BY: IVA CELEBIC
I have spent many of my summers on the coast of Croatia, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I grew up in a secular communist Yugoslavian home, but was the first Canadian born baby in the family. Consuming the values of both cultures, my mother and I fought often. She never understood why I didn’t feel comfortable being naked, and I was wondering when she’d start wearing a bathing top to the beach.
This year I spent days on the Island of Hvar. An island that has been getting more popular as the country trends as an exotic destination and steers away from it’s past. Fifty years ago, this island accounted for eight per cent of the worlds lavender production. The wafting fragrance is inescapable as the scent of olives, figs, and herbs lace into the thick breeze of salt and fish, trapping in the many corners of historic stone. Taxi boats line the edge of the island, waiting to take you further into the Adriatic.
My partner and I decided to explore Jerolim, a small island in a floating cluster called the Palinski islands. It is one of the most underdeveloped and has been naked since the ‘60s.
Nudism was an important part of the German sexual revolution, as it became an alternative to the stress of industrialized life. It then spread across Europe, the Baltic states, and Soviet and socialist countries, especially Yugoslavia. By 1929, the movement made it to America, where it has struggled to become a part of mainstream culture. Post WWII, the International Naturist Federation (INF) was founded. They defined naturism as: “A way of life in harmony with nature, characterized by the practice of communal nudity with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment”. Yugoslavia embraced this in the 1950s as it coupled nicely with President Tito’s socialist ideologies.
Without clothes people are more equal, as financial status is less apparent.
We step off the taxi boat and onto the rocky island of Jerolim. The dock is barren and a pathway could be seen up ahead. We walk through the trees until we reach an opening. There is a small café crowded with park benches and colorful hammocks. Families and couples are enjoying their lunch in the shade of low hanging branches. As you walk by no one is bothered to look up at you – but if you happen to lock eyes their beaming smile says welcome. The crickets here are so loud, it’s as if the heat is screeching. You sink into a trance following the rhythm of the bleating bugs as you walk on. Signs and seating areas are crafted of bamboo and found materials. The washroom is a latrine made of wood with a bucket inside. Jerolim is what it is, nothing more and nothing less.
The moon shaped bay on the other side of the island is full of naked swimmers. I flush with redness suddenly, and send a hot gulp from my forehead to my toes. People are tanning, chatting, reading, sleeping and playing cards.
Everyone is a different age, most look pale and blonde — Nordic foreigners are a constant in Croatia. Bodies are fat and skinny, scarred and pregnant, hairy and hairless, muscular, disproportional and boney.
I feel like I’ve walked onto a beautiful tableau – a wild garden ranging in specie, somehow coexisting. You are never staring at one thing or one person in particular – but much like the way you would look through a rainy window, the details blur and your focus become it’s entirety. The infiniteness but also the nothingness of man is no different then that of the ocean, or of a sea shell. Your curiosity silences, and suddenly no person is a narrative, but something with two legs and two arms that looks a lot like you.
The bay is framed with a ledge of large rocks, some as flat as cement. I walk out to the left side to plant my towel next to an older man who is reading the paper cross-legged. He squints through the sun and nods approvingly as I pass. As I start pulling out our things, my partner swipes his shorts down in one quick motion like a child would trying to embarrass his mother at the mall. I am in shock over his ease, as he’s never been to a nude beach before. I watch him climb strategically on all fours among the rocks so he can dip into the water. His long legs folding around him, balls grazing the ground, bum towards the sky. He swims into the middle of the ocean and waves.
The day oozes over us like a dream. The heat sinking my naked bum into the rocks, my breasts falling to either side of my body revealing a flat surface to place my book. The panoramic view of the beach, like some sort of communist nativity scene. Peace and togetherness. Everyone was an equal, and no one was particularly good looking or bad looking but just existing, existing right in front of me.
When everything goes, nothing seems to stand out. There is nothing to comment on or whisper about. No one is less vulnerable than you.
At one point a speed boat flew in and docked in the middle of the bay with 6 or 7 people standing aboard drinking beers and blasting tacky top 40 music. They seemed to be pointing fingers and gawking at an older man on the shore who was bending down looking for something in his bag. Suddenly a man from the other end dives in and swims out to the boat, asking them to leave. The disruption seemed intrusive to the environment, and the respect of everyone was in jeopardy.
I started to think about body parts as physical pieces not concepts; enablers of movement, wearers of clothing. You recall the trivial importance of body hair, to keep out the sand and pebbles, to protect from a scrape or sunburn. It’s comical suddenly to think of a cosmopolitan column comparing the bush to the Brazilian.
The body is a vessel; all parts are utilitarian to the self. These gigantic but simple ideas become echoes of truth, and “progressive” Canadian ideologies of modesty and tolerance now seem contrived and hostile.
I run into the water and feel the salt hug me as if my body was bound in linen – the strength of my skin keeping all of my insides from falling out. You are reminded of the healing powers of ocean salt, and the childlike freedom you feel when you are dancing with the water. We forget about this state of grace in Canada when we are tired from work, the sun has disappeared behind the bank building at five, and we are convinced that half price pints down the road are the only option.
We return home a month later stepping off the plane and into the smog of Toronto. The humidity is so thick, like walking through molasses but smelling the burning stench of rubber tires and asphalt.
The next morning we take the first ferry out to Toronto Island in denial of the city. We bike out to Harlan’s point beach. I laugh at the “clothing optional” sign – how polite!
I’m excited to swipe off my clothes, and remind myself that I can feel connected to the Earth and others from anywhere in the world. I run past the trees to find a beach full of white men: muscular, lean, sculpted tall men. The tableau is now a scripted scene with hired male models. While I am well aware the gay community loves to congregate on this beach, I was under the impression it would be intersectional. I can only spot two women down the length of the shore.
I recoil into myself and lay down my towel debating my place here. People are in clusters with beers in hand, staring pensively my way. Many people are strolling down the beach, constant motion is zipping around you. Some are wearing black mesh bottoms, ultra bright thongs or some sort of body accessory. Everything feels sexualized. There are 26 boats docked in a 100-metre radius, blasting music, talking on cellphones and drinking – some sort of sexy aristocratic water party that you weren’t invited to. People are jumping on each other on floaties in the distance. A man directly in front of me is standing waste deep in the water, watching the happenings of the beach with a beer in hand. I shrug off all the hovering testosterone and try to fit in. I get into the water slowly, a plastic wrapper swishing by me. The water gets browner as I move in further.
Everyone seems to be hyper aware of themselves and their personal space. My eyes dart over to the middle of the beach as three naked woman sprint into the water splashing and shrieking, a piercing waving on each nipple. Its as if being naked was a competition of rebellion or a cathartic form of expression. A middle finger to capitalism saying, “look at me! I’m naked!” They have a fort set up on the beach made of wretched tarps roped together to trees. A table sits inside with a deck of cards. They have a flag which reads in big black font: HEDONISM. While I haven’t a qualm with hedonism, there is no place for that in communal nudity.
The real depth of Jerolim dawned on me in this moment, as I realized that nudity is not simply synonymous with freedom. I think about how impossible it would be to pick up the energy of the Croatian Island, put it in your pocket, and place it right here in Canada.
While nudity in Croatia was humbling, leisurely and almost spiritual, my experience in Canada felt confusing, insecure and suppressive. While the confidence to be naked comes from within, it is everyone around you that validates your safety and experience.
Europeans are open and project freedom onto others in this setting while North Americans are suppressed and project judgment onto others in this setting. The political landscape of these regions imbed opposing values in their cultures, which are revealed in a nude environment.
Communism or socialism are a reflection of personal sovereignty – free love and work indicate a balanced life. Communist and socialist systems focus on the “We”, these political systems mobilize as a collective. There is less pressure on the individual, which stimulates a society that is more creative, expressive and cultured. They believe more freedom, involves more responsibility and integrity, which brings strong personal values to a community.
Croatian culture celebrates the body, and does not police it – this is a reflection of giving ownership to the people.
Capitalism is a reflection of control – where competition and individual tension is manufactured in order to mobilize a political system. In order for capitalism to exist and grow, so must social division and inequality. Capitalism isolates and accentuates the “You”. You are a commodity with assets who must be hungry for success in order to benefit the state.
Our bodies are conceptualized in the media, intensely stereotyped, gendered, gentrified and sexualized. Nude is considered naughty and temptation is a ticket to Puritan hell. This is why the self-love movement is shooting off in North America – we are trying to destroy these ideas imposed on us and return to the accepting “We”.
Canada’s conservative ideas of the body, disguised as liberalism, are entrapping. When we cage the body with ideals and standards, fetishing, craving and sexual violence is born.