October 25, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Nude Beach

In 2004, a friend and I were on the verge of starting a new church in Cincinnati. That was also the year Erwin McManus, senior pastor of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, appeared on our radar screens. His talk at Willow Creek's Leadership Summit stirred our hearts so deeply that we planned a trip out west to visit his church and learn from their experiences.

I booked a flight from Cincinnati to Tampa, and then from Tampa to Los Angeles, where I planned to meet my friend and his wife. Fortunately, fate stepped in when they got the call to adopt their first child from Colombia. Unfortunately, my nonrefundable tickets and I were off to Los Angeles on our own.

I had no place to stay, no car, and no plans for five days. So, I landed at LAX, rented a car, and drove south until I hit San Clemente. I found a great hotel for a reasonable price and settled in for the week.

As I browsed the Internet for activities to keep me busy, I naturally searched for local beaches. San Onofre popped up, and as I read its reviews, I realized a section of San Onofre Beach was "clothing optional." I was intrigued.

For the record, I have always been a bit of a nudist at heart (sorry neighbors). Not in a creepy, "I play sand volleyball with sagging retirees" nudist. I just naturally feel comfortable without clothing. I'm not ashamed of my body. I hate suits and ties. I loathe feeling confined. Turtlenecks feel like someone is continuously strangling me. I would rather be cold than hot.

In other words, the idea of visiting a nude beach felt freeing, so I made the trip to San Onofre Beach, just south of Los Angeles.

The clothing optional area was at the very southern tip of the beach, hidden away from the clothing mandatory areas. I did wear a pair of swim trunks for the first fifteen minutes, still trying to overcome that initial shame most people feel when exposed to others.

When I finally disrobed, it felt bizarre, as though I had committed a crime. Walk naked on that stretch of beach ... perfectly normal. Move a few hundred yards north ... spend a couple years in prison and register as a sex offender for the rest of my life. Weird.

Only a handful of people were on the beach when I first arrived—a few single men and a married couple. Later in the afternoon, an older, overweight gentleman showed up with a young, attractive woman in her early twenties. Two things were true about their relationship:

1) They were not dating.
2) They were not related.

I don't know about your family, but a father-daughter day at the nude beach seems pretty creepy. After watching them interact for a few minutes, it was obvious they had only known each other for a short amount of time. My best guess was that she had been hired by the man to spend a day with him at the nude beach. He was fully naked; she only had her top off. Their interactions were strained and uncomfortable. Very bizarre to witness firsthand.

Later, an incredibly creepy guy doing incredibly creepy things showed up. He seemed to be wearing a device to keep himself aroused while he walked along the shoreline. Not a pleasant sight.

As the afternoon turned into early evening, I decided to take a stroll along the beach. I discovered a second section of the clothing optional area that was hidden from the larger crowd. Concealing themselves between two large rocks, I stumbled upon a gay couple massaging each other. I'm not homophobic, but it surprised me to see such a public display of affection. I was also convinced the authorities would not have approved. One of the guys made eye contact, but no matter how tempting a free massage sounded, I kept walking.

I realize this reflection is veering in a sexual direction, but that's basically my point. I have to admit, there was something freeing about roaming nude on the beach. It felt natural. Swimming naked in the ocean is something I hope everyone gets to experience at least once. And many people were doing just that. Men and women of all ages and body types were simply enjoying themselves on a sunny afternoon. Nothing perverse. Nothing creepy.

But sadly, anything involving nudity or sexuality in our culture often turns very perverse very quickly—the gay massage, the overweight man and his hired muse, the creepy aroused dude.

But naked is natural. Ever notice how little kids take off all of their clothes every chance they get? Whether the story of Adam and Eve is truth or myth, we all enter this world naked. One of my favorite Bible verses is when Adam says, "I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid." That line sums up many of our lives. We are afraid to show the world our true selves, so we hide behind masks the way Adam and Eve hid behind fig leaves. We hide from God, from each other, and from ourselves.

There I was, experiencing freedom on a nude beach, and all around me people were perverting that gift. Predictably, as soon as a couple of gorgeous women showed up, my mind quickly washed into the gutter. I had to run for my life before I turned into just another creepy guy doing creepy stuff. People are really good at screwing up life's simple pleasures. On that beach, I got a glimpse of how humanity was intended to live, and a glimpse of how far we have fallen from that original design.

So inspirational and so sad all at once.

After thoroughly baking skin that has never experienced direct sunlight, I wrapped a towel around my waist and began walking up the beach trail. An older gentleman must have caught me bypassing my swim trunks, because he scolded me for not getting fully dressed. His exact words were, "You're going to ruin it for everyone." San Onofre regulars must be incredibly protective of their little stretch of paradise. What a fascinating microcosm of our world. People just wanting to enjoy an au naturel life, and others determined to screw it up for those desiring a small taste of freedom.

Interestingly enough, since my visit, San Onofre Beach has come under attack. Citations are being issued to anyone tanning, swimming, or surfing nude, even in the previously designated clothing optional area I visited.

Based on what I witnessed, I can't blame people for being skeptical of nude beaches, but swimming naked in the Pacific Ocean is a wonderful reminder of how humanity was intended to live.