I confronted public nudity for the first time when I was 13, spending three weeks at a sleepaway camp in Yosemite. I mindlessly walked into the women’s bathroom and was immediately greeted with a posse of naked bodies. I was startled by the sudden, forced intimacy and I simply didn’t know where to look. The shower room consisted of one large room with multiple shower heads and a very apparent lack of curtains or doors dividing the space. Both counselors and campers filed in to start showering — completely naked, reaching over one another to borrow shampoo, listening to a speaker blasting early 2000s throwbacks.
I was terrified. There I was, at the height of my awkward pubescent era, with hair growing in places I didn’t know it could. Yet I strangely felt more uncomfortable with the fact that there I stood, fully clothed in a bathing suit, while everyone else went about freely exposing their bodies. I slowly removed my clothes and stepped into the scary space of confidence that felt so unfamiliar to me.
This moment transformed the way I felt about my body. I looked around at staff members who didn’t cringe or hide at the sight of cellulite and hairy legs. I saw boobs that were different sizes and full bushes next to bikini waxes. I noticed that the counselors who I had idolized and imitated as a camper did not have the so-called “perfect body,” and instead had physical flaws, both similar and different from the ones I myself had obsessed over for years. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a pubescent freak, but instead like a normal human being with a body like everyone else’s.
Now, when people hear that I take three months out of the year to work at this same summer camp as a counselor, nudity wouldn’t be the first image that comes to their minds. Most likely they conjure up an idea of me making friendship bracelets, braiding campers’ hair and tie-dying an old white T-shirt. They would be surprised to imagine me, calm as can be, surrounded by naked friends at a river, body parts hung about openly.
Going from summer camp to nudity seems like a bit of a leap, so let me provide some context. This camp is a natural paradise. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park, the property is filled with tall Ponderosa pines and brightly colored wildflowers. But what makes the property so unique is the river that flows through it: the wild and scenic Tuolumne River winds its way through the property, its refreshing waters providing refuge against the hot California sun. A common pastime for staff and campers is to hike down to the river, take a dip in the water and find a sunny rock to nap on. The catch is, the staff do it naked.
When I entered my first year on staff, recently having completed my freshman year of college, I heard talk about skinny dipping at the river. I was anxious. What if people looked at my body in a way that made me uncomfortable? What if I had just inhaled a burrito and was feeling bloated and insecure? What if I was the culprit of looking at someone’s body with judgmental eyes? I was reminded of the moment when 13-year-old me contemplated taking the brave step into the group shower.
Again, I decided to take the leap — quite literally as I jumped off a rock into the cool, clear water of the Tuolumne. Being naked somehow felt like a superpower. I was deeply connected to the nature around me, the hot air wrapping its arms around my bare body. My naked skin, not divided by the barrier of a swimsuit, was cleansed and cooled down by the rush of the water. My feet felt the groove of the rocks and the sand pushed itself through each one of my toes. I was as connected to nature as humanly possible, totally enabled by lack of clothing.
Initially, participating in this co-ed skinning dipping was incredibly jarring. Seeing my co-workers strip down to their birthday suits and jump into the water was astounding. By the end of my first week on staff, I had seen practically half of the community entirely, utterly naked — including my best friends, my supervisors, my crushes.
But the fears that I had contemplated before my first time engaging in co-ed nudity were not realized once the moment came. I didn’t feel any unwanted, lingering gazes and the crippling awkwardness of returning to work after seeing my co-workers’ body parts in full never came. If anything, I felt closer to everyone. We had all shared something intimate and vulnerable with each other. Exposing our bodies was the ultimate show of trust, and it happened to include the bonus of spending quality time in a sparkling river.
I realized that skinny dipping, experiencing nudity outside of a sexual context, normalized naked bodies as something natural and universal. While some people might gawk at this article and find this story to be inappropriate, I would like to urge those thinkers to look a little deeper.
Because nudity is taboo and usually associated with things like sex and intimacy, it perpetuates an idea that our bodies in their open and natural forms are private and in need of concealment. Therefore, I am suggesting a shift in the social psyche, changing how we view each other and creating more respect for bodies in general. In our current political climate, “bodies” are charged with polarization and controversy. Egged on with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the power to have agency and ownership over one’s body seems to be slipping away … quickly.
If my time at camp has taught me anything, it’s that bodies are so much less threatening when they have been liberated. In my case, this liberation was literal and physical. Liberation from our clothes lets us see one another as human beings, grounding us in our inherent similarities over superficial differences. I am calling for a metaphorical liberation: one where bodies are less of a commodity, less of something to be traded, argued over and controlled, and instead return the power back to the person who inhabits it.
Instead of thinking of the naked body as something to protect and then conquer sexually, our bodies should just be bodies. We all have them. They may look a little different here and there, and we should find comfort in that. Bodies are a common denominator for all of humanity.
My experience being naked in the community grounds the way I think of differences between people. Whether in a river or in a courtroom, we are all just flesh and blood, after all.
As a camper, I always knew there was a culture of body positivity. In addition to the group shower, we had activities like body painting and there was never any dress code on what was acceptable for staff or campers to wear. Going braless was the norm, and I never heard criticisms about someone’s shorts being too short. This openness around bodies was subtly ingrained in our youthful minds: our bodies were something to accept and celebrate, not cover in shame.
But, of course, campers were never encouraged to skinny dip. Not until I entered my first year of staff, recently having completed my freshman year of college and excited to ground myself in the sunny community that I loved so much as a young teen, did I realize how deep the “love your body” sentiment ran.
Statement Columnist Ella Kopelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.