fear of the naked body is fear of our own humanity

It seemed like a thousand steps. There could be only a few hundred. But they’re steep and many, and it’s been years since I descended the…

It seemed like a thousand steps. There could be only a few hundred. But they’re steep and many, and it’s been years since I descended the bluff.

Back then there were no steps. It was a long, sheer and skiddy trail and I skipped my way down to the beach.

This time every stair sent a searing bolt of pain up my crippled foot into my hip, but the crumbling bones of arthritis weren’t going to stop me. I needed a holiday. My body cried out for the seashore.

Then the glory of Wreck Beach opened up before me — the naked, the sun-browned, and the burned, sometimes-pale, human bodies strewn about, or cavorting.

Playing badminton, swimming, sleeping on the sand. Vancouver’s most famous and infamous waterfront in all its hilarious diversity.

The last time I stood here was at least 35 years ago. The summer of love had ended and the decay that set in after the ‘60s would soon compost into the big-haired blue-suited disco silliness of the ‘70s, and the greed of the ‘80s.

Wreck Beach has gone through decades of policing, scandals, environmental dangers, and development proposals yet when I saw it last month after two hard weeks of teaching at UBC, it was as nutty as the last time I admired its beautiful madness decades ago.

The psychedelic beach towels were still on sale and Stormin’ Norman’s buffalo burgers looked delicious; no wonder 500,000 people visit it every year.

A man wearing nothing but a backpack and an enormous sombrero sauntered down the beach with his monotonous sing-song: “Mushrooms … marijuana … Budweiser … marijuana … mushrooms….” He grew discretely silent when two uniformed park patrol officers appeared at the foot of the stairs.

Meanwhile, a gang of youths who’d obviously tried the mushrooms painted themselves with muddy sand and began perform an embarrassing tribal dance that made their neighbours smile and look away.

Nope, not much had changed except for the piercings and the astounding number of tattoos. And maybe the fact that more than half the people at the beach now wore bathing suits.

There was a creep, of course, among the many hundreds. Not a criminal creep, I guess, more sad than scary. Although he wasn’t doing anything flagrantly bad you could tell he was weird just by the way he strutted, displaying himself as he looked at the women.

A wave of revulsion surrounded him on the beach, as everyone worked together to invisibly create a distance around him.

The Wreck, like most nude beaches, is charitable, but it’s impressive to watch how the inhabitants police behaviour, acting like a living amoeba, sending out signals of tolerance and warning simultaneously. It’s my kind of society: firm and yet forgiving.

I was born a mutant kid with a rare genetic condition that gave me a body not many men would brag about. It took me several decades to grow into a shape I wasn’t secretly ashamed of, but as I did, I learned to resent the attitude our culture has about the human body.

There came the day when I walked down to the Wreck and took off my clothes, free in my community at last. It was difficult and I feared everyone would stare at me, but they didn’t. I was liberated.

It made me remember those beautiful days of my childhood when the boys went down to the swimming hole and shucked their clothes and I was afraid to join them, or if I did, skulked about the periphery so they couldn’t see ‘me.’ I had missed my place among them.

What a victim I was.

After that first day at the Wreck, I walked as lightly as a cloud, enjoying my body, for whatever it was worth, and learned to live free of clothes when I was home in the morning, working at my desk, and when I went to the great beaches of the coast where freedom was the code.

Blackburn Lake on Salt Spring. Little Tribune at Hornby Island. A family beach, a gentle community in itself, where even the dogs behaved (mostly). They made me think of the famous naked beaches of the world. Playa d’es Cavallet on Ibiza. Swanbourne Beach in Australia. Hippie Hollow near Austin, Texas. All those discretely distant beaches of the Caribbean and on the shores of Greece.

But so much clothing at Vancouver’s most famous hideaway for people uninhibited about their bodies made me uncomfortable and I started analyzing our perversions about nudity. How strange that our natural condition is only legal in a private club of people who have to call themselves ‘naturists.’

Once, we walked naked everywhere, and were not ashamed of our bodies. Now, wacky religions and cultural notions have made us fear what life gave us.

I’ve often walked out naked in the night on our farm to shut up the chickens, and on bright sunny days mowed the lawn wearing nothing but my gumboots. It took me a few years to realize how foreign this was to my culture.

These thoughts about our cultural conditioning towards nudity caused me to Google the subject. I soon encountered weird stuff about seeking ‘hard bodies’ at nude beaches, etc., and I laughed at how foreign that was to the reality.

Most nude beaches are filled with the aged, the fat, the deformed, along with the young and the beautiful. The bodies are real, unlike what you find at your local shopping mall where artifice and fashion fads are far more ludicrous than the lived-in bodies of your neighbours.

What strange creatures we are to hold such neurotic notions about our bodies. What crazy religions and social rules we devise to make our natural nature into something shameful that must be hidden, or displayed as a fashion. Maybe the weird ones are those wearing the strange costumes — dresses, suits, pantsuits, blue jeans … up above the bluffs, and out of sight.

The rest of us are at the beach.