The hot sand was strewn with body parts. There were breasts by the acre, genitals for miles. Whether they were large or small, shaven or shaggy, wrinkled or smooth, tattooed, pierced or unadorned, all were perfectly tanned. I wish I could say I threw off my clothes and joined them but, at the age of 13 and on a family holiday to Spain, it was out of the question. Instead I looked on with a mixture of excitement, shame and envy. Who knew people could be so free?
For an awkward teen – suffering from the intense body anxiety which seems to afflict most adolescents – that experience in Spain was strangely reassuring. You can have lumps and rolls, be generously proportioned or modestly sized, look as weird as you like: none of it really matters. Nobody is perfect and so, in a sense, we all are.
But it wasn’t until many years later that I began to act on this revelation. At first far from the public eye: a deserted bay at sunset, or a hot spring hidden away on the side of an Icelandic volcano. Then, during a rare heatwave at a popular seaside spot in my partner’s native Sweden, the prospect of an all-over tan proved too tempting.
My partner can’t understand what the fuss is about. Having grown up in a culture of mixed-sex saunas, social nudity is natural to her. The next time we went away, it was easy: bright sun, dark Croatian wine and a dip in the sea unencumbered by clothes. It’s not something that’s easily imported, however. On a beach in Cornwall, she was shocked when she emerged from the water to be confronted by a furious mother: “Think of the children!” Nudity is, perhaps, most safely done when among friends and family. While not all of ours shed their threads with such ready abandon, they’re happy to keep watch over our clothes and towels while we do.
Most Brits are abroad the first time they feel the brush of a warm breeze across their bare buttocks. And what a sensation it is: without shoes, socks, shirts or even swimwear holding you down, you feel as light as the air itself. On holiday, oceans away from those who might know and judge us, we can let our natural impulses run wild. Once you realise there’s no reason to hide, you begin to see clothes for what they really are: a protective (and hopefully stylish) carapace on land, but a hindrance on the beach or in the sea. Holidays are meant to be hedonistic affairs. We travel for pleasure. So when the sun is beaming down, and the water is cool and clear, why shouldn’t we embrace the experience with every last inch of our bodies?
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