How Getting Naked in Front of Strangers Made Me Feel Good About My Body

Until one is faced with a row of breasts as an army of butts stares back, it’s easy to imagine everyone else is like Barbie and Ken — smooth, proportional, free of hair.

The following story first appeared on  Thought Catalog. 

It was a Saturday night when I found myself riverside at a bright and raging bonfire.

On a folding table, bottles of liquor stood arranged like bowling pins, their dubious quality advertised by names beginning with “grand-dad” or “uncle” and ending in “pride” or “gentleman.”

Watching trees become flame and beer become courage, I wiggled my toes in the sand and took inventory of the people sliding past me. Friends, acquaintances. A 30-something bearded stranger with a fanny pack. This was a party straight out of a Van Wilder movie.

People-watching like a kid in a candy store, I perched myself dockside as my phone buzzed inside my bag. I’d been rifling through the abyss when I noticed several breasts and penises had entered what an elementary school teacher might call “my personal space bubble.” The glow of the fire created a timeless and primal atmosphere — one in which the genitalia could have easily belonged to cavemen, and the chests to subjects of National Geographic photo subjects.

A mixture of legs and arms now joined them as my focus shifted to count buttcheeks and thighs. Liquid courage and group-think had mixed perfectly, resulting in a spicy soup of crossed boundaries. As if spurred by a tribal ritual, bizarre magic was happening in the best of ways.

The naked, I realized, now outnumbered their clothed counterparts. They mingled by the water and passed logs to revive the blaze, encountering and engaging those who’d yet to strip.

“Take off your clothes!” yelled the bearded stranger, as I feigned deafness and a sudden interest in the rocks at my feet.

“Nah, that’s okay” I thought to myself, “not me. My boobs are different sizes and everyone would be grossed out.”

Every body-related worry rushed through my head at top speed as I thumbed the button of my shorts and fingered my shirt. Butt wiggle, thigh scar. The boob situation.

I’m a girl. More importantly, I’m human. What’s clear to me in retrospect?  I’ve wasted enough of my 22 years hosting various levels of self-loathing — pinching and staring and counting. I’ve lost and gained, changed and stayed the same, feeling infinite ways about what I see in the mirror.

“Maybe he’d like me if I looked like her,” has resounded in my mind as ruthless comparison infected me by way of magazines and yogurt commercials. Self control. Size 4. Size 6. No matter how small, the critiques have resonated more loudly than the grandest of compliments.

Flaws are inherent, inescapable and – most importantly – subjective. In an environment of pants and shirts, nude bodies are like oxygen: imperceivable yet inescapable, everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Layers of clothes and of self-doubt separate us from exposure. Until one is faced with a row of breasts as an army of butts stares back, it’s easy to imagine everyone else is like Barbie and Ken — smooth, proportional, free of hair. It’s easy to believe the fear is yours alone.

Bearing my naked self is an act I usually reserve only for those I trust or my shower walls. But publicly stripping down, an idea that was first absurd, felt less and less so with each passing minute and each dropping pair of underwear.

And suddenly, in a sea of private parts that had become anything but, I realized I just didn’t care. Seeing real nudity, not airbrushed in magazines or plastered on billboards, reminds one of a simple fact: human bodies are inherently sort of silly looking. We have parts that bounce when we want them to stay put and other parts we wish were larger or smaller or smoother. We waste time thinking about what we can’t change.

So off came the shirt. Off came the shorts. And a funny thing happened: nothing. Nobody laughed and nobody stared. That quick and painless moment was a liberating page in the body-pride struggle I’ve been writing since my first training bra. I’m not perfect, but with time comes the true realization of universal imperfection.

When I was maybe 12 years old, my dad sat me down and looked me dead in the eyes. “Did you know that what you see in the mirror is ten times more critical than what what the rest of us see?” he asked.  I shook my head, already mired in an awkward preteen body and convinced of my lack of appeal. “Well, it’s true.”

I could worry or I could embrace, and after ten more years of fighting with the body I was born in, I stood. I stood there near a marsh with all my honesty and everyone else’s to keep it company, and then I jumped into the water screaming.

Call it random debauchery — because, in part, it was — but it was also much more. Rarely do I wake from a night of questionable antics and thank myself for what I’ve done. But in the morning I watched the sun rise high over the glowing embers and optimistically replaced my garb as a startled hippie scampered from the underbrush.

In a society of Dexatrim ads and a self-tanned ideal, confidence is a sweet and satisfying catch. In my daily life I’ll have less beer and sport more clothes, but the naked attitude? I hope to bare it for good.