When I arrived for the dinner party, a naked woman holding a wine glass filled with hibiscus tea greeted me at the door. Inside I could see a group of about 15 people already in the backyard. They too were all naked.
“Should I just take off my clothes in here?” I asked to no one in particular.
One of the women inside said yes without looking up. So I got to it.
This is how my night started recently when I attended my first nude dinner. I was among the 26 people who paid $150 to experience Füde, a plant-based gathering that invites people to leave their inhibitions, self-doubt and clothing behind.
I had arrived at the Caster House, a private residence in Tarzana rented for events and filming. It was about an hour before sunset and the temperature still hovered around 80 degrees, and I wondered if I’d have sweat dripping down my bare legs once I reached the house after the climb up a steep driveway.
The living room shared space with an open kitchen where three bare women were busily cooking. There, I disrobed in the middle of the room. I folded each piece neatly on a plush cream couch, grasping at the seconds before I had to step outside and join the group of strangers.
I’ve attended countless dinner parties but never a nude one. I can’t say that I’ve ever harbored any desire to be naked in front of other people. I’ve never visited a nude beach or been curious about naturists. So I tried to normalize the situation in my head. Nudist colonies have been around for decades. There’s an American Assn. for Nude Recreation, which has more than 30,000 members.
The backyard was all white stone, with white walls surrounding a glistening pool and little alcoves tucked into a small hill. It was like I had stepped into a house on a seaside cliff in Greece or Italy. A group of young women chatted around the edge of the pool with their feet dangling in the water. Two men splashed around, swam and laughed. A couple of women, their eyelashes still dripping, took selfies under an archway.
I took a seat by the pool, soaked my feet in the water and tried to get comfortable.
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Should I cross my legs? Was I getting my butt dirty? Maybe I should fold my arms. No, wait. Then I’ll look standoffish. I read that once in a magazine. I’ll put my arms at my sides. The weather is cooling off a bit. Did my nipples look weird? What did my stomach look like? Whatever you do, don’t look down at your own body. Don’t be weird and look at anyone else’s either!
I looked up at the sky in an attempt to quiet my racing thoughts. Be in the moment. Be open. I repeated that William Blake quote. “Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed.”
Despite my best efforts, I made eye contact with a young woman from across the backyard. She sauntered over and took the seat next to me. Her lean limbs were the color of honey with intricate tattoos along her arms and torso. In the center of her chest was the word “love.”
“Is this your first Füde?” she asked, pronouncing the word like “food.”
I told her it was.
She was an artist in her 20s, a recent transplant to Los Angeles from New York. She once flirted with the idea of visiting a nudist colony but never followed through. A friend mentioned the dinner and she decided to check it out.
Charlie Ann Max, founder of the Füde Experience. Setting the table. (Andrea D’Agosto / For The Times)
We were interrupted by Charlie Ann Max, 29, the dinner’s founder, who told us it was time to start the evening’s Füde. The name is a combination of food and nude, with an umlaut to encourage the proper pronunciation.
Max is a multidisciplinary artist, chef and former dancer who began hosting nude-optional dinners in 2020. She started practicing nudity after she stopped dancing, seeking liberation from the constraints and expectations the career put on her mind and body. She also adopted a plant-based diet, eventually creating Füde as a mostly online platform for plant-based recipes photographed alongside her naked body or other people’s bodies.
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In the spring of 2022, she transitioned Füde to its current state of fully nude experiences.
“I wanted to focus on what made people feel comfortable in their skin and tap into their most pure authentic selves,” Max said in an interview before the dinner. “Nudity represents so much more than the act of being naked. It’s surrender.”
Max has hosted around 40 Füde experiences in Los Angeles since last April, but she also facilitates nude events in San Francisco, New York City, London, Paris and Berlin. And they’re not just dinner parties or brunches. Each one incorporates some form of mindfulness practice to help you connect with your inner self.
Curiosity about the intersection of nudity, food and cooking is growing, Max said. She recently started offering nude online cooking classes, hoping to attract those who might not be ready for an in-person nude gathering.
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At about 20 minutes past 6 p.m. Max, introduced Lihi Benisty, a local breathwork, movement and meditation teacher, and instructed everyone to sit on the pavement around the pool.
“And this is Maya, our safety steward,” she said, and pointed to a young woman next to her. “If you have any concerns or discomfort, we can work together.”
Benisty then introduced the theme for the evening.
“Tonight, we explore the ‘yes’ within,” she said. “What does it mean when we say yes? What does it mean when we say no?”
Benisty took us through her breathwork, telling us when to breathe in, hold, and let it out. We focused on a three-part technique that involved filling our bellies with air, then our chests, then letting it out. We breathed in time to the music she provided.
I thought about the countless times I’ve said yes but really meant no. The times I said nothing at all but wanted to scream no.
About 22 minutes into the breathing, I felt the first mosquito bite. As the bug feasted on my upper right butt cheek, I wondered if I should tell the safety steward that I was being eaten alive. I opened my eyes to find everyone else on their backs, chests heaving, in a state of utter zen. I decided to start swatting in between breaths and keep quiet.
After another 20 minutes, we finished the breathwork. I was famished, but it felt like a block of tension dislodged and slipped off my bare shoulders.
We made our way to the dinner table, set in a corner of the yard with a long white tablecloth and tall candlesticks that flickered down the center. Each place setting was fashioned with gold silverware, a linen napkin and a glass in the shape of a butt. There were flowers, bowls of olives, bunches of grapes and round, braided loaves of bread scattered across the table.
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I examined the seating, recalling a colleague who asked before I attended if I knew if chairs would be sanitized. Each folding chair was completely covered in removable fabric.
Max prepares all the plant-based food for the dinners, except for the few exceptions when she partners with a chef or herbalist. That evening’s meal started with loaves of walnut and onion bread, chive butter, and olives and grapes for the gluten-free diners.
With no way to cut the bread, we each took turns tearing away chunks. Someone made a comment about breaking bread at the table and we all laughed politely.
When I first signed up for the dinner, I assumed I’d be the oldest person there, or that everyone would look like the people in the checkout line at Erewhon, only naked. I assumed I’d spend the evening comparing my breasts, thighs and feet to everyone else across the table.
I assumed a lot of things. I was wrong about all of them.
The ages ranged from early 20s to people who would qualify for a senior discount. The gentleman next to me was a former real estate attorney turned developer in his 70s. He’d heard about the dinners from Benisty, whose yoga classes he sometimes takes in Venice. This was his third Füde. He told me the dinners help him accept the things he can’t control.
The woman across from me was a sex podcast host. A first-timer.
To her right, another newbie, a man with pink hair and facial piercings who said he throws parties for a living. To my left, a professional dancer at her second Füde. At the far end of the table, a woman with beautiful braids said she facilitates cuddle workshops.
Maya Bachmann, the safety coordinator, who was also Max’s assistant, said about 30% of the attendees are repeat guests. Most that evening came alone.
(Andrea D’Agosto / For The Times)
In order to attend, you must fill out a comprehensive application online and supply verification images. I felt more at ease knowing each person was vetted by Max, and that a handful had attended before.
Five of the diners that evening were men. The rest were women or nonbinary. Guests were asked to refrain from taking photos of other diners. There was also a designated no-photo zone at one end of the table.
I slathered my hunk of bread with the butter and chewed slowly. It was well-baked and rustic, generously studded with sweet onions and nuts. Eating while naked didn’t make it taste any better or worse, and I wasn’t worried about getting crumbs where they wouldn’t normally fall.
The second course was a chilled zucchini and dill soup that tasted like summer. The pale green broth tasted fresh, cool, sweet and bitter.
Max, it turns out, is an exceptional cook.
People spoke softly, the murmur of voices from one end of the table never quite reaching the other. No one gawked or stared. Everyone was respectful. By the time we finished the bread, I settled in and felt safe.
Just as the main course arrived, a plate of lemon and thyme couscous, carrot puree, sauteed spinach and braised leeks, Benisty let us know that it was time for the discussion portion of the dinner. She wanted to know what we’d gleaned from the breathwork. How were we interpreting the theme of the yes within?
The meal quickly turned into a group therapy session, with diners discussing their fears, doubts and struggles with gender expectations and norms around the words yes and no. Who should please and who gets to be pleased?
Tears were shed, and each person’s story seemed to come with a collective cathartic release.
Could the same have been achieved if we were all clothed? Maybe, but I doubt it. I can’t deny that the nudity helped pull back the layers we each hold close, our bare bodies an invaluable conduit to a more vulnerable state.
I lingered over dessert, a cool melon sorbet, for as long as I could before I decided it was time to put my clothes back on.
It felt weird to be the only one getting dressed, but I’d reached my limit with the mosquitoes. If it weren’t for my blood sacrifice, I would have happily sat naked in that backyard for the rest of the evening.
On the drive home I was proud of myself for not walking up that hill and turning right around, or feigning an illness to leave halfway through.
If I could do this, I liked to think that I could do anything. And that was a nakedly empowering feeling.
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