In summer 2015, I did something a bit crazy. I packed a tent and a few beach essentials, rented a car with friends, drove to a remote part of southern Spain, and hiked to a hidden nudist beach nestled in a private cove. Believe me, it was a completely uncharacteristic move. I’m usually the last to strip down to my bikini on the beach, and I always pack a cover-up. But hey, I was on vacation in Spain, where bronzed moms shrug off their bikini tops with ease and nudity barely garners a second glance. Inspired by that carefree European spirit (and perhaps a glass too many of sangria), my friends dared me to ditch my 9-to-5 persona and embrace those vacation vibes. I can do this, I thought.
When I arrived at San Pedro beach, it was like stepping into a whole new world, one that clearly had its own etiquette. I felt like a complete outsider, unaware of how to act in this relaxed and exclusive community. During my two days under the scorching Spanish sun, I quickly gleaned the basic first-timer rules for shedding your clothing (and insecurities) at the beach. Whether you’re searching for all-out liberation or just a short topless foray on your beach haunts this summer, follow these rules to master the art of going au naturel with ease.
Believe me, this is easier said than done. Naturally, when you visit a beach where clothing is optional, your first instinct is to gawk. Don’t be that person. The number one rule on a nudist beach, or for bathing topless at any beach, is to completely ignore the absurdity of the situation. If you feel totally uncomfortable, start by lying face down on a towel and read your Kindle until the awkwardness subsides. In all honesty, you’re likely the only one who finds the situation strange, so if you calm your mind and embrace it, others will, too.
I learned this lesson the hard way. On my second day at San Pedro beach, I walked down to the shoreline for a quick morning dip. Unbeknownst to me, a school of jellyfish had washed into the bay overnight, and the small, stinging creatures were bobbing in the water, ready for their first victim: me. The takeaway? Whether you’re wearing a swimsuit or not, be aware that you’re more exposed to wildlife at the beach, and don’t let your newfound free-spirited nature lead to a trip to the doctor.
Going au naturel is a surefire way to push you out of your comfort zone, and chances are that your first attempt will feel completely foreign. Even the most body-confident can feel awkward and exposed, so pack a second towel in case you’d like to quickly cover up. There’s nothing worse than fumbling around for a t-shirt or trying to maneuver under the towel you’re lying on in a pinch, so be prepared.
We get it, the situation may feel totally hilarious and you may feel the need to tell your friends about your crazy new experience. Out of respect, wait until you leave the beach. There’s an unspoken rule among sunbathers that what happens on that stretch of sand exists outside of everyday life. Translation: Your Snapchat slow pan of people soaking up rays is likely to be met with glares. Don’t do it.
There are parts of your body that have never seen sunlight, so slather on sunscreen before you visit the beach, and be diligent about reapplying throughout the day. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying a fresh layer every two hours and immediately after taking a dip, as water and toweling off will remove your previous application. If you’re concerned about getting burned, bring a hat and beach umbrella to be safe.
While going topless isn’t for everyone, it’s one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. There’s something romantic and carefree about the European attitude of embracing your body and it can be a powerful lesson in building confidence. If you’re hesitant or self-conscious, remember: The only person who has the power to make you feel awkward or liberated is you.
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Next up: The five best beaches in Europe to visit this summer.