Last July, caught up in the spirit of summer, I decided to do something I’d never done before. I gathered up a few friends, packed a towel but not a bathing suit, and headed to Hanlan’s Point, Toronto’s nude beach.
I was pretty nervous. Would it be weird free-nippin’ it around old friends? Would I feel insecure and spend the whole time comparing my body to the hippie regulars? Were my pubes too bushy, or not bushy enough?? On the ferry ride to the beach (it’s on an island, no big deal) I worked myself into a veritable frenzy of insecure questions and paranoid fantasies about naked disasters. But, with visions of sunburned sideboob dancing in my head, I pressed on.
When we arrived at the beach, something odd happened: it was just a beach. The sand was hot between my toes and the water lapped against the shore. People shook out towels and set up picnic lunches, soaked up the sun or hid under umbrellas. They were just. . . naked. I had expected to find it disorienting, or odd, or even somewhat titillating to be in the presence of all that naked flesh, but my day at the beach was none of those things. It was just a warm afternoon in a space where no one had to worry about tan lines.
I felt ridiculous for fearing there was a “correct” way to look at this beach that I might be deviating from. Separated from the context of clothes, comparison was impossible: no two naked breasts or sunkissed butts were at all alike. In this oasis away from the constant bombardment of images of the single, edited Ideal Body (thin, white, busty) we’re all familiar with, the falsity of that ideal was laid as bare as the other loungers at Hanlan’s. The entire premise of a “beach body” felt insane: trying to figure out who looked “the best” on this beach would be as useless as trying to figure out which was a better grain of sand. Without a bikini, there was no “bikini body.” Without underwear or bras, none of the sexualized demi-nudity we see in lingerie ads, films, and on television, everyone just looked like a person.
In her essay “In Praise of Women’s Bodies,” Gloria Steinem writes about her time spent at an old-fashioned spa, where, she knew, she would end up spending a lot of time nude in the company of other women. Leading up to her sojourn there, her fears were similar to mine. “But now,” she says, “I know. I know that fat or thin, mature or not, our bodies wouldn’t give us such unease if we learned their place in the rainbow spectrum of women.” For Steinem, the experience provided “a realization of the beauty of women’s bodies on their own terms,” and a “simple, visceral consciousness-raising that was just as crucial as the verbal kind… without the visual references [of the media’s Ideal], each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms. We stop being comparatives. We begin to be unique.”
Steinem’s essay goes on to champion this kind of shared nudity—one, she points out, men experience in locker rooms and gyms without much ado—as a reminder that there is nothing inherently sexual about the exposed female body, and that to divorce it from that context is to free it from patriarchal expectation.
As my group of friends and I lumbered home that day, tired from the sun and some poorly mixed sangria we’d brought in a juice container, we began discussing something Steinem also notices in her essay: there aren’t many spaces for women to see each other—or the world—in this way. While campaigns for more diverse body types in ads and other media can be helpful and are certainly well-meaning, the truth is that no plus-sized issue of a magazine or smilingly diverse Benetton ad has expressed the true individualism of the human body to me as quickly and as intensely as whipping off my bikini top at a beach full of other naked people. To experience, very literally in the flesh, difference as a unifying force was rare, and felt special. Plus, I got a few cute freckles on my butt.
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