From the back, and a distance, Sarah, a tawny-skinned 25-year-old with green eyes and long, straight brown hair, looks like she's wearing a light-beige thong bikini. Get a little closer and you notice her tattoo of a small purple octopus inked to the left side of her rib cage; budding love handles; and chipped black toenail polish — and that her flesh-toned bikini is actually tan lines.
"This is my first time coming to a nude beach," she says, sprawled out on a Dora the Explorer beach towel, her silver nipple ring sparkling in the sun. "But it's not the first time I've been completely butt-ass-naked in front of a group of strangers."
She lights up a Camel Blue, takes a long pull, ashes on Boots the Monkey's smiling pink face, and continues:
Haulover Beach Park
"An ex of mine used to teach figure-drawing, and one day a model called in sick, like, ten minutes before class started. I just happened to tag along with him that day, and out of desperation, he asked me if I minded posing nude for his students. I didn't mind, so I just did it, and kind of loved it. So, ever since, I'll find any excuse to get naked."
Which is precisely why Sarah and roughly 725 other birthday suit enthusiasts have frolicked to the northern stretch of Haulover Beach Park (10800 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour; 305-940-6719) to partake in the World Record Skinny-Dip Challenge. Sponsored by the American Association for Nude Recreation, this national event — which also simultaneously took place at 3 p.m. Eastern Nudist Time in cities such as Albuquerque, Chicago, and Palm Springs — was set forth by Guinness World Records in order to break the AANR's record of having 13,648 bearers of bronzed nipples and naturally highlighted pubic hairs jump into a body of water at the same time.
Sounds sexy, right? Well, Sarah's 28-year-old "nonsexual life partner," Chad, a ginger-haired nude novice, seems to think it is — sorta. As he watches a circle of men in the buff bounce a fútbol off their foreheads, knees, and chests, Chad lets out a wistful sigh.
"Personally, I'm really enjoying all the bouncing balls... and I'm not talking about soccer," he says with a sly smile. "But there's also a whole lot of ugly going on around here."
He nudges his chin toward a woman in her 60s. Her stomach is paunchy, and her breasts are beginning to succumb to gravity's cruel will. But she holds her head high, and her entire vibe radiates comfort.
"Hey, Firecrotch," Sarah says to Chad as she gets up for a quick swim in the Atlantic. "Speaking of ugly, I had no idea until today that you weren't circumcised." She walks off toward the aqua water.
And at that, Chad softens, literally and figuratively.
I go talk to the unknowing subject of Chad's scorn.
Norma, it turns out, is vice president of South Florida Free Beaches, a political action committee devoted to education and legislative action on the behalf of nudies all over the southernmost tip of our region's geographic wang. She's also been indulging in the naturist lifestyle since 1986, shortly after her husband read an article in Playboy about a nudist colony in southern Wisconsin.
"Actually, it's a nudist club, not a colony," she explains. "Colony is an antiquated term."
Norma, or better yet, Nietzsche continues:
"For a woman to be nude with someone besides her husband was a concept I couldn't wrap my head around. So I was very curious." She took her husband and her 8- and 9-year-old daughters to the nudist club and instantly dug it.
"I loved that I was standing naked with a complete stranger, who wasn't my husband, just talking."
Norma also notes the need to have to stare into someone's eyes in order to not appear like you're gawking at their no-no areas.
"It makes conversations so much more intimate. I mean, the whole experience for me was pure freedom — freedom from fear, freedom from judgment. You know, as a woman, you feel like your worth is based on your body. Girls grow up thinking that unless their body looks like the ones that the media convinces us are beautiful, that you're not worthy, that you're not attractive. And being able to see all these naked women, with all kinds of different body types, was a really liberating experience for me."
I notice a tattoo of the sun on the outside of her right thigh. I ask her if it's recent.
"Yes, I got it a year ago. To me, it represents the sensual side of nudity — the feeling of having the sun on your body. You know, you should really experience it for yourself."
As a buck-naked Chewbacca waltzes by, I politely refuse.
"That's OK, dear," she says kindly. "You do it whenever you're ready."
Moving on, and trying incredibly hard to make eye contact with people, I slip when running into Harold, a gregarious, potbellied man in his early 50s.
Thankfully, he's wearing tropical swimming trunks, a rarity for Harold, who pulled them on only because he was getting ready to leave. And although he can't give me the exact amount of time he's been copper-toning his nether region ("a couple of years now"), he vividly remembers the first time he bared all.
"I was once walking down this very beach with my son when he brought to my attention that it's clothing-optional. The next day, I came back by myself, walked onto the sand, and just thought, Hey, why not? and took off my pants."
Ever since, Harold has been a big fan of naturism. "There's going to be a potluck here tomorrow," he says eagerly as he tries to get an early RSVP out of me for New Year's Eve, when the nudists supposedly sleep in tents, eat catered food, and roast s'mores. He then leads me to a group of Haulover Beach regulars. They appear to be in their 50s and are actively involved in the South Florida Free Beaches/Florida Naturist Association.
Paul — a lanky, outgoing fellow whose sole article of clothing is a green mesh sun hat adorned with pins and printed with the word "Ambassador" in bright orange above the brim — quickly sums up losing his au naturel cherry.
"Well, I was born nude," he says with a wide grin.
But his girlfriend, Ruth, a recently widowed blonde with ample breasts and the sweet face of a kindergarten teacher, has felt the wind against her bare ass for only the past six months.
Says Paul: "Our first date was at Sun Sports Gardens [a family naturist resort in Loxahatchee], and I told her that if she was coming with me, she couldn't wear clothes."
"At first, you feel weird," Ruth explains in a voice that sounds like she's offering fresh-baked cookies. "I felt especially insecure because I'm older and have scars. But after a while, you get used to it." She chuckles. "Sometimes when I leave, I forget to put my clothes back on."
"You should try it," Paul tells me, "you know, to get the full grasp of your story."
Uh, no thanks.
"You'd really like it," Harold adds.
"A reporter once came down here from the New York Times to do a story about Haulover Beach," Paul says. "And she took off her clothes."
"It's a really liberating experience," Harold presses. "Come on, just do it!"
I turn my attention to Tim, a slender man with intense eyes and white, Steve Martin-esque hair. He's wearing swimming trunks, a baseball cap, and a thin purple rope around his neck.
"What was your first naturist experience?" I ask. He avoids the question with lots of "uh"s and head-scratching. Then, when Shirley, a curvy, mocha-skinned lady in her mid-50s begins to describe her first experience, he quickly leaves.
"I grew up thinking nudity was totally normal," Shirley says. "I mean, when I was 9 or 10 and going to the YWCA for camp, they actually organized a skinny-dip. Back then, we all used to wear wool bathing suits that clogged up the drains in the pool, so I guess they felt swimming naked was more sanitary. We were all the same gender, so I don't think the organization thought of it as that big of a deal."
Tim returns, this time without swimming trunks.
"So, if nudity doesn't make any of you feel awkward, what does?" I ask.
"What makes me feel awkward," Tim says with a snarl, "is someone who comes to a nude beach and refuses to take off their clothes. It's kind of rude."
"I thought it was clothing-optional," I say as Paul, being an ambassador and all, releases his inner spin doctor.
"See, the thing is, when you're nude, you're revealing your energy," he explains. "You can look beyond someone's face when they're naked."
Uh, isn't that kind of rude?
"No, because you're not looking at them in a vulgar way; you're just seeing all of their energy... and with you refusing to take off your clothes, you're hiding your energy."
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I turn to take my energy elsewhere.
Ruth catches up to me and whispers a confession in my ear: "You know, sometimes I still feel uncomfortable taking off my clothes."
I then notice that, like Tim, Ruth has changed. Except instead of taking clothes off, she's now almost completely covered.
And we're only a few feet from the exit.