool, read your paper, play tennis and gather round the barbecue, all without a stitch on. My favorite part is waking up in the morning and rolling out the door to get a cup of coffee without my bathrobe. It feels so healthy and natural that by check-out time, you actually feel indignant that you have to put on your clothes to get back in your car and join the rest of the over-wrapped world.

I've been a hippie nudist since I was a teenager, enjoying the beach and hot tubs. But if and when you have a few extra pennies to visit one of these clothing-optional club resorts, or take one of the nude yacht vacations in the Caribbean, you enter a whole new lap of luxury. No more keeping an eye out for the police or voyeurs with cameras. There are playgrounds and organized activities for kids so you can take your whole family and yet still lie around under an oak tree next to a quiet pool, reading and daydreaming. Yummy food and ice cream sundaes whenever you like, all enjoyed without covering up.

You also, of course, get to see a lot of naked people doing all the things that people do at a country club. It's not furtive like in a locker room, or medicalized as in a hospital. It's also not particularly erotic when it's not intended to be. Naturists as a group are exasperated by any puritanical insistence that nudity is tantamount to titillation. Get over this nonsense, and let both your mind and your ass see the light .

In Palm Springs, a traditional retirement haven, I found the most interesting thing at the retreat was seeing how women's bodies actually age, and to imagine what's going to happen to mine.

I have been a little shy to share my findings. Does everyone else know what 60-plus-year-old women's bodies look like? I don't think those Playboy spreads on Nancy Sinatra count -- I'm talking realism here. I have seen my mother undressed, in the course of changing and bathing, but that's only one example. I never see any mention of the subject in fashion magazines or interviews with veteran movie stars. Sure, someone will complain about their crows feet, but they're talking about the dainty little lines of a 40-year-old, not someone two decades older.

At a certain point, you must reach an age where you realize that all this pathetic grasping at the dewy-eyed beauty of an adolescent is beside the point, and furthermore, impossible. Then what?

My friend Betty Dodson, 68, who's written volumes about sexuality for women, said that she has grown into a hugely satisfied dirty old lady. "When I walk down the street, no one notices me. It's as if I'm invisible -- which after a lifetime of being stared at and appraised, is kind of a gas. Now I'm staring at them. I ogle the good-looking ones as much as want to. One time this little bike messenger caught on to what I was doing, and he stepped right up to me: 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself!' Well, it's too late for that, buddy!"

I talked with several women in their 60s at this retreat, and when I asked them about their sex lives, I found to my surprise that their answers were ageless. Most of them enjoyed sex, either masturbation or with a partner or both. And for those who didn't, their reactions applied to their entire lives: Perhaps they'd never cared for lovemaking all that much, or found masturbation pointless. The way they LOOKED -- in-shape or out-of-shape, made-up or plain-faced -- had nothing to do with their answers or attitudes.

So let's talk about shape. The thing I noticed about everyone, men and women, past their 40s, is that there is no such thing as a waist. You can be very skinny or roly-poly, but the differential between your chest, middle and hips all becomes subtle or irrelevant.

I knew from studying the human body that women's waists thicken after childbirth, and then later with aging, but I guess I fell for the hype that if you were slender enough, you would still have this fetching indentation in your middle. Now I realize Miss Scarlett wasn't kidding -- you're going to need a corset and a strong Mammy to tie you up if this is the look you must achieve.

On the other hand, I can't get over how good old people continue to look below the neck. One's face can be a prune, but further on down, it's amazing how some people's skin can be so smooth and soft, their breasts full, their hips and thighs ready to rumba. Yes, gravity is definitely a player, but the face is the place that ages the most.

During our weekend, I became acquainted with one woman in her 50s who had a gorgeous tan body with little gold chains around her waist and neck, beautiful muscle tone, the whole bit. But when she left on Sunday and put on a flowered frock , blazer, and sneakers leaving only her face and hands exposed, she looked like Granny Goose! Older women are much sexier with their clothes off, this is my definitive conclusion. Ready-to-wear fashions are doing older women worse than a disservice -- it's an insult and a scandal. I think this is significant news. If you're looking for a lover and over 50, I suggest signing up for one of these nude cruises on the double, and get a couple of gold chains while you're at it.

My survey would not be complete if I didn't tell you what happens to your overall look if you have been a patron of the plastic surgery arts in your middle age and have now reached elderhood. There were several women tanning in Palm Springs who I noticed had tit and face jobs sometime in their past -- after all, this practice has been going on for decades now. Believe me, they stood out. The effect is -- did Gene Roddenberry know something we didn't?--- like a real-life version of "Star Trek." You know how whenever there's a character on board from a planet other than earth, they look basically human but with a weird twist to their forehead, or an extra-exciting figure? When one part of your body is silicone while the rest of you is responding to crepe and drape, the effect is absolutely intergalactic. And as they quip in the body business, I'm not saying that's bad -- but it sure is different.

I love my clothing optional club in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's called Lupin and has its own Web page. It's part of a network of clubs across the county that are not only heavenly to visit, play at, and relax, but also form a counterpoint to all the legislation, busybodies and puritans who every year try to figure out another way to criminalize and villainize nudity. To these members of the Dark Ages, we give the classic nudist reply: Yeah, you must be right -- if God had wanted us to be nude, we would have been born that way.

By Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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