On Exposure

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I guess it was inevitable, something we all knew was going to happen. Can’t stop the march of time and all of that. I’ve crossed some kind of boundary, passed a marker on the path, and the days of naive youth are beyond me.

What I mean is that I’ve entered that phase of life where I can regularly be seen naked in public.

I’ve been more naked, more often, in the last two years than since I was two. 

“But people don’t do such things!” … is what someone always cries out in an Ibsen play right before a major character is driven by overwhelming personal and social forces to do exactly the thing that she oughtn’t’ve, in a shocking fashion.

Exactly. How much of our socialization insists on our NOT being nakedly exposed to the world? The conditioning to keep covered up, literally and figuratively, goes pretty deep, reinforced with threats of the direst consequences. I’ve had that anxiety dream playing regularly in my poor unconscious my whole adult life. You know the one, where you’re walking down a street, or standing in a crowded bar, and suddenly, by some accident, you find yourself without clothes, and very confused about how next to behave (“maybe if I don’t let on that I know I’m naked, no-one will notice…?”), but, oddly, no-one seems to care, until out of nowhere there appears – middle of the street, middle of the bar – a toilet which begins to overflow uncontrollably, and when you try frantically to stop it (somehow it’s all your fault) THEN everyone notices you’re completely starkers, and every neurotic fear of being singled out and judged is happening All. At. Once. In your dreams, people do do such things, and promptly find themselves fleeing from a tide of effluent while the whole world watches. 

My current experiment in public nakedness is not at all like that. There has been surprisingly little anxiety (at least on my part, though I can’t speak for onlookers), and, so far (mercifully), no overflowing toilets. More pertinently, there hasn’t been anything accidental about it. It turns out that, in waking life, professional, respectable, North American, women-who-are-no-longer-twenty must do a certain amount of planning, and often exert themselves considerably, to be purposefully naked in public.

I started a couple of summers ago, by dipping my toes, and a few other parts, in the water, with some innocuous skinny dipping, which I can now authoritatively say is nudity for amateurs (that is, there wasn’t enough of an audience). One escapade took place well under cover of darkness, as part of a very tipsy reunion with dear high school friends, at the beach where we used to hang out (clothed, if any of our mothers are reading this). A few weeks later, at a suburban lake, I was bolder, and bared it all during daylight. Well, I was bare under the water – I only had my bikini off while submerged, and even that didn’t last long, as my companion lost his nerve, worried that we’d make the police blotter in the town newspaper: “Police identified the suspects, found nakedly enjoying a cool swim on hot day, as a once-reputable local businessman in the company of a suspicious woman from the city.”

Nothing too madcap about either of those instances (is there?) – but the seeds of temptation were sown. After a long, cold, overly-layered winter, when the chance to visit a clothing-optional beach presented itself (once, and then again, and then another time after that), I took it. Yes: opportunity knocked, and I opened the door wearing nothing but a sun hat and a smile.

Insofar as youth is wasted on the young, when I actually was 20, painfully self-loathing, and prematurely, dourly, responsible, you couldn’t have paid me (and by you, I mean one – you can stop blushing and looking awkward) to take my clothes off in front of other people. Unlike now, when I would happily strip off for money (in the context of modeling for ART, thank you, because I’m classy like that). Once, in college, my boyfriend and his friends thought it would be great fun to spend the day at Wreck Beach in Vancouver. Once there, everyone in the group shucked off their clothes, and gloried in their lack of inhibitions – which only made me cling all the more stubbornly to mine, plus a few extra on their behalf. I was surrounded by nakedness – I was excruciatingly  aware that, with clothes on, in that social setting, I was being not just recalcitrant, but weird…and having that pointed out to me by some of those smugly-disinhibited friends was exactly what resolved me to stay that way. 

Years have passed, and now, here I am, making other people uncomfortable with my self-satisfied discovery of bodily liberty. Somehow, something shifted in my thinking, and my reasons for staying covered up began to seem less important than my reasons for stripping down.

I might sometimes go starkers (as in “bare naked”), but I haven’t gone starkers (as in “barking mad”). The climate where I live is inimical to nudity, if not fatal, for a good portion of the year, and forbiddingly uncomfortable for most of the rest of it. But, with the right combination of sun and water (preferably in combination with travel, where the weather’s better and no-one knows me) being naked outdoors is really quite nice. I still think those friends were smug all those years ago, and should have just accepted my modesty without making me feel badly about it – but they were right about the pleasures of having nothing but a LOT of high-SPF sunscreen between you and nature. 

And you often get a lot of that nature almost completely to yourself. There are certainly places (not the American Northeast) where nakedness is no big deal, to the extent that nudists, naturists, and the naked-curious can spread out their, um, belongings in designated sections on the most crowded public beaches. But in parts of the world where going au naturel is considered de trop, the clothing-optional beaches tend to be thoroughly off the beaten path. Once found through word of mouth, nowadays the internet makes them easier to research and find, but you have to be be looking for them, and usually involves a lot of truly-harrowing hiking on steep cliffs to get to them. This is where the exertion comes in, along with motivation, and a profound determination not to end up a regrettable headline in a Google search about all the weird ways in which your compatriots have died in the world: “Canadian killed in fool-hardy attempt to flaunt naked body in hostile natural setting.” Having survived the trek, you can’t be blamed for feeling a certain sense of entitlement, that you’ve earned the right to be however clothed or naked as you damn well please. And, thanks to that same remoteness, there really aren’t many people there to protest. Interesting social effect: people determined to remain dressed are made so uncomfortable by determinedly-naked people that, combined with the relative inaccessibility (and, often, dearth of bathrooms) the former happily cede the field to the latter.

Many naturists – and I, apparently, have become one of them – believe, earnestly if eccentrically, in the elevating experience of being completely at one with the elements. Recent research has found that nature bathing has a measurable effect on both physical and mental health – and it stands to reason that if you get some benefit even while swaddled head to toe in quick-drying technical pants and no-wrinkle camping shirts, those benefits can only increase the less you have between yourself and le plein air.

So, total immersion in natural splendor is definitely one of the more appealing reasons to seek out a clothing-optional beach. But—obviously—they also make for fantastic people watching. You get to see, well, everything, whether you want to or not. There is no better place to do anthropological field research on contemporary trends in body hair. At a minimum, you’ll see ALL the variations of male genitalia and you’ll have your suspicions confirmed, that men like to keep track of where everything is by holding onto it. Often, that’s a completely benign action (I’ve had this conversation, where a male friend says, “what, you mean women don’t watch hockey or The Great British Baking Show with their hands down their pants?” to which I reply on behalf of all women, “um, obv, NO, gross.” To which he replies, with genuine sympathy, “that’s too bad!”) But sure, it’s possible (likely) that you’ll see some creepy guy out of the corner of your eye (don’t look directly!) and not be quite sure what you’re looking at, but, yep, that’s what he’s doing all right – hanging out on the beach, just masturbating, NBD. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly (with that previous image still in mind), the politics of the gendered body follow us to the nude beach. You see more naked men than women at clothing optional beaches, and fewer by themselves. The beach itself might be quite safe, but it’s hard for women to feel safe, alone, in any kind of public space; and if it’s one thing to fend off uninvited conversation, let alone unwelcome advances, when you’ve got a parka on in the middle of the rush-hour commute, it’s quite another – more than many of us have the energy for – to deal with that behavior when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on at all. So it’s more typical to see women at nude beaches in a group, or at least (and this is not an endorsement of patriarchy, just a resigned, pragmatic concession) with a man. Even so, you have to remain vigilant, and, again, determined to avoid the headlines: “Canadian killed on remote nude beach after accepting kind offer from stranger to show her an interesting view from that isolated stand of bushes over there.” That’s where it’s useful to have some company, preferably male, at a minimum someone who’s a bit more alert and worldly than one’s trusting Canadian self.

The people who are sketchy at the nude beach would be sketchy and unwelcome anywhere. What’s really cool about nude beaches, and the naked world in general, is just how respectful the majority of people are. It’s not that such spaces exist in some kind of edenic, prelapsarian, asexual innocence; on the contrary, if we’re prone to sexual speculation when we’re in fully-dressed company, or when we’re only partly dressed (you know, like at the beach), then being naked amongst naked people isn’t going to make such thoughts any less likely. I mean, you can see them, and they can see you – sex is going to cross your mind. But if you believe that “clothing-optional” guarantees “a seething mass of infamous and perverse behavior” where neither adults, children, or pets are safe from molestation, you’ve been looking at too much fictional nakedness on the internet. Of course, there are clothing optional beaches which are popular for their, um, social potential; I’ve been told that there are resorts set up with the explicit (in all senses of the word) intention of facilitating shenanigans between consenting adults. But for as many people who want to get naked there are as many who simply want to get naked, and do nothing more racy than eat a ham sandwich, read The New Yorker, and enjoy the sunshine. Here’s a mind blowing idea: sex – do you feel like it, do you deserve it, can you enjoy it, are you safe from it, do you just want to forget about it for 5 damn minutes – is more of an imposition, a problem, when you’re surrounded by confused, shamed, shaming, clothed people, than when you’re one naked person amongst many.

You know what kind of people go naked in public? Mostly, just ordinary types like me or you, of all ages, shapes, and conditions: college kids, families with children, couples, groups of friends, those who are beautiful because of fitness and good fortune, those who are beautiful in their honest, unapologetic humanness.

When, at 20, I refused to take my clothes off on the nude beach that was because, in a fundamental way, I thought my body was ugly compared to the others I was with – well, compared to all others, really. I hate that I felt that way then, and that I’ve wasted so much mental energy, passed up so much fun, feeling that way about myself ever since. I wish I’d been able to see, then, what I’m learning to see now: those naked people – this naked person – can be happy in their nakedness. It’s a relief to just BE, amongst other people who are also just there to BE. Of course, there’s still observation and comparison and competition playing in the minds of at least some of us – that’s the mindset too many of us are trained in, and deprogramming yourself doesn’t come easily – but this is important: being naked with all these strangers, you find that trust and acceptance (of them, of yourself) comes much more easily than judgement.

Last year, a friend and I took part in our first World Naked Bike Ride (yep, it’s a thing, and I did it again this year). We spent an hour going back and forth between talking ourselves into it, and giving one another a chance to back out – but finally we gripped hands, took a deep breath, and the next thing we knew, we and a couple hundred of our neighbors were wearing a lot of body paint and few to no clothes, riding our bikes through the streets of our city on a Saturday night to raise awareness for cyclist safety and body positivity. People stopped in their tracks; they left their tables and rushed to restaurant windows; the kitchen staff left dinners on the stove and ran out onto the sidewalk; college girls looked with desperate awkwardness at their phones; twelve-year old boys gawked in grateful amazement. We sang, we danced, we took off more clothes, we made an absolute spectacle of ourselves. We were seen – and photographed, and filmed, and posted – by I-don’t-even-know-how-many passers-by. It was absolutely exhilarating. We almost certainly offended a good many people, and confused a lot of others. But mostly, onlookers were cheering, and laughing, not with derision, but with delight – did they think we were crazy? almost certainly. Did they also kind of admire us for our brazenness? I’m pretty sure they did.

More importantly – I admired us for our bravery. I admired myself, exposed to everything, ashamed of nothing. 

Naked.

Too often, we dress and undress not to protect, adorn, celebrate, or show respect, but to exploit, shame, and police ourselves and one another. Why? Don’t we have better, healthier, kinder things to do? I’d be the first person to point out that there are plenty of very good reasons (weather and chafing, for starters) NOT to take one’s clothes off in public; indeed, sometimes, for some of us, modesty can be the more powerful, radical choice. What matters is that, whether we choose a lot of clothes or few, we get to decide; we get to ignore the disapproving, shaming voices around us, within us, and, instead we can make the conscious, deliberate, terrifying, exuberant choice about how to care for, live in, and love these fabulous bodies of ours. 

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