I stand at the top of a cliff looking over the Mediterranean sea on the island of Agistri in Greece.
I’ve just hiked and “scrambled” (a new hiker’s term I learned for this experience; when the hill is too steep to walk normally but not quite extreme enough to qualify as rock climbing, it’s called scrambling) my way up a narrow, rocky path through the pine forest, with no map to guide me but the ocean on my left telling me I’m heading the right way. But I’ve reached my destination anyway; below me is the hidden Chalikiada Beach nestled between the sheer cliffs, and sunbathing on it are roughly twenty or thirty naturists, also known as nudists.
An old (fully clothed) man is sitting in a lawn chair a little way away from me on the rocks, and as I squint at the cliffs trying to spot a path down to the beach, he yells something in Greek and gestures for me to come over to where he is.
“Milate Anglika?” I ask as I approach; it means “Do you speak English?”
“No English,” he says, but gestures to his eyes indicating that he is going to show me something. I join him at the cliff edge and he points out a steep path around the rocky outcropping below us that leads to the shore.
“Efcharisto!” It means thank you, and I am so grateful I do prayer hands and bow my head too.
As I start to leave for the path, he calls after me and starts speaking in Greek again and pointing to his lower calves and then to my hiking shoes. I have no idea what this could mean, and I don’t know enough Greek to ask him, so I just pretend to understand and assume I’ll figure it out as I go.
It’s easy enough to climb down the cliff from this side, but now that I’m at the water, I have to jump from slippery rock to slippery rock as carefully as possible. I’m about halfway around the bend when I realize what the old man meant when he was gesturing to my shoes; it appears that to continue further, I have to walk through the shallow water, which I definitely can’t do with my lovely embroidered hiking shoes.
I sit down on the only dry rock to change into the rubber flip flops I just purchased in the little town at the dock. The tide is rising, and as soon as I’ve taken off my second sock, a wave splashes up over my legs; perfect timing.
I put my backpack back on and tighten the straps as I wade through knee-deep salt water until I can see the beach. I am almost there when I notice a dry path a couple feet above me on the rocks and realize there must be a much easier way to get here and I, as always, chose to take the long way around.
As soon as I arrive I feel awkward being the only person fully clothed, and stumble over the smooth pebbles and stones until I find an area nicely sheltered by a tall boulder covered in Greek graffiti on one side. Okay, now it’s time to strip, right?
I’ve always been ashamed of my body on many different levels, but there’s nothing unique about that for an American woman of twenty years. I was dress-coded for the first time in fourth grade, the beginning of the lifelong lesson every girl receives that our bodies are not our own, and exist primarily to be looked at by others. Whenever they forced me to change into an ugly oversized t-shirt (without even giving the option to be sent home, which I would’ve taken in a heartbeat), all day I felt the burning shame of being labeled too slutty by adults from nine years old, already “asking for it” just by dressing how I felt comfortable.
It was my fault, and I should be ashamed that men looked at me, but at the same time, I should be just as ashamed if they didn’t…but for different reasons.
I’ve been getting catcalled since I was thirteen, and yet also grew up avoiding looking at my naked body in a mirror because it disgusted me. Even the constant preaching of self-love by Lizzo and Jameela Jamil can’t make a dent in the self-hatred young women like myself have built up over so many years of looking at fashion magazines or later, models on Instagram, and comparing myself to every single one.
I wished I could love my body but instead I always felt lopsided, top-heavy, covered in chicken-pox-freckles on ghostly white skin like a sick Victorian boy, my tits too big and my ass too small. I’d do anything to look like society’s current female ideal, but thanks to the double-edged sword of femininity, I know looking hotter will only make the world see me as less of a person.
There really is no winning this particular battle with the patriarchy.
With all this in mind, I casually take off my clothing and apply more sunscreen, glancing around me to see if anyone cares that I’m naked. No one is even looking at me – shocking since everyone’s eyes are rudely glued to me whenever I walk around my Athenian neighborhood in shorts and a crop top to beat the 80-degree heat. I’m still not totally sold on the nudity thing though, so I put on a bikini bottom to stand up and walk to the water’s edge.
I awkwardly wade into the crystal-clear, relatively warm water until my feet can’t touch the ground anymore. Still, no one is really looking at me, so I impulsively strip the rest of the way and tie my bathing suit around my wrist.
This is it! I’m skinny dipping in the Mediterranean! I can finally check that off of my bucket list.
It hits me at this moment that this is the first time since puberty that I’ve been in a public space and not felt objectified. There are plenty of male nudists on the shore and in the water near me, but none of them give me a second glance; there is no double-take that I am an expert at spotting whenever I’m wearing a low-cut shirt, no catcalls that set off the fight-or-flight response in my brain, no one is “distracted” by me just trying to live my life.
And now I’m wearing no clothing at all, proving once and for all that it is never a woman’s fault when some men apparently cannot control themselves around her.
Freedom like this is something I’ve never experienced before. My mind feels at peace. I am no one’s plaything, I’m not an object to be stared at, my body belongs to me and me alone. I cannot put into words the anxiety and discomfort I feel everywhere in Athens, because as a young woman who is clearly not from around here, I stand out like a Martian alien with five heads and a nice rack. Men don’t viciously harass you here like they do in some American cities, but sometimes it feels worse to have all those eyes on you and be so powerless to stop it or even react.
But here on the nude beach, we are all just human beings, normal bodies that don’t need to be sexualized or degraded. Here, I can let my guard down, for the first time in what feels like forever. I swim until I get tired, then return to the shore where I can relax and read my book and eat local pistachios for several hours, unbothered by anyone. I don’t feel ugly either – no one is judging me, so there’s no need to judge myself. I don’t look disproportionate and splotchy, I just look like a human being, like everyone else around me.
So why should you go to a nude beach? Because everyone deserves, even just for a few hours, to feel full ownership of their body and even be able to celebrate it. It will take you out of your comfort zone, and it may change your perspective forever. It will affirm that you are not responsible for others’ reactions to your body, and you should be able to dress and appear however you feel most comfortable.
Of course, when you leave the nude beach, people will continue to look at you the way they always do, but now you know that no matter what, they are the ones in the wrong. That deeply internalized shame you’ve had since childhood does not control you anymore.
And hopefully, when you look in the mirror, you can feel a little better knowing that you look exactly the way a human being is supposed to, because being conventionally attractive (whatever that means to you) is not the rent you pay to exist in this world.