I’ve just spent the past few days here in Sitges, outside Barcelona. My hotel is right next to the Platja de Balmins, which has the distinction of being ‘clothing optional’. I’ve been several times before and so knew what to look forward to: a small, sheltered cove, clean sand, a well-stocked bar and a bathroom within strolling distance. All good.
Oh, and dozens and dozens of naked people from around the world.
I freely admit I come to this beach due to a combination of laziness (it’s by far the closest to the hotel) and my well-documented naturist tendencies. If it’s warm, and it’s legal, I’ll strip down and soak up some rays. I’m long over any hang-ups about the size and shape of my own body and really couldn’t care less what yours looks like either.
I have a body. I’m on the beach. So like it or not, I therefore have a beach-ready body.
As I’m here by myself, which is in itself quite unusual, I’ve had a lot of time to engage in some people-watching. Not the lecherous kind, but the psychology/sociology kind. Honest.
It’s reminded me that public nudity is a great leveller. As soon as someone is naked, you can’t tell a thing about who they are or what they do for a living. You can’t tell what they earn, what kind of status they have. Once naked, we’re all kind of equal.
Yes, there’s a huge diversity in body shape and size, but strip us of our designer labels and the clothes that we feel make a statement of who we are and you’re left with flesh. It differs in shade, in sagginess and in volume, but we’re basically all just sacks of meat. Expose that, and all our flaws, and it’s a mixture of liberation and sharing of innate vulnerability. After a very short while, all the breasts, buttocks and penises merge into a flesh-coloured blur and you really forget you’re naked.
This means that it’s surprisingly easy to stoke up conversations with complete strangers. A lot of the usual social cues evaporate once you’ve sat on the sand next to another naked stranger and watched them struggle with a towel or a sun chair. You both smile acknowledging the brief awkwardness of taking off that last piece of clothing and then focus on absorbing more sun.
I’ve quite happily looked after other people’s bags when they went for a swim, and they reciprocated for me. I’ve helped people put up their parasols and made space for larger families that needed it.
All done through the medium of smiles, body language and some very broken Spanish. But mostly smiles. Once you’re publicly naked, some quite powerful barriers come down along with your pants. And mostly, it’s a lovely experience.
I say ‘mostly’, as there are a couple of exceptions. The old men who get a little too close to the young girls, making them feel uncomfortable. The buff-as-hell Brazilians (obviously swimwear models) who sniggered at the elderly couple holding hands as they walked past. The guy on the cliff with the professional camera equipment, taking photos of people with his long-distance lens. Hmmm.
The final exception to this lovely experience is sunburn. Hence, I’m back at my hotel room balcony for a break from the sun, as I can quite clearly see where I managed to ‘miss a spot’ when applying the sun cream this morning. I’m pretty dark skinned at the best of times, so I’m sure the pink will be brown by tomorrow morning.
I’ve spent the past few days mostly in my own head. Either reading a selection of books on my Kindle or listening to music on my iPhone. It’s been interesting not speaking (aside from brief pleasantries) and feels like a significant break from the norm. And while I said that nudity means you lose a lot of the social cues that tell us about people, that has in no way stopped me from making up my own back-stories about lots of the people I’ve seen. A tattoo here and a scar there make for great story-fuel.
All in my head, of course.
I’ve never taken a holiday by myself before, but based on the last few days, I think I’d be tempted to do it again.
And yes. I’d come back to Sitges in the sun and spend most of it on the beach, sharing this mortal form – and its multiple flaws – with all around me.