It’s become a summer tradition for a nudist to encourage me to switch my bathing suit for a birthday suit. The first time was last year at Hanlan’s Point Beach, the stripped-down portion of the Toronto Island. Though I had swum naked earlier in the day, a man who is basically the beach’s ambassador of nudity approached me and my friend as we were about to leave. He said we really should have felt comfortable shedding our clothes sooner. It made me very uncomfortable.
My next solicitation happened last weekend in Ottawa when a friend and I stumbled upon a secluded inlet on Meech Lake known as “Little Beach.” A man was tanning naked beside a woman in a bathing suit, and another guy who looked north of 60 pulled down his leopard-print Speedo and dove in the water. We looked at each other like “Ah, it’s that kind of joint.” As we were packing up to leave Mr. Leopard Print walked over and encouraged us to check out the many Ontario naturist organizations (to a layman, naturist and nudist are interchangeable). We smiled politely and tried to act like we were in a hurry. He didn’t take the hint.
There’s something off-putting about being evangelized by someone who is naked when you’re fully dressed. But if you can look past the proselytizers, nudist communities might be one of the best places to build self-esteem. Body images issues that keep women (and some men) from joining a nudist community actually dissipate in buck-naked environments.
The idea is counter-intuitive. If you’re insecure about your body, isn’t being naked around others like being a vegan locked in a slaughterhouse? For most of us (and for the record, I’ve never been a nudist group member) these events seem like an ideal breeding ground for insecurity, especially given the fact that almost 100 per cent of women admit to having at least one “I hate my body” moment each day. But while the regular world is obsessed with how nude bodies look, nudists have a different mentality. Rather than aesthetics, they’re are obsessed with how it feels to not wear clothes.
In Ontario, there are are about 16 clubs or resorts where people who want to be naked can swim together, have barbecues or take vacations. During the colder months, the Ottawa Naturists/Naturistes de L’Outaouais (ON/NO) rents out Ottawa-area pools for its 200 members.
Because we’re all a bunch of 13-year-olds, “nudist community” seems synonymous with “orgy.” But the motivation to bare all is a lot more wholesome. The man at Meech Lake said he likes swimming nude because he can dry off naturally and doesn’t have to deal with wet bathing suits (and no matter how prudish you are, swimming naked just feels better. Admit it). Still, the fact that nudism doesn’t appeal to women in particular isn’t surprising.
My Facebook feed is full of stories about women’s bodies being judged – from the bikini-clad Edmonton mother who was taunted for showing stretch marks on a beach to the woman who says Instagram removed her butt-selfie because of her weight (to bolster her case, see the untouched tome of Paulina Gretzky cheek-shots). But nudist communities aren’t concerned with traditional beauty standards. There is no wrong kind of naked.
Being around naturists is actually like the reverse of the nightmare in which you’re standing naked on a stage in front of clothed people. Everybody fits in. All the parts we fetishize become like wallpaper nudists no longer think about. I spoke with a gender transitioned woman who said joining the ON/NO helped her feel accepted as a female. A British woman joined a nudist community after an operation left her with a huge scar on her torso. She told the Daily Mail she went from not being able to undress in front of her husband to being confidently naked around others. Yet as women, surmounting our own insecurities is only half the battle.
We also have men to worry about. When cops and politicians imply that we’re just a too-short-skirt away from rape, that message makes ditching the skirt seem like a bad idea. But nudist communities have us metaphorically covered. Since more men are drawn to nudism, organizations try to balance the gender ratio of members they admit to make women more comfortable. The majority of parks in Quebec do not accept single men and ON/NO created a bylaw that puts them on a waiting list if the male-female ratio exceeds 2:1.
And contrary to popular belief, nudist communities aren’t populated by gawkers and sexual predators. The ON/NO, for example, has a pretty intensive screening system for new members that involves at least four meetings in a mix of clothed and nude settings to make sure no creeper alarm bells go off. If more women knew how safe these communities are, they could reap the body-image benefits of being au naturel around others.
Of course nudism isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for me. But I know this lifestyle doesn’t deserve the stigma it receives. Sure, having naked men convince you to get naked on a beach doesn’t foster a wholesome image. But for most people who go bare, nudism is an escape from society’s scrutiny of their bodies. It certainly sounds a lot better than cutting carbs to fit into that bikini.
Angelina Chapin is the blog editor for Huffington Post Canada.