Wreck Beach and the true meaning of “clothing optional”

Wreck Beach No GawkingWreck Beach is, according to official signage, a “clothing optional” beach. What “clothing optional” really means, however, is a subject for heated debate amongst frequenters of the beach, however they choose to clothe themselves.

Semantically, “clothing optional” means that while clothes are an option on the beach, they are not mandatory. Though many people use the phrase “clothing optional beach” synonymously with “nude beach”, the two are not the same thing. Therein lies the problem.

While most people who frequent Wreck Beach embrace the tacit nudity of the locale, an increasing number of visitors (called “textiles” by the regulars) are emphatically putting the “clothing” back in clothing optional. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t matter at all, with nudes and textiles coexisting side by side in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, it does matter, and it’s harshing my mellow.

As the debate rages both on the Wreck Beach Facebook forum and on the beach itself, there are a few factors to keep in mind that make coming to any kind of conclusion rather difficult:

  1. Wreck Beach is the only beach of its kind in Vancouver. Those who wish to clothe themselves while at the beach can do so at any number of beautiful lower mainland beaches. Those who embrace the nudist/naturist lifestyle have only Wreck Beach, and they are beginning to feel crowded out.
  2. That said, Wreck Beach is a public beach. At most public beaches in the city, at least a swim suit is required. For city council and the Parks Board, allowing nude bathing at Wreck is likely considered to be a concession to its vocal supporters (specifically the Wreck Beach Preservation Society). I have a feeling councillors and board members would balk at the idea of making nudity mandatory on public property–the designation “clothing optional” is a means of meeting nude beach supporters half way.
  3. Not everyone is comfortable being naked at the beach, and being forced to strip down on their first visit may ensure they never will be. I know it took me some time before I was used to the “naturist” atmosphere at Wreck, and I imagine for those with more modesty, more time would be needed. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many people who are not even comfortable being seen in a bathing suit, let alone naked, who may be drawn to Wreck because of its attitude of body acceptance. These people are the most likely to benefit from Wreck Beach, and the most likely to need some time and some understanding from others before they are ready to strip down.
  4. That said, not everyone who is naked at the beach is comfortable being seen by clothed people. I would feel pretty silly being naked in public if I were the only one. I do not feel uncomfortable at Wreck Beach because I am NOT the only one. The fact that everyone is naked means that nobody cares–there’s nothing special to see so nothing is sexualized. When you are naked yourself, you behave towards other naked people the way you want them to behave towards you–like a normal person, not a gawking creep. Unfortunately, adding textiles to the mix throws this social contract off-kilter. Because they are not revealing their own bodies, clothed bathers on Wreck Beach are in a position to objectify the bodies of the naked people around them. Most worryingly, many of these clothed beach users have begun pulling boats up to shore (which is illegal given the buoys clearly marking the swimming area), clothed jet-skiers have been trying to pick up topless (female) swimmers in the water, and some textiles have even been taking photographs of nude bathers without their permission. The best way for a textile not to get lumped in with this pervy faction in their ranks is to strip down and embrace the “natural” dress code.

In a lot of ways, arguing about something as superficial as clothing is silly. The concerns of the nude beachers could easily be dismissed in this way, however, I think there is a deeper cultural issue affecting the beach nowadays. The demographic of the beach is changing–during my first summer there, I luxuriated in the quiet of the beach; I could hear nothing but waves, eagles, and the occasional live group of (naked) musicians, playing fun and friendly summer tunes. There was no glass, no garbage, and hardly anyone was clothed. In the past couple of years, new groups of clothed bathers have frequented the beach, and have brought with them boats and engine noise, loud crappy pop music blasting from iPod docks, and glass (super dangerous on a beach my friends!). I am all for new groups of people learning to enjoy the beach, in fact I encourage it, but it is important to me that they learn to appreciate its atmosphere. Wreck Beach is a beach unlike any other, and I want to keep it that way.  I think the more militant nude beachers do too, and for them, it’s easiest to identify those who don’t “get” the beach by their clothing. Thing is, if you’re on Wreck Beach, maybe you shouldn’t have any.