I've Dealt With Body Issues My Entire Life. Here's How Getting Naked In Public Helped Me Heal.

"I was an ocean away from anyone who’d made fun of my body ... so I tried to psych myself up for this new adventure."
The author in Parque Natural Cabo de Gata.
The author in Parque Natural Cabo de Gata.
Courtesy of Javier Marín

Javi was showing me yet another one of the hidden gems of his Andalusian home, taking me through volcanic mountains and whitewashed towns along the southern coast. As we drove by old ruins overgrown with olive trees, he told me what he knew about the area. Previously home to the Nasrid Dynasty, the Roman Empire, and even prehistoric populations, it had recently been named a natural park to protect the land from tourism-driven over-development, and the way Javi described the beaches and coves, they sounded both spectacular and sacred.

After a long and bumpy ride on an unpaved road, we finally arrived at the most breathtaking beach I’d ever seen. As I looked out, I saw half a mile of virgin sand, giant rock formations jutting out of the crystal-clear Mediterranean sea, and a centuries-old castle, as golden as the ground it stood on. I realized I hadn’t brought a bikini, but before I could get bummed, Javi reassured me that where we were headed, proper footwear would be more important than a swimsuit.

As we made our way to the shoreline, the happiness there was palpable. There were kids building castles of their own while their parents relaxed under umbrellas, girlfriends laughing together, and friends playing paddle ball, diving into the water after failed shots. Then, without signs to alert us that we’d entered a different area of the beach and without any real physical separation from the rest of the crowd, we came across a couple in the nude. Then, about 20 meters and a large rock formation later, a second couple. A bit further on, we passed parents with their children — all of whom, regardless of sex, were also in their birthday suits.

I had read about naturist-friendly beaches before moving to Spain, and, on paper, the idea of being able to let my lady bits see the light of day without being catcalled, judged or ticketed was liberating. But I wasn’t prepared for how actually being in the situation would make me feel. I thought I was progressive and, undoubtedly, a feminist. Yet, no matter how empowered I wanted to feel, I was unsettled at the thought of being totally naked outdoors in front of other people, even this man with whom I’d been intimate for months.

As we passed these fellow beachgoers, I tried to be respectful — keeping my glances on their faces and offering quiet holas — in hopes of maintaining the integrity of their intimacy. I also began to feel slightly envious of them, especially the children and even Javi, having grown up exposed to such de-objectifying and natural views of the human body. Compared to them, I felt like I’d been raised in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, taught to be ashamed and required to cover up.

The author's husband, Javi, in Cala del Toro, Parque Natural Cabo de Gata.
The author's husband, Javi, in Cala del Toro, Parque Natural Cabo de Gata.
Courtesy of Kristina Crandall

An overwhelming Puritan perspective on female bodies has permeated all aspects of U.S. life, and because of this, we’ve been conditioned to believe that male and female bodies and attire require different rules. Being from a diverse community within Metro-Detroit, I realized that this very differentiation wasn’t limited to any single social sphere, culture or religion. I was told stories of how conservative my North Macedonian grandfather was — not letting my mother take ballet because the outfits would expose too much of her body — and it was common to still see women cover their hair at my family’s Eastern Orthodox church’s Sunday service.

I had Catholic friends who weren’t allowed to wear skirts without tights, and I grew up seeing Muslim girlfriends have to sit out swim requirements for gym class. Although our school adapted to create female-only gym classes so that everyone could participate, it also enforced rules about girls’ clothing from skirt lengths to showing skin while boys didn’t have to face the same limitations. Regardless of where I looked, there seemed to be an overwhelming consensus that, as a woman, I needed to cover up the very vessel housing my soul.

But while my country and community were socially imposing one thing, the mainstream media was selling another. Women’s breasts were sexual, pornographic, and also central to female beauty and male desire. Janet Jackson’s nip-slip was considered scandalous, “Baywatch” bathing suits left little to the imagination, and “Friends” appeared to be recorded in polar conditions.

To complicate matters, my developing body didn’t look like what I saw on TV or the pages of American magazines, and teenage boys made sure to let me know. For much of my youth, I was bullied both in and out of school. I even had sexual partners make fun of my body in public and suggest plastic surgery. It seemed that boys and men were not only free to wear whatever they wanted, but to also critique the bodies of their female counterparts. After years of being subjected to these persistent paper cuts, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, and exposing my entire body to the light of day felt otherworldly.

Luckily, I wasn’t in that world anymore. I was in a place where topless sunbathing was common and even legally protected, breastfeeding in public was normal, and TV and radio censorship just didn’t exist the way it does in the U.S. I was an ocean away from anyone who’d made fun of my body — and the restrictions of U.S. gender norms and social constructs — so I tried to psych myself up for this new adventure.

Javi and I continued along a very rocky terrain, and, as we hiked, he helped me feel safe while I shared my feelings of uncertainty and frustration with the pattern I grew up learning. Javi admitted to having his own issues, and debunked many myths about naturism and topless tanning. He told me that I could go to any touristic or residential beach and find women freeing their tetas because toplessness was not considered vulgar, and that nudism was only considered acceptable by the general public in nudist-friendly beaches. We talked about how anonymity helped, and that there possibly couldn’t be anything more human than enjoying nature’s pleasures while naked.

The author's children in Roquetas de Mar, Spain.
The author's children in Roquetas de Mar, Spain.
Courtesy of Kristina Crandall

We finally arrived at our hidden cove, and slowly but surely, we both peeled off our clothes. In my bra and undies, I told him it might take me some time to remove it all, and he kept his own skivvies on to help me feel comfortable. This beach was covered in jagged rocks and not nearly as comfortable as the one we’d been on, but it was secluded, and there was no one around except this lovely Spanish man and my own judgment.

I needed to take my focus off my body, so I began exploring the shallow waters around us, careful not to step on sea urchins and sharp rocks. As I watched Javi make his way out to deeper waters, I tried to understand what was holding me back. The complex I’d developed was with my non-Pamela Anderson-sized areolas and the occasional dark hairs that I’d have to pluck. Totally aware of my normality, my breasts — the defining aspects of my womanhood — made me feel the opposite of sexy and feminine, and I was terrified that this man would make fun of me as others had done in the past.

Then I remembered that Javi had grown up with different conditions. Unlike American men, whose exposure to female breasts were often limited to porn and airbrushed pages of Penthouse and Playboy, Javi’s eyes had seen an array of female breasts throughout his life, and mine would just be another pair. I took advantage of the absence of his gaze, removed the clothing that remained, and made my way out to meet him in deeper waters.

When he saw me naked, he didn’t laugh or stare, but instead smiled from ear to ear, kissed me, and shouted, “My turn!” After taking everything off, I realized just how much I had built the experience up in my head and made it a much bigger deal than it was.

Fifteen years and two children later, we’ve only been able to visit those unique beaches a handful of times. Making do with topless tanning on the public beaches of our coastline, each trip to the water in the years since moving here has become a form of exposure therapy for me. Similarly to most Spanish women I know, I’m not comfortable being topless in front of my in-laws, neighbors, or husband’s friends, but otherwise I remove my top at the beach regularly, having learned to appreciate my own body in the process, as perfectly imperfect it may be. It is also common for young girls like our own, even at ages 7 and 9, to only wear bathing suit bottoms to the beach and community pool. Exposed to different bodies and breasts, my kids are seeing much more than the ones that exist in Hollywood or on social media feeds, and learning that their bare bodies and breasts are so much more than sexual objects.

Photo by María José Ortega Poyatos

Last month, Javi and I visited a naturist-friendly beach with our two daughters. Upon testing the gorgeous water, my husband told me how badly he wanted to take off his suit and swim in the nude. I thought back to that family we came across on my very first visit years ago and realized this was a chance for us to give our girls a healthy example of loving our bodies. Removing my top and both our bottoms, we swam around in nothing but our skin. Because it was our girls’ first time seeing us skinny dip, they were embarrassed for us and unsure about what it meant to be naked with strangers around. After we had a comforting discussion, our daughters understood why we enjoyed sunbathing nude, and, as parents, we quickly realized that sporadic excursions to places like this would only help our girls develop a better relationship with their own individual bodies.

Raising my kids with skin exposure has not been without pushback. While my liberal and body-confident friends back in the U.S. think it’s freeing, we’ve had other friends and family clutch their pearls at the sight of our girls without tops, instinctually telling them to cover up, even as toddlers. My mother, who is my family member who has traveled abroad to see us the most, has been nothing but supportive. While she is not likely to publicly go nude anytime soon, I wonder if the little ballerina inside her who wasn’t allowed to bare her legs might benefit from an anonymous naturist experience. By occasionally adopting such practices like topless and nude sunbathing and having regular conversations with my daughters to develop their understanding, I hope my example will provide them with access to healthier body images than the ones from my own youth.

Kristina Crandall, Ph.D., is an educator and writer. Originally from the Metro-Detroit area, she currently lives in Almería, Spain, with her husband and children. With a doctorate from Michigan State University in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education, her work focuses on bilingual and multicultural education, and she’s writing a memoir about leaving the U.S. to live and raise her kids abroad. You can follow her on Instagram @kris.crandall.

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