I first heard about Vancouver’s Wreck Beach about 15 years ago from a classmate in a university Drama workshop. “It’s a nude beach,” she told me, entirely matter of fact about having been there and taken it all off in front of complete strangers. She was older than me, and clearly more experienced in life’s many lessons of lust, love, and getting naked in front of other people.
A nude beach? In Vancouver? Right there in my own country, in the neighbouring province to mine, completely accessible. Until then, I’d assumed nude beaches were something you found in Europe. Or Brazil. Or some other exotic destination I’d never been to and that was, for the time being, totally out of my reach. How did I not know about this?
In the mid-90s, a pilgrimage to Vancouver had become something of a ritual in my circle of friends. Three of them started the whole thing off in high school by cycling and camping their way to Vancouver one summer. One of them came back with a nose ring. That was what Vancouver represented. It was where you found yourself. Where you could reinvent yourself, if only in a small way, as the person you’d always wanted to be.
A typical Vancouver Pilgrimage usually involved hanging out in coffee shops in Vancouver, writing poetry or songs about Vancouver, drinking and smoking pot in Vancouver, and visiting ex-Edmontonians who had once pilgrimaged to Vancouver and just never came back. The Canadian mecca of the “west coast lifestyle.” Wreck Beach seemed to fit right in with what a Vancouver Pilgrimage was all about.
I had been to Vancouver before as a teen, but not since I’d acquired a hunger for the notion of “finding myself.” I immediately put a visit to Wreck Beach on my bucket list. Sadly, I never actually made my Vancouver Pilgrimage in my 20s. I tried once, but it turned into a colossal failure when my 1989 Chev Corsica broke down on the highway just outside of Wetaskiwin.
Recently, I finally made it back to Vancouver after almost 20 years. Although it wasn’t exactly the pilgrimage of self-discovery I’d envisioned in my early 20s, a visit to Wreck Beach was still high on my list of priorities, though not for exactly the same reasons anymore. Back then, the idea of it fit in with what I thought it meant to be “alternative.” It seemed taboo, edgy, subversive. At 34 and faced with the prospect of actually doing it, I realized there was more going on.
People visit “clothing-optional” beaches for all kinds of reasons. Some are dedicated naturists. Some are there to gawk at tits and dicks. Others don’t like tan lines. Still others are simply curious, wanting to dip their toes (and boobs and bare asses) into a practice that, in a culture which simultaneously glorifies and vilifies nudity and sex, still seems a bit racy.
We routinely see the human body commodified, objectified, Photoshopped and strategically packaged to sell products and turn profit. But when it comes to actual human beings actually being naked, as a society, we’re squeamish. Breastfeeding mothers still fight for the right to feed their children in public without being considered indecent. Even non-sexual nudity in film results in R ratings. Body image issues make many people uncomfortable with being nude in front of their own sexual partners, much less a beach full of strangers. It has never made sense to me. We’ll fork over our hard-earned dollars for magazines filled with nothing but boobs, butts and bulges without blinking an eye, yet seeing someone else’s junk outside the context of sex freaks us out.
Places like Wreck Beach give us an opportunity to shift that perspective, because these clothing-optional environments aren’t about sex. Photography is forbidden, as is any public sexual activity. I saw my visit as an opportunity to take part in a collective mentality where the human body in all its many shapes, forms, ages and sizes was not considered taboo, offensive or sexualized, but rather natural and celebrated for the fact of its very existence.
It wasn’t even the first time I’d sunbathed topless, but it was the first time I’d had a casual conversation with a man in his 50s about bumming him a smoke while his family jewels swung in the breeze. It wasn’t gross, or sexy or anything other than “outside the realm of my usual experience.” And while I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to “do the Full Monty,” it was inspiring and empowering to feel the sun on my bare breasts as I lay by the ocean in one of Canada’s most beautiful and unspoiled regions, and know that no one was going to judge me, ogle me, tell me to put my top back on, assume I wanted to get laid or even notice anything out of the ordinary.