My relationship with being naked did not start out as boldly as it is now. The perfect example being even claiming to have a relationship with nudity would have mortified me in the past. Now, it just feels natural, kind of like being naked.
When I was in seventh grade, my family and I moved into a nicer neighborhood after my mom remarried my now stepdad. There weren’t just multiple rooms, there were floors, and each room contained a walk in closet. My standard of living was not very high at the time so I was already blown away before I had even seen the backyard. The backyard with a large back porch and an in ground pool, complete with a slide. All of these factors should have set me up for success in making friends in school because who wouldn’t want to be friends with the girl with a pool? There was only one problem- my crippling social anxiety.
I have mentioned in past stories how I have five brothers, five handsome brothers. Which meant I spent most of my angsty pre-teen years lamenting over how cute their friends were and their lack of acknowledgement at my existence. There are few tortures as terrible as knowing your brother’s friends will only see you as an awkward little sister in spite of all of your futile attempts to change their mind.
My bedroom window overlooked the glistening, blue pool in our backyard. I spent hours listening to the laughs of my brothers and their friends, fighting the urge to stare out the window, stalker style. (To be honest, I gave in to that urge many times.) I would even go as far as to step my gangly figure into my one piece swim suit and face my full length mirror. My body was past the point of the acceptable underdevelopment stage, something I had noted in the locker rooms at school. Already girls were snapping each others bras and shimmying into tight pants that hugged their curves. Meanwhile, I changed discreetly in a locked stall hiding my wide shoulders and skinny hips.
Throughout middle school, I was on the swim team and my best stroke was the butterfly. This meant my body was developing but not in the way a pre-teen girl would hope for. My shoulders were gaining muscle and my biceps gained size while my breasts remained the same, flat shape. I thought about all of this as I stood facing my reflection, snapping the top strap of my bathing suit that hugged my neck and loudly advertised the broadness of my shoulders. I took a deep breath and went downstairs to join the boys…after putting a t shirt and shorts on (which never came off even in the pool.)
Swim meets came and went with the loud ring of the buzzer making me forget about the shape of my body for the length of the race. There was just the fast pace of my heartbeat and the quick, swift strokes of my arms cutting through the chlorine filled water. This was the first taste I had of not worrying about what my body looks like, but what it can do. This would last the duration of the competition then I would quickly wrap a towel around my body and dart towards the locker room to change. Then I would be back to square one, staring out of my bedroom window. Even if no one was out, I would watch the water ripple, wishing I was brave enough to bare myself to a little suburban neighborhood long enough to feel the water on my skin.
It took about two years living in that house to discover the pool retained the heat of summer days long into the night. My large family would all retreat to their separate bedrooms and I would slide into my swim suit without glancing in the direction of the mirror. My feet would slowly creep down the stairs, skipping the one creaky step, and I would find my way to the water without any light. I liked to avoid the shallow incline inviting me to ease in and walked instead straight to the deep end. There was no one to see the sharp lines of my body and no one but me to feel the way they cut into the water as I dove straight into the dark abyss of my backyard swimming pool.
These nights gave me the courage to begin swimming with my friends during the day that summer. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my back as we played games and laid out by the side of the pool. These quiet nights with the only sound being my heartbeat in my ears as I snuck out of the house and slipped easily into the water, remained my secret escape.
One of those cool evenings, I looked to the sky to see a full moon lighting my path to the pool. The moon reflected off the water and I felt emboldened by the exposure of the sky. Like any other night, I faced the deep end but this time before jumping in, I removed my swim suit.
With the only eyes on me being the moon, my body faced the water as a strong, silent figure. There were no thoughts of the daily comparisons I made about my body to other girls in my grade going through my head. The chance of being caught in this moment did not cross my mind. Only the euphoria at experiencing something for the first time and the rejoicing in the fact that it was all mine to feel.
My anxiety on exposing my body seemed at first to be focused on others. But in this moment I realized I had never shared my body with myself either. If I did take the time to force myself to look in the mirror, my eyes would work its way down, mentally ticking off things I wish I could change. My nakedness would last the duration of this self criticism then I would quickly conceal myself again, from others and most importantly, from myself.
On this warm night in the summer before my freshman year, I stood facing a distorted mirror in the form of a dark swimming pool. A soundless laugh seemed to escape my mouth at the unexpectedness of my bold act. My shoulders grew and shrank with the ripples and my legs looked long in the light. With my eyes set on the white circle glowing in the center of the pool, I bent down and as if at the ring of a buzzer, I dove in.
At the start of my freshman year, my body began to develop in its own way, ignoring my desire to look like the other girls around me. I was already the youngest in my grade, graduating by age 17, and it showed. I was no longer on the swim team, switching to track and my body changed accordingly. The skinny legs I used to possess grew and gave the impression I had shapely calves through the material of my jeans. By this point I had even obtained a lightly padded bra for my A cups that I secretly boasted with pride in.
I probably spent too much time focused on my self image and if it were possible for self esteem issues to be hereditary, it would have made complete sense. My blonde, blue eyed and beautiful mother had always carried herself with an appearance of self possession and confidence. Her outfits were always well curated with matching accessories and accented her body type perfectly. I looked up to her for the most impressionable years of my life, seeing this but hearing all of the contradicting self doubt she voiced about her appearance.
Like me, she grew up skinny and was casually referred to as a “late bloomer.” (Oh, how I hated that title.) As an adult she paid for something she had always wanted- a breast enlargement surgery. The rest of her body remained much of the same, slim in all parts except for her now large chest. Despite her desire for this change to add to her body and take away from her insecurities, I could tell she still saw herself as the skinny girl in school. My mom was a wonderful person to many people but incredibly hard on herself and at times, really hard on me.
There were days I would watch her for hours prepping herself in the mirror, tweezing this, plumping that. She would tease me about our matching thin lips and I would self consciously bring my fingers to my mouth, not realizing they were considered thin. As she clasped the back of her bra, she would laugh saying I would probably always have small breasts because she had always had double A’s growing up. At this point, my body was not following the direct path hers had. I participated in many sports which added to the roundness in my glutes, strength in my arms, and my breasts had already grown into the B range. I kept all of this under wraps still, feeling the need to hide the changes while feeling a secret pleasure in the growth of my body.
There was one day in particular in high school when I took my normal place on the edge of the bathtub in my mothers large bathroom. I sat perched, watching her apply blush to her cheeks with the precision of an artist stroking a brush across a canvas. She curled her hair and sprayed it into place while I sat, transfixed. Her top looked perfectly fit to me but she kept fiddling with the collar of her blouse. I could see her insecurities swelling up and she made the casual comment, “You’re lucky you’ll always have small breasts, hon because these can be a pain.”
I felt heat rush to my cheeks because at this point I felt more confident in my body and the size of my breasts. But at the drop of these words, my self esteem plummeted and without realizing it, I stood up abruptly. I began removing my hoodie, then my shirt, and finally my bra. I stood, naked from the waist up, tears brimming behind my lids, and said, “Look at me, Mom. I have breasts. If you don’t see that, what if I need to find validation in other people to see it?”
With a mascara wand in her hand, my mother froze with her mouth open. She straightened up to face me and began to apologize profusely for her careless, harmful words. It took me years to forgive my mom for that moment but this experience changed me. As a teenager, the thought of being naked in front of anyone can be intimidating but especially in front of your mom, it seems out of the question. My body had made a statement and changed the course of my path because my mom realized the weight of her words after that day.
As I grew up, I felt more and more comfortable with my body. It was not until I was 21, deeply nestled into the joys of a long term relationship, when that comfort I felt began to wan. My significant other at the time had met me at the gym and we began to work out together. As soon as we had each other locked in however, the work outs lessened then stopped altogether. My body began to change with the tightening of my pants being the first noticeable difference. All of the anxieties I had about my body growing up came rushing back only in a different light.
I was ashamed to wear anything form fitting or even show my upper arms in public. The worst part is when I gain weight, my face is the first thing to round out. My cheeks exclaim as a billboard to the world, “I’m gaining weight!” (Thank you, cheeks.) So my reluctance to be naked grew affecting every part of my life. Our sex life shrank into non existence because of my own self deprecation and the worst part is, I was back to being unable to stand the sight of my own body. My relationship with being naked was broken and with it, my relationship broke too.
After this ended, I realized I had completely ignored my body for months. I returned to the gym, this time wearing more layers, and slowly returned to myself. I lost all of the weight I had gained and after weeks of this process, began to take peeks at my naked self again. Weight lifting in the gym kept me in the mindset of how I looked and the flatness of my stomach was my main priority. It wasn’t until I began climbing that my mind wandered back to that place I had found as an awkward eighth grader, accepting the fullness of what my body could do.
Rock climbing has taken me around the world, placing me not only at the foot of beautiful cliff sides but also at incredible bodies of water. My heart races at the sight of rock, my hands curling in preparation of grabbing onto it. When I see water however, my heart swells with a different type of love. I am now a strong, self possessed woman, the kind I always thought my mother was and the kind I always wanted to be. But seeing water brings me back to knobby knees and gawky elbows. I think of these things still with the shedding of each layer, my steps bringing me closer to the cold embrace of the water.
My bare shoulders stand exposed for the world to see my tan lines from hours of facing a rock wall. They stand wide, shattering the standard image of a feminine body, without any self conscious weight on them. My pants follow revealing a body that has changed throughout the course of years and the relationship with it changing alongside it. There is no six pack stamped onto my stomach but there is a little two pack that pops out as I flex with laughter, jumping into the icy cold water.
My relationship with being naked has fluctuated bringing me to some of the lowest lows and sending me to the highest highs I have ever experienced. It has brought me comfort with myself and acknowledgement of my strengths. My relationships with women have flourished because instead of comparing myself to them, I admire their attributes even if I don’t possess the same ones. My romantic relationships became less strained because I didn’t rely on their positive affirmation to find value in myself. I can see the work I put into my body and feel proud of what it shows. Still, the biggest achievement I obtained in being comfortable with being nude came from my relationship with myself.
Living in a vehicle means I don’t come across many full length mirrors or even the opportunity to fully stand to get dressed even. But I like to think if I can take anything from the awkward, sometimes painful experiences of my youth, it will be to not shy away from my naked reflection. There is something so freeing about stripping down and I spent my school years and then some keeping this freedom from myself. Now I feel I can face my (maybe somewhat unconventional) body and feel a strong sense of pride not through exposing myself to others, but to myself.
It sounds cheesy but there is nothing cheesy about loving yourself. It is a necessary part of our existence and if that means feeling comfortable wearing multiple layers, that’s great. And if it means stripping them all off at the sight of water or in the heat of a hot climbing day, I can say from experience, that’s pretty great too.