That first moonlight skinny-dip, lakewater flowing cool as satin over your skin. Sunbathing, shielded by a hedge, in the back yard, bikini top flipped down and rays of sunlight beaming into your heart. Sex outside, awkward and hasty and glorious.
There is a reason that clothes meant punishment for that first biblical couple.
Plumper in middle age, I resolutely ignored my husband’s insistence that he loved seeing me naked. How could he? Dim the lights, for God’s sake. Let me cover my billows with silk.
Finally, just this summer, I decided that sleeping naked felt good, so to hell with whatever he might really be thinking. A strange thing happened. The more often I “paraded around,” as we instinctively say, moving through a lamplit bedroom to find my book or get a drink of water, the more comfortable I became. Not just with being naked in front of my delighted husband, but with my body. After years of feeling trapped by my own desires, utterly devoid of self-discipline in the presence of Camembert or dark chocolate, I relaxed and lost the shame. And then I dropped sixteen pounds barely trying.
It is shame that is addictive.
Talking about this, Andrew and I wonder aloud how often women hide their bodies in these years—ceasing to enjoy their own flesh because it droops or folds—and leave their husbands feeling rebuffed or bemused, wistful for the sensuous ease they once enjoyed with each other. Do men know how vanity and age’s disappointments sting? Do they realize that women are conditioned to the idea that “men are visual” and wives are competing with porn stars? “I see you,” Andrew insists. “Sure, our bodies are different, but that is not what I am focusing on.”
I raise an eyebrow. Young bodies are nearly always prettier, smoother and fresher, and they lend themselves easily to abandon. Is it really possible to look past the havoc wrought by gravity and pastry? Yet I find I no longer care. His delight is contagious. And so I google topless beaches, curious how far this freedom might take me before the permission slip I have issued to myself expires.
I google, and then I yell like Chicken Little: “The beaches are closing!”
One after another, an old list’s sites show up as SHUT DOWN, CLOSED, NUDITY NO LONGER ALLOWED. No more going nekked at Black Bear Camp in Alabama. Chicago police shut down the naked night swims at Oak Street Beach. A Christian family nudist camp near Bloomington was sold. The owner of Missouri’s Show Me Acres retired. All public nudity is illegal in quite a few states, and others have interesting wrinkles. In Vermont, it is illegal to disrobe in public but fine to be naked. In Kansas, nudity is perfectly legal unless it is lewd and lascivious (which must make for riveting judicial deliberations).
Muttering curses at this prudish country that thinks itself so free, I explore European beaches—and find a similar pattern there. I broaden the search, and up pops an Atlantic article titled “Is the Internet Killing the Nude Beach?”
The first example proffered is Denmark, a country so relaxed, people “generally don’t bother hiding under a towel while changing into their swimwear.” This I still find inconceivable—and impressive. But the head of the Danish Naturists reports that the younger generation is much less interested in nude bathing or other (perfectly legal) nude activities. Meanwhile, in France, topless sunbathing reached a nearly 40-year low last year, with similar trends in the U.K., Germany, and Italy.
As you guessed from the Atlantic headline, the likeliest culprit is the internet, though there are surely other variables at play. The author mentions increased awareness of the risk of skin cancer, but how many twentysomethings are that sensible? And we do have sunscreen. Another factor could be the increased public presence of religions that frown upon exposed skin. Or the widely reported decrease of interest in sex, now that it is everywhere, and complicated. Also, though bra-burning was mainly apocryphal, I wonder if the emphasis on liberation made stripping off clothing’s restraints feel like progress in the seventies. Feminism takes a different tack now, and though we only traded girdles for Spanxx, our clothing no longer looms as our captor.
All that said, we are left with a disturbing little statistic: in the eighties, nude beaches were fairly “well-balanced in age and gender,” according to Charles Daney, a writer who should know, having visited nude beaches for four decades. Older participants now outnumber the young, and in Daney’s observation, “the gender ratio has gone from nearly 50-50 to more than 95 percent males in some places.”
That, then, is the second puzzle: why would women shy away from public nudity at a time when they are posting and viewing all sorts of nudity online? Which brings us, at last, to the internet. Mark Storey, a staff writer and consulting editor at Nude & Natural magazine, tells the Atlantic that overexposure to nudity online seems to have made people less comfortable with nudity in real life. We thought airbrushed fashion photographs made us crazy? Now all of us have access to photo-editing tools that can soften, filter, crop, retouch, add a glow, eliminate the dimples in one’s thighs, smooth now-lumpy curves, erase any body hair the razor missed. We are scared to leave home without our filters; scared to do, even in a remote public setting, what we have just done for a virtual audience of millions.
Sun yourself on a nude beach, and someone can easily ignore the traditional ban on photography, whip out a smartphone (from where, I am not sure), and send your flawed, sweaty body around the globe. Use the internet instead, and you control what that virtual audience sees and which of them see it. In this time of paradox, control is what defines our otherwise nonexistent privacy.
The upshot troubles me: commodified for years, women are now commodifying themselves. Instead of stripping off the constraints and expectations, we have ratcheted them up by editing and packaging ourselves for the viewer.
And the beaches stay empty.
This seems a great loss to me. While I have never had the courage to—another telling phrase—“prance around” naked in public, I can imagine how free it would feel. To move through the world naked as the day you were born, casting aside all costume, an emperor unashamed? To be unclothed is to be vulnerable, your flesh unhidden and unprotected; to be comfortable being vulnerable is to relax, easy in your own skin at last.
Just watch a dog run and play with abandon, nothing too tight, nothing chafing or slipping or coming undone. Now watch the same dog shift from joy to misery when you insist on a Halloween costume, a winter sweater, or an Elizabethan cone.
Clarice Lispector once issued “A Challenge for Psychoanalysts”: “I dreamed that a fish took off its clothes and was left naked.” Animals are by definition naked. Desire can be naked. We speak of “the naked truth” for good reason. I think of important glimpses—a therapist friend seeing a colleague’s repeated bruises and gently probing their origin. My mother nudging my mother-in-law at the swimming pool and whispering “That could be melanoma” when she spotted the mole that would kill my father-in-law. We need to show one another our bodies, unadorned and unfiltered, if we are to stay healthy in mind and body. Locker rooms are one of the only places left where we can get a realistic view of what the human body actually looks like, especially as it ages. We need to be able to see ourselves without shame, to move with our heads held high and no attempt to crouch or cover.
Nakedness will always be humbling; it should be. Being naked with someone you love makes you both vulnerable, and if you can protect each other’s vulnerability, there is hope for you. Being naked in a crowd? I have only dreamed it, and the dream was usually a nightmare, the setting a church service. I paid too much attention to the end of Adam and Eve’s story. I forgot that when they were unselfconsciously naked, they were in paradise.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.