The rules for Skinbook are clear: No pornographic images or headless torso shots. Don't leave sleazy comments under people's photos. Boot out any "creeps and voyeurs," as site executives call them, who manage to make it past the vetting process for new members.
Skinbook.ning.com is a U.K.-based website that proudly touts itself as the Net's only genuine nudist social network. Skinbook capitalizes on users' familiarity with Facebook-style member profiles, messages, forums and groups. Except that, unlike on Facebook, everyone's naked.
"For younger people, nudism is free from politics or activism. It's purely recreational," explains Skinbook's 25-year-old co-founder Karl Maddocks. "For younger nudists, it's just about going off to the beach and getting some beers out and just being yourself around like-minded people," says Maddocks, who by day is a (fully-clothed) student of politics and sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. "The idea of going to a walled-off nudist club or colony populated with single elderly guys in sandals and socks, to me that's just too cultish and weird."
To be sure, nudists have been around since Adam and Eve, but the Internet has made finding like-minded clothes shunners that much simpler. Bona fide nudist sites abound, including ones like Figleafforum.com, which states that it is geared specifically for "Bible-believing Christian nudists and naturists." But what sets Skinbook apart is its social functionality that appeals to a younger demographic. Maddocks says the average age of Skinbook's roughly 9,000 members is between 35 and 40 years old (and falling), while the common ages of nudist clubs and associations usually hover north of 55 or 60. Skinbook also skews more female and more couples, while most nudist outlets are dominated by single men.
"We try to keep up the quality of membership," says Maddocks. "We get about 200 sign-ups a day, but we only accept about 10% of applicants due to the poor or X-rated quality of most attempts to join."
Skinbook began by accident in 2008 after Maddocks bumped into some of his fellow Manchester students on a clothing-optional beach in Wales. "We couldn't communicate on MySpace and Facebook about nudism since we were all kind of embarrassed. So we said, 'Let's start our own forum and call it Skinbook.' The rest is history."
Membership is free on Skinbook, which manages to turn a small profit thanks to a smattering of nudist-related ads on the site. Co-founder Jessica Kennedy, 24, monitors the site to keep it safe for female Skinbookers. "Right from the start, any sexism or abusive behavior towards women simply wasn't an option."
Those who don't pass muster will have to be content gazing at the Skinbook fan page on Facebook, which has more than 2,600 followers.
According to the American Association for Nude Recreation, naturist travel is now a $440 million industry, up from $200 million in 1992. So it's no surprise that this summer Skinbook will expand out of the virtual world for the first time and into the real one. In mid-July, an estimated 800 Skinbookers will meet face to face (and cheek to cheek) at the British seaside resort of Brighton for an organized retreat of naked day spas, bare beach barbeques and clothed pub socializing.
Much like the people you're likely to encounter on a nude beach, Skinbook members aren't all tanned, taut and toned. "I think it's a bit of a counterculture movement against the body-beautiful thing at the moment," Maddocks says of the renewed interest in nudism. "It's all well and good to look nice, but there's just too much pressure on everyone to be perfect. With guys, if you don't have a six-pack, then you're an ugly loser. For girls, if you don't have fake boobs and a nice butt, then you're a 'fat bitch.' It's pathetic. What we're saying is, Just enjoy being yourself."