Ever been curious about nudism? Maisie Nhao braves the beach naked for the first time, and explains why you should, too.
I like being naked. Who doesn’t? From the relief of taking your bra off after a long day, to the feeling of warm water running over your puku in the shower, there’s an innate sense of freedom and joy that comes with being starkers.
But there’s also a heavy dose of shame and stigma. Ever since I developed boobies at the tender age of nine, I became painfully aware of the need to censor my body. My mum would tut over my clothes, buttoning buttons, pulling skirts down and yelling at me for wearing crop tops. Don’t even get me started on the muscle-tee trend of the mid-2010s. This message was reinforced everywhere. From Tip Top’s togs, togs, togs, undies campaign; to school dress codes; to the adult world of “professional dress”; it seemed the whole world was saying the same thing: your naked body is unacceptable.
But in the midst of all the social stigma around nudity and bodies, there remains a small oasis: naturism. Or, as it’s more commonly known, nudism. Predominantly associated with the hippie movement of the 60s, naturism in its modern form began in New Zealand in the 1930s. It’s defined by the International Naturist Federation as “a way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity, with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment”.
It sounded good to me. Growing up, I’d always wondered why nudity was such a big deal. We all have bodies, don’t we? The only time I’d been naked in public was in the women’s changing rooms at the pool. It was drama and fuss-free, with people simply going about their business. I wished bodies were treated that way everywhere. I wondered if naturism could provide what I was looking for.
There’s a number of nude beaches in and around Auckland, with Ladies Bay being one of the most popular and well known. So on a sunny Wednesday in December, I recruited my oldest friend to have a go.
Ladies Bay is a small, hidden beach near St Heliers, with a steep walkway from the road to the water. On the way down, a number of Auckland Council plaques declared “CAUTION: past this point you may encounter nude bathers”. It didn’t help much with the nerves as we picked our way toward the sand.
The first people we saw were clothed: two young women in bathing suits by the shallows. Further along, there were more people lounging around partially – and some fully – nude. The two women left pretty soon after we arrived, and my friend and I realised that we may have been the only two women on the beach.
But as we went along, our self-consciousness began to dissipate. A few others glanced our way, and then quickly went back to minding their own business. We picked a spot around the middle of the beach, and settled in with our books, tanning in our bikinis (don’t worry, we were well sun-blocked and partially in the shade). In five minutes, I was comfortable enough to go topless. My friend followed suit. Another glance confirmed no one cared, so I took a deep breath and committed. Full. Honky. As I took my bottoms off, a gentle breeze rippled through the trees, and I felt a deep sense of happiness and peace. For a moment nothing else mattered – it was just me, naked and unashamed.
It sounds dramatic, but in reality no one batted an eye. It’s counterintuitive that a beach populated by naked, older, mostly Pākehā men would be a comfortable environment for two young-dumb, twenty-something women of colour, but it was. Weirdly, the age gap made me more comfortable. These men had probably been practising naturism for longer than I’d been alive. A couple of naked women was nothing new or exciting for them.
My friend took a little longer than me, but she quietly got into her birthday suit too. Maybe it was a function of how long we’d been pals, sharing changing rooms through our awkward teen years, but after a while it was no longer a novelty that we were both nude. It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of it – we just weren’t embarrassed. We discussed the new sensation of the wind on our bits, and the books we were reading. For some, being naked around your mates may sound like a waking nightmare, but I was glad of her company. After all, without her I would’ve been a lone woman on a nudist beach.
We braved a dip, in full view of the sunbathers. There were a few others in the water, but everyone kept a respectful distance. One man yelled across, “water’s nice, isn’t it?” My friend and I experienced a brief surge of anxiety, but then the man calmly turned around and swam back onto the beach. And he was right, the water was nice. We even ventured around the corner and encountered another bay of fully clothed patrons, but none of them seemed surprised or offended. That’s in line with a 2008 poll that found almost a third of New Zealanders weren’t fussed about nudity on the beach.
It was a strange experience. As young wāhine, my friend and I are used to being on edge even in fully clothed environments. In fact, immediately after the nude beach experience, my flatmates and I went to dinner – fully dressed in pants, heels and blouses – and were promptly harassed by a car full of dudes. By contrast, the clothes-free environment of the beach, and of the naturism movement, came with an explicit culture of respect and consent.
The only beach-goer that raised our eyebrows was a younger man sunbathing next to us. He stared a bit, and when we left the beach we discovered he’d tucked a note under the windscreen wiper of my car. My friend and I laughed, but on reflection it was one of the more respectful ways we’ve been approached. No harassment, no intimidation, no coercion, just a name, a number and an invitation to “chat” (though he didn’t specify which one of us he was interested in… suss). And if you’re reading this, Thomas, maybe don’t stare at women in public, OK?
As a thin, able-bodied, cis-woman, I’ve had the privilege of being relatively OK with my body my entire life. Most of the bodies I saw represented in film, TV and print more or less looked like mine. But the power of seeing bodily diversity (though not demographic diversity) on the beach wasn’t lost on me. My body wasn’t privileged in this space. It also wasn’t sexualised, or demonised. On the beach, bodies were bodies were bodies. And a small number of cross-sectional and experimental studies have shown a correlation between increased self-esteem and social nudity.
Another paper, which focused on women in naturalism, found that “much of the sense of achievement and confidence [for women] lies… in confronting social taboos and overcoming them”. Being naked on a beach was a big “fuck you” to every institution and person who’s sexualised me against my will. It was a confirmation that the issue wasn’t with my body – it was with the attitudes of those perceiving me.
Although my experience with naturism has been positive, it’s hard to ignore the lack of women and people of colour in these communities. In Australasia, Pākehā have been able to increase the social acceptance of nudity, even though indigenous populations have been characterised as “savage” for that same pre-colonial practice. The movement also has a long way to go, as the real effects of race, class and gender are largely ignored in favour of creating an idealised “free” and “equal” space.
But it’s 2022 now. If you’re looking for a new experience for a new year this summer, and especially if you’re a woman, gender diverse, or a person of colour, I think the time is ripe for a resurgence of nudism. Given the recent social discourses of body neutrality, degendering and decolonising, naturalism and nudism could be an ideal space to action that change in Aotearoa.
As we drove away, my friend and I excitedly discussed which beach we would go to next, and who else we could rope in. Apparently Pōhutukawa Bay on the North Shore and Little Palm Beach on Waiheke Island are good spots. This summer, we plan on claiming naturalism for the girls, gays, theys and POC. Maybe you could come join us.