Last week I turned 36. I honestly hadn’t thought about it much, except for the fact that I was planning a fabulous brunch with my Portland community. (FYI, I cannot imagine a world where I will ever tire of celebrating my birthday.) Then my friend Maggie texted me with this question: So, you’re turning 36. How does it feel?
The sound of thirty-six, in theory, seems like a war cry announcing the foray into my late 30s. And yet I don’t feel like my late 30s are anything negative. I joke about being like a fine wine—better with age—but truly, growing and learning more each year makes my journey all the more fascinating.
That said, it doesn’t come without bumps and bruises of any typical adventure. There are times I feel like a 14-year old, staring at my locker at my new high school, completely unsure of who to talk to, where to look, and how to get to my next class. I push my glasses further up my nose and lift my head up so I can see where I’m going, but it doesn’t necessarily help me get there any easier.
One of these times was last Monday. It was Labor Day. My boyfriend decided to take me to Rooster Rock, part of which is sectioned off as a nude beach…which was the part he wanted to visit. For me it was the last place I would elect to lay on a beach. I don’t mind nudity, not one bit. I don’t care if you’re flopping down on your towel, swimming the river, or playing naked beach volleyball. I just personally don’t have an attraction to being the one in the nude.
So here’s what happened. We arrived, put our picnic basket down, and stripped. Well,he did. I put on my bravest face and took everything off except my underwear. I just couldn’t go all the way. We spent the better part of three hours there, making food, dipping in the water (Okay, he did. I was too much of a sissy.), playing games, and lazing in the sun. It wasn’t busy that day, which surprised me, but there were groups on both sides of us and across the river. In the last 20 minutes or so, Nathan decided to get in the water for the final time. I stood up and was looking out at him as he swam in the river when I heard a voice.
“Looking good!!” A man in his fifties was suddenly in front of me with what looked like a benign smile…? Now, I don’t know a lot about nude beaches, but I assume that one does not comment on the physical appearance of another nude(ish) beach-goer. And you certainly don’t stare! Right?
He was so intent on looking at me, in fact, that he tripped on a scrubby bush, and sheepishly said, “I guess I better keep on walking.” I nodded with what I assumed was a shocked look on my face, unsure whether I should give him a lecture or just be relieved that he had kept on going.
Nathan saw all of this go down from the water and was at my side before the man was out of sight. I stood there, naked(ish) and self-conscious, and told him what had happened. He agreed that it was quite rude to say something of that nature on a nude beach.
Completely outside of our conversation, but deep inside my head, I felt a swirl of emotions. I was ashamed to admit to myself what had actually been my first thought: Are you talking to me? Looking good, naked? Really!? This instinctual chant played over and over. It made me feel incredibly sad, and I felt my face flush with red with embarrassment—and a little bit of anger—for thinking this way. Was I still the 14–year-old, affected by society and still unaware that people come in all shapes and sizes? That everyone deserves love and is worthy? That I should love myself most, unconditionally, and abundantly? Why should my knee-jerk reaction be that he misspoke somehow, or, worse yet, was mocking me?
Yes, as an adolescent I had more than my fair share of middle-school torture about my shape, but I’ve done a lot of self-work since then. I also know that unfortunately, it’s an ongoing battle, and that overcoming feelings of shame and imperfection is something I will always need to be aware of. I know I’m not alone. I know each and every one of us has something they are self-conscious about. I find it so comforting to have my friends and family to talk to, and a community of support that is just a click away. I love that as an adult we can own up to our weaknesses, and, though we might still feel them, have the opportunity to seek out ways to understand the human spirit, and in turn, understand ourselves.
Maybe someday I’ll believe it when a stranger tells me I’m looking good…naked.
Or maybe someday I’ll have finally learned that I don’t need to clog my mind with those little judgments I hold within me.