The Sisterly Bonds Forged by Nudism

Three sisters drifted apart after a tough childhood. A nudist club brought them back together.

Three nude sisters hold hands on the beach.
Kate Martin / The Atlantic

To visit the Avatan Nudist Club in East Bethel, Minnesota, about 30 miles north of Minneapolis, you drive through the front gate and check in with a greeter in the office. She may or may not be wearing clothing. You disrobe alongside your car. Then, perhaps in the company of a pair of friendly naked tour guides, you walk the road that encircles the camp. You pass the main lodge, a swimming pool, and the well-kept summer cabins of members. Nude people are playing horseshoes, fixing a roof, riding a golf cart. Most of the camp is quiet. People come and go throughout the summer, some staying for days, others for months. Life here is slow and peaceful.

At the first left bend of the road, a trio of home trailers stand side by side in a clearing. Three sisters occupy these trailers as neighbors every summer—Nanette, 68; Denise, 63 (with her husband, Al); and Juliette, 56. (They asked to be identified by their first names only, because Avatan prohibits members from sharing their last names with one another.) The sisters eat together, help work on one another’s trailers, or pass time with neighbors, such as the physician who has written a book about bird watching while naked.

The sisters are naked, and they are close. One has to do with the other. Twenty years ago, they felt distant and estranged from one another, the result of growing up in the chaos of a family wracked by drinking, cruel words, and bad memories. Back then, Nanette, Denise, and Juliette saw one another only on holidays. They say it seemed best that way.

Today, living together at Avatan most weekends during the summer, they see a lot of one another—more than most siblings do—and they have a changed relationship. Shedding their clothing and living in close company has helped them shed old pain. Nudism, they say, has saved their family.

Denise and Al kept it a secret from their families when they began to explore nudism in their 40s during the mid-’90s. They tried clothing-optional lake beaches around the Twin Cities and then discovered Avatan. “It was like the Garden of Eden,” Denise says.

Within three months of their first visit, they bought a lot and set up a trailer. Being naked in a nudist community freed them from anxieties about their bodies and shyness. “I could get naked right now, and I wouldn’t feel like I’d be judged,” Denise says. “I’ve earned that comfort in myself through nudism.”

When the sisters were growing up, their parents, Marie and Bob, fought often. The family couldn’t afford a car, and Bob watered down the kids’ milk. Marie and Bob eventually divorced when Juliette was 11. After that, Juliette grew up in a small apartment with Marie, an alcoholic, and was often around Marie’s habitually intoxicated boyfriend, who, Juliette says, sometimes groped her. Denise and Nanette each left home at 18. Juliette resented them for leaving her with an alcoholic mom for nine years.

As they aged, the sisters led separate lives. None of them made much money, and they all experienced hardships. “I was on a career for alcoholism,” Juliette says, and Nanette and Denise avoided her. Even so, “they had no idea how much I drank. They had no idea,” Juliette says. She got through her young-adult years with helpings of cocaine and sex, but she remembers “no fun fantasy, no magic,” in her life.

Meanwhile, Denise married an alcoholic and abusive man—“a mean-ass drunk,” Juliette calls him—before divorcing him and finding Al. Nanette was widowed, went through a divorce, raised a son as a single mom, and buried herself in her work. The sibling connection grew so thin that family funerals struck Juliette as an opportunity for her to see her sisters.

When Denise and Al joined Avatan, they weren’t sure whether they wanted to tell Nanette and Juliette. They worried that Denise’s sisters might react strangely or ridicule their new hobby. So they hid their nudism from Nanette and Juliette. When Denise once missed a family gathering because she was up at Avatan, Al covered for her by saying she was at the dentist.

During all the years they hid their life from the family, Juliette suspected her sister and brother-in-law were nudists. She started talking to Denise and Al about her habits of sleeping naked, vacuuming naked, and running around the house naked. Juliette even told them she wanted to belong to a nudist camp by the time she was 40. Denise slowly started to get the message.

In 2006, after Juliette had been sober for five years, Denise and Al decided to reveal their secret to her. Denise went to the hair salon where Juliette worked and said, “I want to bring you somewhere. Al and I want to take you somewhere on Labor Day weekend. It’s kind of a resort.”

“What should I bring?” Juliette asked.

“A towel,” said Denise. Juliette thought that was strange, started to feel nervously excited, and asked, “Is this a nude place?”

By extending this invitation to Juliette, Denise was doing what many estranged siblings cannot force themselves to do. To successfully reconcile, “somebody has to take the leadership role of really trying to make it happen,” says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist, writer, and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. “They’ve got to be motivated enough to take the high road and not remain bogged down by long-standing grievances, whether there are sibling rivalries, or unresolved wounds from earlier childhood, or unresolved conflicts from adulthood.” Unlike Denise, most aggrieved siblings go to their grave without making that move, Coleman believes.

Denise and Al took Juliette to Avatan that holiday weekend. Many members had already gone home, and the camp was quiet. She loved Denise and Al’s comfortable, homey, kitschy trailer, so the next weekend, they rented Juliette a small cabin of her own to stay in for several days. “I just took my clothes off and had my little wrap on, and walked out the cabin doors, took a deep breath, and there I was,” Juliette says. “I took myself out of the real world that weekend.” She still has photos from those early trips. “Oh my God, how cute was I? I kind of would only let a boob out.”

But as she spent more time at Avatan, she was comforted by the fact that nobody there has a perfect body. “It just assures me that we’re not perfect,” she says. “I guess we need reminders of how non-perfect we are.”

In 2006, when a longtime friend at Avatan died, Denise and Al inherited his trailer. They moved into it and gave Juliette their old one. Gradually, steadily, Denise and Juliette were becoming closer. They now had a gang of friends in common. They spent time together and exposed themselves to each other. But they still kept their secret from Nanette.

Three summers passed. Nanette was working in Kansas City, Missouri, and didn’t seem to have time for friendships. Denise and Juliette were sure she’d find a lot of friends at Avatan. Finally, they invited her to a nude beach in Florida as a trial run. Nanette loved being naked outdoors. Then they made their big move when the Fourth of July approached. “Do you want to come to a pig roast with me and Al and 300 of our friends?” Denise remembers asking Nanette. She didn’t mention that the friends were nudists. Nanette then agreed to visit.

When Denise drove Nanette into the camp, they immediately crossed paths with two members on a tandem bicycle, both 100 percent naked. Nanette noticed. “Oh my God, Denise, this is a naked person,” she said. They continued through the campground until Nanette spotted a nude woman lounging on a deck. “That’s our sister! There’s Juliette!” Nanette cried.

“She has a trailer here, and that’s her trailer,” Denise told Nanette. “Me and Al’s is right next to her.”

“What? What?” Nanette kept asking.

“I knew she would be okay,” Denise says, and Nanette removed her clothes and fit right in. Juliette agrees: “She had no social life. She was like a kid in a candy store.”

“She smiled that day, never stopped smiling,” Juliette adds.

Nanette bought the trailer of a member who died in 2011. Now the sisters had three summer homes in a row, in their own corner of the camp.

And that’s how their new routine as sisters began. Being together, naked, “felt completely normal,” Juliette says. Juliette and Nanette usually stayed at Avatan every weekend. Denise and Al joined them every other weekend, returning for a dance or potluck meal.

They marched in a camp parade as Charlie’s Angels. For a members’ dance, they bought matching T-shirts that said if you think I’m a bitch, you should meet my sister, and went together with no bottoms. At parties, they’ve performed what they call the Sister Act, blessing friends as naked nuns. They live for Avatan’s afternoon cocktail hour (although Juliette remains sober).

Without Avatan, Denise, Juliette, and Nanette say they would likely have gone on living their lives separately. Family wounds might have continued to fester. They still bicker, “usually for each other’s attention,” Juliet says. “But there’s nothing my sisters could do to me that I’d ever turn my back on them now.”

Nudism brought them back together. “Camp is the fun place, and once we’re on the other side of the gates, we leave it all behind,” Juliette says. “We have a vacation every weekend. We call it Avatan time. Being naked and doing all these things together—we couldn’t be any closer than that.”

“We’re three heads on one body,” Nanette says. Juliette agrees: “I love my sisters. I really love them.”