No togs, no problem, if you pick your beach right. Why New Zealand needs to get over ourselves when it comes to our attitudes towards nudity – and why a nude beach is a great place to start.
I was trying to explain to my husband the point of a nude beach when two strangers came out of nowhere to perfectly prove my point. Here I was, mid boring feminist lecture about the importance of safe spaces for naked bodies, when the entire thing played out in front of us: a very happy, completely naked woman ran past us on the nude beach, intersecting with a fully dressed couple walking the other way. Dressed Woman spied Naked Running Woman and let an out an overjoyed “FUCK, I love this beach”.
Public nudity is very much fine in some countries and very much not in others, and NZ sits somewhere on the prudish end of things, it’s fair to say. But it’s only once you’ve discovered the freedom of a skinny dip, particularly one not done in secret, when you realise how totally intoxicating it is to do something so unexpected in broad daylight. I first discovered one of Auckland’s resident nude beaches in 2018 – my own personal pandemic year – when my similarly heartbroken friend and I were looking for a place to swim and cry in private. Two former male flatmates of mine had once suggested this beach, but we’d never made it a group trip because… that did not feel like the right environment to get my tits out, frankly. But this? The good part about being heartbroken is that your expectations for the world are already so low, it makes trying new things far more approachable. So, slowly, we tested the waters, so to speak.
When you grow up in an overtly feminine-looking body, you are extremely aware of the social switch when people stop looking at you like a child and start looking at you like a young adult. The male gaze begins, and it never leaves. I can remember the hot, burning terror that coursed through me for every single social outing from the age of about 12, where, because I was tall and developed young, I was treated like a teenage girl, even though I definitely still felt like a kid. My school uniform helped, in that it featured a pinafore, a bowler hat and a shirt and tie, so I looked less like a young woman and more like a studious Victorian ghost. But in the weekends, it was anyone’s game and my growing body felt like public property.
In Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, she writes about having a conversation with other women that revolved around when they knew they had become young women and weren’t children any more. For every single woman, it was when men started yelling out their car windows at them. This is a universally shit experience and probably how many of you first discovered you were growing up as well – and that how you looked was very different to how you felt. Outfits you’d always worn become inappropriate, because the flesh within them was now bigger and therefore more sexualised than it was before. There was no freedom of just wearing – or not wearing – anything you liked, because the rules of the world dictated that not only was your body not okay, it also wasn’t safe. Once you get past a certain age, the female body becomes, for various reasons, a problem that needs to be concealed.
It was in Iran, of all places, that I experienced the most public nudity of my life and the freedom that comes with it. Yes, Iran of the mandated headscarves and loose layers for females. At an all-women hammam spa, myself and 12 other Kiwi women realised all at the same time that when the spa hosts told us to ‘take off all your clothes and put them in the lockers’, they really meant all our clothes.
In that shared experience you get when a group wordlessly reaches the consensus of ‘I guess we’re doing this?’, we all took every item of clothing off and awkwardly shuffled into the communal spa area, where we were each to be washed and scrubbed in the big open plan room. The ages in that room ranged from 25 to 75 and initially, we were all attempting to hide our boobs/bits with the only things we had – a measly flannel that could cover one thing but not the other (a nudity Sophie’s Choice, if you will). But it was only after being laid down on the floor and covered in bubbles (it sounds more porny that it was) that we all just kind of… got over ourselves and were free to rest/nap on the warm marble, all oiled up, like well-seasoned steaks.
The thing is, we don’t see a lot of normal-looking nudity in our normal lives and that’s a shame. The naked bodies we do see in pop culture are mostly designed to be admired or sexualised; there’s no real time when you get to see average, run-of-the-mill looking boobs and butts, en masse, just living their lives out in the world. And I think that’s a real shame. Maybe we wouldn’t still have such a weird ‘get your beach body ready’ culture if we got to see all of the bodies, all of the time.
Since this is yet another locked-down New Zealand summer, we can’t have some of the new experiences we might be looking for in a different year. But maybe trying a nude beach is a way to get that sliver of ‘something new’, a little bit of freedom, a little bit of change. When was the last time you felt totally free and un-judged in your body? Maybe it’s been a really, really long time. Maybe this is the summer you change that. Just pick your beach carefully and, for the absolute love of god, pack your sunscreen so you don’t fry your nips off.
(‘Is she seriously suggesting I try going nude this summer as a way to try something new?’ you might be wondering to yourself. Yes, I am! Tourism NZ, feel free to borrow this for your next marketing strategy.)