Swimming naked: A declaration of independence

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 elizabeth swimming

It's almost Independence Day weekend in the United States and so I am making my own very specific declaration of independence. In  honor of "the personal is political" and in honor of Independence Day (and because I happen to have a very recent photo of me swimming naked near an American Flag) I want to make a simple declaration: I need to be free to swim naked. I dislike the confinement of swimsuits. They cling and bind and besides, other than wet t-shirt contests, why would anyone put on clothes specifically to get them wet? We take off wet clothes! Why put something on to go in the water?

Yet, despite my preference for swimming naked and despite the logic of doing so, at the first opportunity I have had in ages I hesitated. I was on a sailboat at a mooring in the Mystic River and I wondered if the people at the restaurant on the dock, about 500 feet away, would complain that there was a naked girl in the water. I wondered if people on passing boats would complain. I was afraid that I would be told there were rules I was violating. I didn't want a hassle.

Ultimately I did go in the water naked. I stood on the deck, pulled my sundress over my head, and climbed down the swim ladder. I knew that a hassle was unlikely and should it happen it would be worth it. But it got me thinking about why anybody would complain in the first place. And that got me thinking about why there are so few public access places where one can swim naked. 

There are many miles of public beaches in New York. Rockaway. Jones Beach. Fire Island. Only small portions of those are designated as "nude beaches, "  and those designations are unofficial. To make it worse the only portions of beach to which they apply are the farthest from the easiest access points. In New York it is legal for women to be "topless" anywhere men can be topless, so that includes all beaches, but it is not legal to be naked (hence the "nude beaches" are unofficially designated). Still, law is only part of the issue. Public response is the other. I may be legally allowed to be topless and I may enjoy being topless but am I willing to be topless in a place where most people aren't and many will leer or be offended. 

That is where the personal and the political intersect. That is where we decide whether we are willing to endure public scorn to defend our rights under the law or to challenge the law when our rights are not yet protected. I wavered on that sailboat way too long trying to decide about my own willingness to do what I wanted badly to do. I wavered because I felt unsure of my safety and uncertain of my reactions to the unlikely though possible challenge. I hesitated because I wasn't sure that my desire and comfort alone were good enough reasons to break a rule, even an unofficial rule. I was frustrated with myself and even more frustrated by the norms that were holding me back.

And while this discussion of swimsuit norms might seem trivial, it is not. For one thing, people will argue that public beaches cannot be "clothing optional" because of the presence of children, when it is exactly the presence of children that means they should be clothing optional spaces. Children themselves often prefer to be naked (and up to a certain age they are often allowed to be, even in public). What do they learn from seeing older kids and adults preoccupied with covering up? They learn shame or at least a kind of culturally-enforced feeling of impropriety. They learn that bodies are somehow improper and should only be shared privately and only in very circumscribed conditions. They learn that somehow nudity is always sexual and that sexuality needs to be hidden. Why else would women and men at public beaches be expected to cover only those parts of their bodies most associated with sex? Even the smallest bikini covers the nipples. Even the tiniest Speedo covers the penis. Even a g-string provides a small triangle of fabric in the front that covers the mons and the clit.

And somehow, even after years of commitment to social change, activism, and expanding rights and freedoms, back on that sailboat I was clearly being pulled by all the cultural messages I internalized since childhood. It took me way too long to ditch my sundress and slip into the water.

Swimwear is about the norms of class and era. One only has to look at swim suits from different eras to know that these norms are changeable. Swimsuits from the US in the 1920s, the introduction of the bikini, or the recent interest in the burkini - all are evidence that culture shapes what we wear in the water. (Would you believe there was a time when skimpier was patriotic?) 

I do not dispute anybody's right to wear a burkini or a bikini. What I dispute is the limitation on my own right to wear neither. Public beaches should be 'clothing optional' with the option being a real option: wear as much or as little as you like. We should neither be ashamed of our bodies nor of our modesty.  

And I should be allowed to swim naked, simply enjoying the pleasure of water washing over my skin at a public beach if I want.

Happy Independence Day. 


This post is in honor of Bowsprite and Tugster's "Swim Day".  For other Swim Day posts click here

Photo taken in the very cold water off of Noank, CT, last Saturday evening, by my partner Will Van Dorp. We were swimming off of Matt Housekeeper's boat. Thank you Matt for letting us stay the night. Swimming and then sipping wine and eating simple food while warming up, drifting off to sleep while the boat swung at its mooring and the wind chimes of halyards against masts, waking to the coffee you rowed to shore to fetch: these were the most relaxing moments I'd spent in ages.