Spare The Clothes: Chicago Fun Club Practices Social Nudism Through Bowling

Nudity is “freedom” for the members of Chicago Fun Club, a local nudist group.

The lights dimmed and the doors locked. A crowd of nearly 70 stirred in anticipation, shuffling about in a congested bowling alley.

“I’m not sure if you heard the announcement, but it’s time,” a voice rang.

At once, the scene whirled into a medley of flying garments. Shirts and pants were hastily tossed atop bar stools as participants took to the lanes wearing nothing but shoes.

It’s nearly an average bowling scene, except everybody’s naked. 

Led by nudist couple Steve and Katie — who asked for last names to be omitted to protect the identities of group members — the private event is one of many hosted by the social nudist group Chicago Fun Club.

Since its inception in 2009, the group has hosted hundreds of privately-reserved events at local establishments, including nude comedy shows with nude comedians, nude roller skating and nude dinners. They’re one of many groups registered with the American Association for Nude Recreation, an advocacy group for recreational nudists. 

According to Chicago’s indecent exposure laws, nudity is illegal in public spaces, but Illinois law doesn’t bar recreational nudity in private settings. 

‘Do I really have to get naked?’

“If you have breasts and a penis, or any combination thereof, we don’t care,” Steve said. “There’s no judgments based upon any kind of tattoos, body art, grooming — but just don’t smell.”

Steve, a realtor and longtime nudist, said he has been embracing the practice, both socially and casually around his house, for about 25 years. The 49-year-old said his first experience with nudism was an effort to escape the social insincerity of suburban life in western Chicago. 

After journeying to Indiana for a landed nudist group, or a group with a set location, he became enthralled with the practice in his 20s. As clothes were shed, so were colloquial gimmicks.

There were no conversations about the weather.

No questions of “Where do you work?” or  “How was your weekend?” 

“That was my initial attraction to it, besides the fact that, you know, if I could walk around naked all day, I would,” Steve said. 

Unlike Steve, Katie’s first social nudism experience was veiled by a question: “Do I really have to get naked?” 

Prior to meeting Steve in 2007, she had never explored nudism. Despite engaging in the practice for over a decade, she said she still has “apprehensions” from time to time, joking that she isn’t a real nudist, she just plays one on TV.

Now she kicks off every Chicago Fun Club activity by jauntily repeating her initial ask, unshrouding both clothes and nerves. 

Steve said he first became drawn to nudism as an escape from small town social facades. ( Ella Govrik / The Phoenix)

‘It’s kind of my thing, I’m the nudist girl.’

Zoe, a police officer in Wisconsin, has always been proud of her nudist identity and doesn’t shy away from encouraging others to join in. The 51-year-old said she often asks co-workers and friends to participate alongside her, though few are receptive. 

“I tell everyone I can about it,” Zoe said. “It’s kind of my thing, I’m the nudist girl.” 

For Zoe, the force driving her nudist identity is simple — she loves being naked. 

Growing up in a pro-nude, matriarchal household where family members would walk around naked, she said she was never uncomfortable by naked bodies. 

To her, nudity is freedom. 

Identifying as a plus-size woman of color, she said being a nudist has allowed her to temporarily shed the preemptive awareness of being a racial minority.

“I’m almost always the only Black person in a room,” Zoe said. “Here, that’s not what it’s about.”

Among other benefits of nudism is an improved body image, according to Zoe. Describing herself as a proud fat woman, a listening onlooker across the bar interjected.

“You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.”

“I know, right,” Zoe responded. “I mean, fat is beautiful, at the same time.” 

Her experience isn’t a one-off. A study from The National Library of Medicine found communal nudism can foster body appreciation by reducing physique anxiety. Another study cross-compared nudists and non-nudists, finding nudists had a higher body self-concept, according to The Journal of Psychology.

“It’s not so much that I love the way I look, it’s just that I really don’t care, I don’t think about it,” Zoe said. 

Prone to weight fluctuation, both Katie and Steve said nudism has helped them embrace body neutrality, a type of body acceptance that respects the body as a functioning vessel. Since creating Chicago Fun Club, Katie said she has welcomed new styles of clothing — rejecting baggy silhouettes previously worn out of shame to hide her figure. 

“I think I’ve been able to realize a lot of my worth has nothing to do with how I look,” Katie said. 

Steve said the “normalcy” of his body is likely a draw-in for prospective new members intimidated by the idea of others judging them. 

“One of the reasons I think the club is a success is because we are not supermodels,” Steve said. “We do not have perfect bodies.”

Steve said the fact that he isn’t a supermodel is likely a relief for prospective new members. ( Ella Govrik / The Phoenix)

‘Normalcy and acceptance’

Bryan, a sailing and diving instructor local to Chicago, doesn’t hide his interest in nudism — but he doesn’t announce it either. 

“It’s not a secret, but it’s private,” he said.

Chicago Fun Club hosts people of all careers and ages — from factory workers to corporate executives — creating a spectrum of openness toward the hobby. While some shout about their nudist identity, others don’t even whisper, keeping the interest unbeknownst to family and friends. 

After an experience at a nudist beach in California in his twenties, the 34-year-old approached his partner with the idea of engaging in social nudity together. He said his partner — though initially skeptical — has engaged in nudity at home and with family, but the process continues to take work as they remedy doubts and concerns. 

As a naturist, Bryan said he believes nudism is the natural state of the body, which is why the body needs time to “be free and relax.”

“A lot of times clothing is not necessary,” Bryan said. “Even if you have the ability to sit and do school or work from home, doing it nude is fine. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.”

Growing up with an ingrained sense of otherness as a person of color living in the Northeast, Bryan said socialization didn’t come as naturally, which prompted him to search for meaningful connection in unique ways. 

Conversing with the crowd of nude bowlers, he said he felt a sense of “normalcy and acceptance.”

“You kind of get past all of the pedantic bullshit, right?” Bryan said. “Because you’re trying to find a social in when you’re clothed with someone else. Whereas with the nude it’s just like, ‘Alright, cool, I already know that these three or four things are true — you accept my body, I accept your body, we respect each other, let’s talk.’”

Chicago Fun Club was created in 2009 by nudist couple Steve and Katie. ( Ella Govrik / The Phoenix)

Yet, acceptance within the club doesn’t always manifest to the textile world. The hobby begets many misconceptions, most of which prescribe nefarious intent. 

Steve and Katie said family members have received nudism differently, some being more accepting than others. 

“A lot of people in society can’t separate being naked or nudism from sex,” Steve said. “They automatically assume if you take your clothes off, there’s going to be something sexual about that.”

To prevent those with misaligned intentions, the group vets attendees beforehand through a questionnaire on their Meetup page. According to Katie, this often identifies those pursuing the club for the wrong reasons. 

For Bryan, the idea of sexualized nudism is a uniquely American concept. He cited European countries like Germany, who he said have a much more positive outlook toward nudism, operating under the mantra of Freikörperkultur, which translates to Free Body Culture.

“Context makes nude,” Bryan said. “So in the same way that I can see my partner get out of the shower, and go, ‘Oh, she’s nude,’ versus me and my partner during a time of intimacy, the sexuality is a product of context.”

As the event unfurled, all members sat upon towels brought from home, a requirement within the club to promote sanitation. Some attendees sprayed body mist and oiled themselves to prevent odor. From there, Steve said it’s up to each venue on how they choose to clean up. 

Waitstaff are notified of nudity prior to the event and are not required to partake, according to Steve. He said many participating venues have been involved with the club for years and know what to expect.

Yet, even as the clothes come back on, nudism underpins the personal constitution of the couple, who have a series of other events scheduled for 2024. 

“It’s really a great way just to be yourself,” Steve said. “And there are so few occasions you have in life where you can just be yourself.”

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