Below the Belt: Nudism in Ceausescu’s Romania

Take your clothes off and enter Vama Veche, a small beach village on the Romanian-Bulgarian border. In the last decades of communist rule, the place was embellished with an aura of freedom and became a metonym for nudist activities. Off the beaten track and out of the habitual circuit of systematised socialist-style tourist resorts, Vama Veche lacked any basic tourist amenities such as running water, electricity, restaurants, hotels or campsites.

For precisely these reasons it was established as an escapist summer place by a small community of self-described artists and intellectuals during the late 70’s and throughout much of the 80’s. Nudism, western rock music and literature, cheap drinks and long talks into the night became the trademarks of the place. Throughout the recessive Romanian 1980’s, Vama Veche resembled a last stronghold of hippy atmosphere, in a rather conservative (to say the least) and dogmatic environment.

At first glance, the sheer existence of a community of nudists, outside the official therapeutic system of state resorts, might resemble a full-blown paradox, given the proverbial prudishness of the regime. Here’s a list to remind you of the attitude towards nudity and sexuality expression (repression?) in Ceausescu’s Romania: the length of school-women dress was a matter of state regulation, and teachers were instructed to guard its enforcement at the start of the each school-day; pornography (or any depiction of nudity outside the state production) was illegal and punished under criminal law with imprisonment; and sex and nudity scenes were censored from movies, press, novels and art productions.

State production of representations of nudity was confined to producing anatomical representations of a sanitized (and malformed) human body (for pedagogical purposes) while in terms of cultural production, it entailed the depiction of a half-naked worker or peasant (always a male figure) building socialism as a proper New Man. Thus, the de-eroticisation of sexuality and nudity confined the human body and the sexual activity to the realm of productivity, supervised by the state.

To be sure, there were some other three or four places where one could practice nudism, while on the regular state-resorts’ beaches the proverbial big breasts of the blonde Swedish tourists were already entering the (male) Romanian imagination. But this is a story that looks below the breasts, as we shall see soon. What distinguishes nudism in Vama Veche is its non-incidental character: nudism is part of a larger plot with mainly the same actors performing and embodying it every summer. The trouble with nudism in Vama Veche is that it is not about an evenly sun tanned body.

Symbolic Fun

I recall the terrible mid-day sun burning my skin in one of the July days of 1986. I must have been hungry and therefore, angry. I was looking at him as he was trying to untie the zillion laces of his life vest (and only with this long forgotten memory have I come to understand that I was always quick and skilful when it came to undressing). He was one year older than me and on several occasions on the previous days he had wrestled me to the ground. I wasn’t afraid of him. I was simply unconvinced of his force. Incidentally, I got a glimpse of it dangling to the sides, as the kid was getting more and more frustrated by the grips of the life vest. I stretched my arm and touched it. I swiftly caressed the saggy piece of skin and he stopped struggling with the vest. I grabbed it, held it tight in my fist, rolled it around my fingers and twisted it. The kid waited helplessly in his wet cage. Suddenly, I pulled it with all strength towards me and cries of pain flooded the skies.

Academic Interlude

I was four at the time and perhaps this was one of my first summers in Vama Veche, brought along by my nudist parents and their friends. More than 20 years later I am back to the place as the strategic site of my PhD research. It would be hard to enact my childhood memory now, not only because I have been properly socialised into not touching IT without the other party’s consent, but because nudism slowly faded away from Vama Veche in the years following the Fall. The lure of nudism and its aura of freedom popularised the place to the new status of a hip, “alternative-but-mainstream” resort that cannot stand nudists.

The habit of slipping out of most (!) ideological straitjackets and showing off one’s butt nakedness for the summer, disintegrated at the same pace as the country went forth with its insertion into global capitalism. The “Anarchy”/ “Fuck the System” blends with “Adidas” t-shirts, while the no-bathing suit protest is oftentimes awkwardly (mis)interpreted into topless sun-bathing for the entertainment of male gazes. While the Vama Veche phenomenon is still in process, nudism has turned into a ghost, haunting its sandy beaches and the mental cartographies of a few nudist fans on the search for “new” beaches.

I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the old networks of socialist nudists like my parents who congregated in Vama Veche for summers in a row in search for something that, at this stage, remains as intangible as my childhood memories. But to be honest, I am not that interested in the hidden meanings or the more explicit convictions of the people that populated Vama Veche in a time when nudism resembled a crazy Western fad. My main interest lies in the intricate and overlapping practices harboured by this place and their effects on the small community.

Ideological Detox: Nudism

I am always weary of texts which feed our voyeuristic appetite with socialist artefacts and stories of a world gone array. Perhaps there are more colours and shades to the one-dimensional socialist Romania in which shops were empty, TV aired for only two hours and gas was rationed while the lucky socialist citizens drove one of the three locally produced cars. At the same time, I venture with similar cautiousness into nostalgic memories of the era when “everyone had a job, everyone had a roof above her/his head.”

Thus, to the avid curiosity of reader, I’m forced to answer that socialist nudists were trying to have a good time. In their cramped Dacia cars, they brought music tapes, serious food supplies, a new book, children and pets (when available). This cargo was delivered into the villager’s gardens among sunflowers, fresh tomatoes and chickens. With the help of the border guards, they were smuggling Bulgarian cigarettes and alcohol for the late-night garden parties, while the villagers happily provided their tourists with freshly caught fish sold under the table by state-employed fishermen. Yet, this was hardly a conflict free zone. From heated debates over the latest book release/theatre production/Ceausescu’s speech, to rough negotiations with the guards over cigarette prices or to kids’ fights, the idyllic picture of a lost paradise imposing its (un)dress code to its visitors, turned into a space of everydayness.

Consequently, this is not a typical “story from below”, and some of you might be really disappointed: there was no Solzhenitsyn dangling his penis in Vama Veche. Furthermore, this community was no FKK: it produced no nudist manifesto, made no naturist claims and lacked any basic unified ideology. I’m still trying to figure out if they had sex at all with all the kids around. But don’t tell that to my supervisors. In our academic discussions, I spotted the danger and claimed the obvious: Vama Veche was both an escapist place from the regime’s prudishness listed above and also a safety valve that kept the Romanian socialist citizens governable. These guys were definitely no revolutionaries, but rather went back to properly build socialism at the end of the summer.

However, as I see things now, despite the lack of obvious signs of unrest and opposition sported by the nudists in Vama Veche, I think that there are still stronger reasons to qualify the group as performing changes from below, from really bellow. Listen to Mircea Toma, a prominent figure of the community, writing about his experience there some 10 years after the movement faded. He makes no mystery of the fact that this was no oppositional movement, by any standards, and cannot be compared with the “cultural resistance” – the standard name of the highly recognised Romanian intellectual oppositional manoeuvres during the 80’s. Toma is very straightforward: “seeing your friend’s clitoris while playing cards, was a way of remaining sane in the midst of paranoiac times.” Nothing more, but also, nothing less.

The Erotics of Resistance

It is perhaps futile to remind anyone of the sexual politics and politisation of sexuality during Ceausescu’s regime. Bodies (especially women’s), intercourse, reproduction and nudity were all circumscribed as strategic fields of the state’s action. Erotisation, sexual and bodily pleasures were dismissed officially as Western perverse and decadent habits, while being privately and lavishly practiced by the apparatchiks, or so the rumours go. Thus, in this context, reappropriating and reeroticising one’s body, even for a summer, had the effect of a tiny but powerful (personal, sexual) revolution, just like any good joke. But rediscovering one’s and other’s bodies is no joke. I take Toma’s statement about relinquishing the productive pressure of the state’s demands over people’s bodies while in Vama Veche as a form of introducing a small, but effective, gap between the ideology and the real, everyday, embodied practices.

Nudism offered the possibility of not becoming a full-blown proper socialist New Man; of not closing the ideological circle proposed (and imposed) by the regime. If you want, the clitoris in a symbolic reading, is thus the small impediment that prevents subject’s total identification and interpellation. And perhaps, this is resistance from below in its most pure form: embodied, silent and practiced collectively. The articulation of disobedience occurred in an infra-language outside the customary control mechanisms deployed by the state. But perhaps the true meaning of this story might lie somewhere else, not necessary hidden or deep but in the sheer fact that a girl could freely touch a guy’s penis just for fun. And perhaps she wasn’t four after all.

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