I used to be modest. Ridiculously, obsessively modest. Almost to the degree of Tobias Funke on Arrested Development, who proclaimed himself to be a “Never Nude.” I didn’t go as far as wearing jean shorts in the shower, but I came dangerously close.
Why was I this way? Who really knows? Was it because my mom defiled the cover of my beloved Queen Fat Bottomed Girls album by putting a Band-Aid over the bicycle-riding girl’s butt crack? (Which, by the way, only made my brother and I obsessed with pulling it back and re-sticking it so many times that the Band-Aid lost its adhesiveness and just flapped on the album cover, causing us mortal fear my mom would find it.) Was it because, at the height of the “streaking craze” in the mid-70s when I was a little girl, my Nana and I innocently ran naked around her house, laughing hysterically, for about 30 seconds until my uncle, grandfather and dad came home unexpectedly? She shrieked and ran to the bathroom, abandoning quizzical me. Or maybe it was the time I went body surfing in Rehoboth Beach when I was 13 and I stood up after an epic wipeout, in front of my parents and their friends and their friend’s 15-year-old son who I had a mad crush on, grinning and giving them the “thumbs up” before I realized the top of my bathing suit was gone, washed out to sea?
It’s hard to tell where neuroses start really.
In my 20s, I used to have a pair of extra-large granny underwear that I’d wear, along with a tank top, any time I’d get a massage. I loved massages. But whether it was a male or female massage therapist, the thought of being nude in front of him or her made me so tense that any relief I might have gotten from the kneading of my muscles would have been more than undone by my mounting anxiety about my state of undress.
I never showered after using the pool in college, preferring to wait until I got back to my apartment even though New York City could get darn cold when you walked five blocks with wet hair in January. And I was never one of those girls who could drop trou and pee in front of a friend while continuing a conversation. I’d rather have the bladder infection from holding it in. And just forget romping at the nude beaches when I went to Europe.
Sure, I made a few exceptions over the years. But the exceptions seemed to prove the rule.
Once, on spring break in Florida, my best friend Gina and I had had a few Kahlua & Creams and decided it’d be a hoot to go skinny-dipping in our friend’s apartment complex around midnight. Even though we were both 21, the two of us were like children, obsessed with fart jokes, prank phone calls and dropping sticky spaghetti balls out of our second-floor apartment building onto unsuspecting people on the sidewalk below.We eschewed boys as “idiots” and thought of anything sexual as “hilarious.”
The Jacuzzi was gated, but we hopped it easily. After stripping our clothes off and giggling under the hot-tub bubbles for about 10 minutes, some dude and his girlfriend surprised us by hopping over the fence and joining us. Gina and I exchanged surreptitious mortified glances which quickly turned to panicked eye pops when we realized we’d forgotten our towels and our clothes were a good four feet away. Neither of us possessed the maturity to confess our dilemma to the strangers, so we resigned ourselves to turning into human prunes. We’d wait them out.
Finally, after intermittent making out in front of us, the couple finally vacated the area. After giving them about 30 seconds, to make sure they were really gone, we quickly slunk out and ran the few feet to the blissful safety of our clothes. They were not easy to tug onto our wet, shriveled bodies.
Two years after I graduated from college, I visited my friend Erik in San Francisco. His new girlfriend, a dancer named Emma, offered to take me to a traditional Japanese bath house one night when Erik was in rehearsals for a new play. Always more adventurous than prudent, I enthusiastically agreed to this plan, never asking her exactly what this might entail.
Of course, as it turned out, it involved lots of nakedness.
I’d brought my swimsuit, but when we arrived, I was told in no uncertain terms that all clothing must be left in the front in a locker.
“But a bathing suit isn’t ‘clothing,'” I protested and the nice attendants giggled, gracefully hiding their smiles. In my frustrated panic I thought, Great, they don’t want me to see their teeth, but I’m expected to be comfortable with all my naughty bits hanging out.
Whether in the steam room, dry brush area, cold dunk tank or hot spring tub, guests were expected to be naked at all times. It’s worth noting, other people’s nakedness didn’t bother me at all. I find other women’s bodies fun to look at, in all shapes and sizes, like different vegetables at the supermarket. But the idea of anyone staring at me… my face felt like it was on fire. I was blushing so much, even in the frigid water of the cold dunk tank, that I probably raised the temp in the barrel to at least lukewarm.
As if this weren’t horrible enough, Emma interrupted our talk in the hot spring tub to note, “You have pretty areolas. I don’t like mine — they’re too big.” At that moment, I had a small stroke from the shock of her inspection and for the rest of the night suffered from MVO: Modesty Violation Overload. Which I suppose was a small blessing, because the rest of my time in the Japanese bath house is a blur.
Finally, there was the time in my late 20s when my nadir of nakedness occurred.
In addition to teaching dance and acting classes, I was also working as an SAT tutor in southern California. I’d been assigned a particular client who I was informed was very religious. The mom had requested a “conservative tutor.” I was far from that, with my spicy language, liberal politics and penchant for calling Buffy the Vampire Slayer my “religion.” But my supervisor, Adam, knew I was great at charming difficult parents, and so he sent me in anyway.
Our first session went very well. The mom sat across the dining roomtable, observing and nodding. I think she particularly liked my choice of clothes: a white buttoned-down shirt and long black skirt. (Hey, I grew up inAmish country; I knew conservative.) And I was an actress, so I loved playing “parts.” If it had been an audition, I knew I’d have gotten the callback.
Two days after that appointment, I was working another one of my other jobs, teaching a dance class at The Pacific Athletic Club. In a moment of unprecedented bravery, I decided to abandon my normal ritual of wrapping a towel around myself to go the shower, and then back to the locker. None of the other ladies in this Los Angeles club bundled themselves up like I did.
Imagine my surprise on the short walk from the shower to the lockers, when the Conservative Mom I’d just tutored for, happened to be taking a tour of the club and rounded the corner. She was fully dressed. I was as naked as Eve. The woman body-slammed me so hard it almost knocked the wind out of me. We recognized each other as we pulled ourselves apart, each muttering profuse apologies. But I could see the horror and abject disgust on her face as her eyes scanned my body.
That evening, Adam from my tutoring company called me laughing hysterically. The mom had called and curtly told the administrative assistant, “We will NOT have Debby tutor Margaret any more now that I’ve seen her naked.” And with that, she hung up.
“What the hell happened?” Adam managed to get out between peals of laughter. He knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t have gone to the tutoring session nude. At least I think he did. He seemed to sympathize with my indignation, but that didn’t stop him from loudly telling all the other tutors at the Annual Tutor Christmas Party. Turns out, I was the only tutor who had been fired for my “nakedness.”
I was teased mercilessly.
“Debby, have you ever had to explain the problems of ‘naked numbers?'”
“Boy, I sure do like the novels Naked Lunch and The Naked and the Dead, don’t you, Debby?”
“Hey Debby, where did the linguistic idiom, ‘in one’s birthday suit’ originate?” (Funny how even “linguistic” sounds dirty when someone drags it out lasciviously.)
So it seemed I’d be forever traumatized, never able to be fully comfortable au natural.
And then that ALL changed.
I gave birth.
Not only that, but I was in labor for almost 36 hours with three different inductions. That meant four shifts of doctors and nurses at Cedar Sinai, all coming into to my room and casually checking out my lady-parts. I knew that there would be some exposure during the birth process, but I’d thought maybe one doctor and one nurse and a cleverly placed sheet, like in the movies. I stopped keeping track of all the fingers that went inside me, checking my progress dilating.
The pain of the contractions was also a distraction. A reverse Skinner Box. The combination of pain and nudity didn’t make me fear my naked state — rather it made me utterly indifferent to it.
Then there was my unexpectedly quick dilation, the run down the hall with me on a gurney, my sheet cover askew, and a little naked human popping out of me.
After all that, I think, who the heck cares now? My body — it’s a body. It can do really cool things, but it isn’t anything to freak out about.
So yeah, when I go in for a massage these days, I eagerly strip down, reveling in the feel of the soft cotton sheets against my skin. When I was at a sample sale recently, I had no problem using the women’s communal dressing room.
Now all I need is a plane ticket to Europe. I want a crack at those nude beaches again.