Earlier this month, I visited a nude beach for the first time. While I was initially shocked to see so many naked bodies, I became less so as I made my way across the rocky surface and passed more and more and more of them. Finally finding a smooth slab of rock both close to the sea and a comfortable distance from others, I stopped to set down my things. There, I pushed past my nerves and disrobed as quickly as possible, finding, to my surprise, an instantaneous feeling of freedom.
I felt no shame or concern about how my stomach lay against my swimsuit bottoms; there was no need to re-arrange my breasts into their respective cups when getting out of the water. I felt only the comfort of warm rock against my skin; amusement at needing to rub sunblock on my bare bottom; contentment in the freedom of this new experience.
No one stared or pointed or laughed. In fact, there appeared to be an utter lack of concern among my fellow beachgoers for anyone else’s nude body. I quickly developed the sense that we shared a mutual respect and appreciation for the freedom offered by this place for us to enjoy the natural state of our bodies in the world. Only once did I notice a man snorkeling obnoxiously close to me; he left me alone after I yelled at him and climbed out of the water. I forgot about him shortly after.
Late in the afternoon as the tides changed, I walked further down the coast in search of an area where the water was less turbulent and safer to swim. Turning a corner, I found the sea to be calmer. An old man was already there, floating on his back. He braced his feet against the rocks, kicked off with force to soar through the water, floated peacefully for a few moments, then swam back to shore to start all over again. At one point while close to the crag, he called up to me, “Live a life of pleasure!”
I was amused by this intense proclamation from an old person clearly enjoying life, and decided to heed his advice. I jumped into the water and marveled at the absurdity of the situation: an old man and me, both naked, frolicking in the sea. Briefly, I questioned its appropriateness. But after a few moments of swimming around, I realized that the only thing absurd about the situation was the social conditioning that led me to judge it in the first place. Conditioning that teaches us that naked bodies are inherently sexual. That there is something presumptive about a man and a woman being nude in close proximity. Never did the old man come within an uncomfortable distance, and never did he waiver in the enjoyment of his play. I fully believe that when calling up to me on shore, his only intention was to encourage me to embrace this opportunity to feel free. The fun I had kicking off of those rocks was pure; the experience of doing so nude felt natural. I giggled at the freedom of moving my body through the water as I hadn’t since I was a child; I relished in the joy of experiencing absolute, genuine pleasure.
That evening at dinner, a few new friends I made at the beach asked about my relationship with the man who had been snorkeling. When I confirmed I did not know him, they apologized for not stepping in when he had been following me; they only refrained out of an assumption that we knew each other. They then shared that he had been carrying an underwater camera. I became instantly, physically sick to my stomach with the realization that this seemingly perfect day, during which I had felt safe and pure and free, had also been a day in which I had been violated.
There is no knowing what images of my naked body this stranger has, or if my face is also visible in any of them. I cannot know what he intends to do or has already done with these photos, and I have no recourse for this stranger’s violation of my body. Of me.
In an instant, I was reminded that for many of us, living a life, or even a few moments, of pleasure, is an act of resistance. People in female bodies, in gender non-conforming bodies, in bodies of color, in aging bodies, in disabled bodies, in bodies that are “different,” face external forces that violate, consume, judge and police our bodies. Forces so strong we internalize them and spend our precious energy judging and policing and trying to change our own bodies, ourselves, so that we may be accepted. So that we may feel safe.
To reach beyond comfort and safety and seek a life of pleasure? For that we must be brave. We must resist forces that deem some bodies more worthy of pleasure than others. We must decide that we, too, are worthy of pleasure and seek it for ourselves without shame.
Yes, my body, my person, was violated that day while nude at the beach. But it has also been violated while fully clothed; when it has been fat and when it has been thin; in public and in the homes of people I thought were my friends. I have spent a lifetime of energy thinking about my body in terms of how I might make it less noticeable to the world. How I might make it—make me—safer. But nothing I have done has accomplished this feat. Unfortunately, nothing I do on my own will. This plague is not a disease of my body, but a sickness of our society.
What I now understand as a result of this experience is that we can combat this illness by loving our bodies, ourselves, without shame. To believe and demonstrate that we, too, deserve to live lives full of joy and pleasure. I will no longer police my body to make it more palatable for others. It is a never-winning game.
I will instead be thankful for my thick thighs and my sometimes-soft tummy and my hands that are already starting to wrinkle. I will be unashamed about the love I feel for my biceps and my sometimes-firm, toned tummy and my thick, often unruly hair. I will feed my body nutritious food and lift heavy things and bike for miles because I deserve and enjoy to feel healthy and strong. And I will feed my body rich, decadent food and spend warm summer evenings in a hammock between two trees because I also deserve and enjoy to feel contentment and pleasure. No longer will I succumb to guilt for the ways in which I choose to experience this body that gives me life. It is mine to fully inhabit and enjoy.
I must also acknowledge the false beliefs I hold about the bodies of others, and the ways in which I too contribute to their violation. I must not judge anyone for their thick thighs or sometimes-soft tummies or already wrinkled hands. I must not judge bodies different from my own, or choices others make in their search for joy and pleasure. And I must, we must, also confront people we witness harming the bodies of others. What violation of my body, of me, might have been prevented had someone intervened when they noticed a man swimming too close? When their intuition told them that something was very wrong? Perhaps they could have prevented him from taking photos of my naked body without my knowledge or consent; perhaps they could have prevented their dissemination, preventing further violation of my body, of me.
We cannot enjoy true freedom in our bodies, our lives, without being good stewards of the rights of others to do the same. The purity of joy I felt at the nude beach was due not only to the physical feeling of being unencumbered, but to the permission granted by those around me relishing in the glory of their own bodies, that I may do the same. We were in communion with one another and with the world that day. We were powerful. We created and held space for one another and for ourselves to fully be free.
My hope is that through the unabashed pursuit of our own pleasure, the relentless love of our own bodies, our lives, we may support others in doing the same. That this love will be powerful enough to sustain us in creating and holding space much bigger than just one beach, that it will support us in transforming society.
My hope is that together we will create a culture in which it is no longer permissible to deny anyone their bodily autonomy; in which we no longer promote or elect people to positions of power who have violated the bodies of others. My hope is that through this grassroots movement to achieve bodily self sovereignty, we will create a society in which we are all free to enjoy our bodies and gleefully pursue lives full of happiness and of pleasure.
Top photo courtesy the author
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Lindsay Combs is a hell-bent, feminist she-devil and urban professional