How can I possibly think about being naked around others, when it’s so difficult to confront my own nudity even when I am by myself?
When I was 5 years old, my mother would take me to our local Jewish Community Center to go swimming. Afterward, we’d rush to the locker room for a hot shower before the cold air became overbearing. Because there were only a couple individual showers, most of the women would wash up in an open, shared area, with only the occasional shower cap on their bodies.
It was the first time I was exposed to so many women’s bodies at once, bare and in all their many shapes and forms. I would see high, small, perky breasts and large, wrinkly, pendulous ones. Breasts with large nipples and others with tiny, dark gumdrop-like nipples. Some legs would be pasty white and smooth, while others seemed to have more hair than my Middle Eastern father. Some women wore soft, withered skin that hung off their bodies like a stretched-out shirt, while others had curves that were round and supple.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but being surrounded by all that nudity in a space where it was accepted—rather than exploited, photoshopped, or sexualized—allowed me to understand what body confidence and comfort looked liked.
It would take me a long time to feel this myself.
Puberty, as they say, is a bitch. Your body changing, fleshing out, sore and achy in new places. Clothes that once fit no longer work. Arms and legs grow faster than the rest of you, throwing your body’s balance off and replacing it with an awkwardness you pray fades quickly away. Not-so-subtle shaming surrounds you if you show too much of your new curves, even as you’re snubbed if you don’t show enough.
A few years after my initial visits to the Y, puberty forces me to look at female bodies in a new, and harsher, light. How can I possibly think about being naked around others, when it’s so difficult to confront my own nudity even when I am by myself?
Flipping through TV, the closest I come to catching nudity is either the scrambled-up naughty movies they show on the “blocked” Cinemax channel or Baywatch, with its bright bathing suits that look like they’re about to give each actress a front wedgie and lifelong yeast infection.
These are the bodies that are held up as perfection. Tan and lithe frame, big and perky breasts, blonde hair, not an ounce of fat in sight. It’s enough to give anyone a body-image complex, let alone a 13-year-old girl whose body feels out of whack, out of place.
I used to dance: tap, jazz, ballet. But that ends when my hips and breasts start spreading. So instead, I play sports. Soccer. But the changing room routine is quick and mostly private. Nobody walks around naked. Instead, we cover up our bodies with a jersey or a towel while we struggle out of our sports bras and into our street clothes. Sure, we talk, we joke. But our eyes are averted, if only in the hopes that others will avert their eyes from our bodies as well.
There is little comfort or empowerment in this faux communal nudity.
Any sense of shame, uncertainty, or fear over my own body rapidly disappears when I become pregnant for the first time in my early 20s. My body begins to feel less like my own, as if it’s on loan to someone else for 10 months. In addition to my unborn child claiming my body as his own, everyone from family to strangers begin to feel a sense of ownership over it. Hands shoot out to caress my belly. The bagger at the grocery store strokes my arm as she asks a number of intrusive questions about my body. I feel naked all the time, despite being completely clothed.
And then, the birth. There’s pain and hormones and I feel like I have to throw up. I do. I’m hot. I can’t wear any clothes. I have no idea who is in the room but it doesn’t matter. I’m naked and unafraid because something big is happening here. I feel feral and animalistic and my nudity makes sense.
This feeling continues during those first few weeks after birth. Postpartum hormones ebb and flow, sparking hot flashes. I want to feel the skin of my baby against my own, so being naked in bed, despite the constant stream of loving guests, feels right. I slowly start to rejoin the world at large, and at my first parenting group am relieved when two other mothers also strip their tops off in a way that says they can’t be bothered to give a fuck beyond getting their baby fed.
It’s not full nudity, but the communal aspect is there and strong and necessary. There’s a kinship in being able to bare our breasts and not care. Our bodies—and breasts specifically—have greater meaning than looking good in a bathing suit for the male gaze.
At this point, you’re running on fumes anyway. Perhaps it’s the haze of no sleep that allows you to be more carefree and empowered about your body.
Now, at 35, I understand it better. When I go to my local Y and use the steam room in the women’s locker room, I appreciate it for more than just some luxurious, pore-opening heat. It’s filled with other naked women, usually over the age of 50, all comfortable in their own bodies, or perhaps, for the time, just focusing on the heat. Some lay down with their eyes closed while others sit and chat, their nakedness only an afterthought, if that.
How did I get to be here, sitting among these other women, bare and visible? I look down at my body, my faded and chipped toenail polish, the silvery stripes of stretch marks that criss-cross my upper thighs, the soft fold to my belly, and the fine hairs that coat my legs, which are peppered with the occasional purple bloom of a bruise, and wonder what my own turning point was. Because despite recognizing the strength and power in those women many years ago in the Jewish Community Center changing room, I wasn’t immediately comfortable in my own skin.
I’m back at the Y’s steam room. My son is older and my body is a bit less supple, less tight. But I am so much happier with it. We’ve been through a lot. The women around me have as well. I don’t know their stories, they don’t share them with me, but I can see, along the lines of their wrinkles and stretch marks, in their scars and bruises, that they run deep. In this wet heat I am able to let it all go. The pressure to look a certain way. The pressure to conform. The pressure to be pure and sexual all at once.
I look around at the other bodies that surround me and sigh in relief. There is a power in being naked, together.
Avital is a freelance writer and professional feminist killjoy. Her work has been featured in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, RH Reality Check, CNN, and more. She writes two weekly columns, “The Mamafesto” and “Ask a Raging Feminist,” for SheKnows.com.
This story first appeared at The Establishment. More from The Establishment: Angela Buron’s Surreal Self-Portraits Reclaim The Female Body; Of Kin And Kidney Transplants: Living As My Sister’s Keeper