Swimming Without A Suit
growing up with a casual attitude about nudity left me uniquely unsuited for middle school locker rooms
It’s the second week of seventh grade, which means that the time for syllabus readings and orientation icebreakers is well and truly over, and that classes are starting for real.
Gym class is a first for me. In elementary school, I took band instead of P.E., learning scales instead of soccer, arias instead of aerobics. I was small for my age and not very athletic, so I was much happier to stay inside with my flute and fellow band geeks.
But in middle school, gym is mandatory for everyone, even the short, slow, and musically inclined. And everyone is required to “dress out” in their gym uniform of plain black athletic pants and a grey t-shirt with the school’s mascot on it.
We file into the locker room, our shoes squeaking on the slick linoleum, two dozen tween girls each clutching an identical armful of cotton and spandex.
This is not the part I’ve been dreading. I know how to change my clothes. I’m rather good at it, having practiced at least once a day for most of my life.
It’s the running and sweating and attempting to make contact with a high velocity sphere that I’m concerned about.
In the locker room, its metal shelves echoing back the chatter of girls all around me, I begin to “dress out.
The first step in changing one’s clothes, is, of course, to remove the ones you are currently wearing.
So I do that.
One thing tween girls are very, very good at is letting each other know when a sacred, secret rule has been broken. Middle schoolers are fluent in a language of glares, gasps, gossip, and giggles that conveys more information than a year’s worth of Miss Manners columns.
In the fluorescent light of the locker room, I immediately become aware that I have done something wrong. Everyone has become very concerned about my apparent willingness to undress, the exposure of my white training bra.
I look around. I see that no one else has removed their shirt entirely. Instead, other girls are putting on their gym shirts over their other clothing, then performing gymnastic maneuvers to pull their shirts off via sleeves and collars. A similar dance allows them to change pants without giving anyone a glimpse of their bare legs or panties.
This confuses me, but under the harsh judgment of my peers, now is not the time to ask clarifying questions. My social survival now rests on my ability to blend in, behaviorally speaking.
Cheeks burning with embarrassment I don’t fully understand, I duck behind an open locker door, shielding myself as I hastily pull on my gym clothes and scurry out onto the blacktop, doing my best to ignore the tittering judgment of my classmates.
Why did this happen? Why was I so unaware of the social taboo about disrobing around one’s peers?
The problem was: I was raised nudist.
My parents are flower children of the hippie movement, outdoorsy and relaxed. We spent much of our summers at a hot springs in the mountains that allows nudity, so I grew up running around wearing as much or as little as I pleased. At home, rules were much the same - bodies were not seen as inappropriate or dirty, and in circumstances where nudity was more comfortable, it was the default state. Since we lived in a very hot climate and had a pool in our backyard, it was normal and natural to swim without a bathing suit or sunbathe and dry off in the nude.
I strongly believe that this is an excellent way to raise children. I was able to see a wide variety of human bodies from a young age, in all sorts of colors, shapes, and gender presentations. This gave me a very healthy body image and an appreciation for the diversity of human experience.
Growing up in a nudist or naturalist context, I learned to respect and appreciate other people and their bodies, as well as my own. I learned that it’s important to care for and attend to my body, which means eating when I’m hungry, wearing sunscreen when I’m outside, and staying in tune with my body’s needs and desires. I knew the right words for my anatomy, felt empowered to ask for help when something hurt or felt bad, and otherwise didn’t worry too much about it all.
Especially in the summers, we just wore what felt good - maybe I wanted something over my shoulders when the direct sun was too much, or grabbed a long sleeved shirt when the evening got cool, or just needed shoes to protect my feet from the rocky ground while hiking without much else on. Clothing was an option, which taught me to figure out what my body needed and how to make the right choices for my own comfort.
It also gave me a very mature, healthy perspective on sexuality. I was never taught that nudity and sexuality were the same thing, and so I was never afraid or ashamed about my body. Since I had seen plenty of people of all genders in the nude, there was no sense of forbidden mystery around that, and I had a basic understanding of how it all worked - which let me make more informed choices around when to explore sexual contact as a young person.
None of this, of course, mattered to the other kids in my gym class, most of whom had been raised in a very different culture. In their families, bodies were very private, and the exposure of your naked or half-dressed body was something to be avoided at all costs. They had learned from mothers and big sisters how to “dress out” without revealing anything, and to appropriately perform agitation if such a reveal happened.
I had none of this training in feminine propriety, and so I became a naked fish, my scales flashing for all the world to see, in a parched landscape of covered-up creatures.
Back home that day, with my bedroom door closed, I practiced the odd contortions I’d witnessed in the locker room. Some girls could even change bras or underwear without getting undressed, shielding their bodies behind leggings and t-shirts while they worked their private magic, arms tucked inside, legs twisting. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I figured out how to shield myself enough while still getting changed in a reasonable amount of time.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to balance the two parts of me. There’s my inner nudist, who thinks comfort should be paramount, and doesn’t understand why things like changing clothes or going swimming have to carry so much moral and social risk. Then there’s the part of me who wants to be polite and fit in, and understands that many people are uncomfortable with casual nudity.
Now that I’m an adult, I get to set the culture around me a bit more, by choosing who I surround myself with and how I behave. Body image, sexuality, shame, nudity - these are huge issues, and they’re very sensitive for most people, especially women. These are my guiding principles:
Zero shame policy: I never say or do anything that indicates shame about my body or intends to shame another person’s body. I am not interested in describing any body part as a “problem area” or attempting to hide or change the look of my body with clothing, dieting, or anything else.
Be a safe person: Because I don’t have many hangups about bodies or nudity, I can model confidence, curiosity, and comfort around these topics. I am unapologetic about enjoying the pleasures of my body, from food to sensuality, and try to make space for other people to do the same. Sometimes, setting an example or making a gentle suggestion frees other people to go nude!
Prioritize comfort: I don’t put up with nonsense that doesn’t feel good. If I’m swimming somewhere that requires a bathing suit, I know I won’t be comfortable if I’m worried about clingy bikini bottom wedgies or a “nip slip,” so I just wear a sports bra and athletic shorts that let me run, jump, dive, and splash without worry.
My house, my rules: My body is my own, and I don’t let other people dictate what I do with it. If someone has a problem with how I care for and carry my body, they don’t need to be in my life. I choose friends, partners, and even workplaces with my health and comfort in mind.
When in Rome, be polite: I don’t think that pressuring other people to adopt my outlook on nudity is useful or helpful. There are plenty of places where me going nude, topless, or braless would make other people uncomfortable, and I know when to choose my battles. I get to set the standards for my own home and life, but as a member of a shared society, I behave with respect.
Would any of these mantras have helped my 7th grade self avoid that moment of social shock? Perhaps. I might have felt brave enough to “be a safe space” and demonstrate that it’s actually okay to just change t-shirts without shame or fear. Or, I might have been able to make a more informed choice and simply “go along to get along.”
My parents did everything they could to raise me with a healthy, well rounded understanding of bodies - and for the most part, they succeeded! But perhaps, before sending me into the shark infested waters of adolescent girlhood, we could have gone swimsuit shopping.