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.

Strip Down and Be Counted: Wreck Beach Skinny Dip 2012

The annual Wreck Beach Skinny Dip was held this year on Saturday, August 4. The Wreck Beach Preservation Society (WBPS) really picked a great day this for it (after a bit of a false start July 21, a Saturday which began quite cloudy). The air was warm, the sand was hot, the sun was bright, and the water was…well, the water was cold. As usual.

Besides being a little more crowded, the Skinny Dip is, for the most part, just another beautiful day at the beach. TC and I ate Skittles and apples, drank plenty of water, and I started in on a paperback of Kevin Wilson’s excellent but problematic novel, The Family Fang (many people compare this story to the Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums, but I disagree with the comparison because the Tenenbaums love each other, and I am not sure that the Fang parents love their children, at least not beyond what their kids can do for their artistic careers. But my opinion on that is maybe for another time).

The only real difference between the Skinny Dip day and any other Wreck Beach day for me is, of course, the part where I go swimming totally in the buff with a lot of people. This year, I was one of 595 people posing for a big (nude) group photo and being counted by a notary public. According to the WBPS, a donor named Roger Proctor, CEO of Genex Capital, agreed to donate $5 to the Society for every registered naked bather in the water (we had to sign up beforehand to be part of the official “Dip” in order to be counted).

I guess participating in the Skinny Dip is a way to financially support the WBPS (through their donor), but for me, it’s a way to support Wreck Beach and everything I love about it by participating in some “naturist” swimming. I don’t mind sharing the beach with “textiles” (i.e. clothed people), or anyone who is being respectful, but that said, I do think respect is a key part of enjoying Wreck Beach and ensuring everyone else enjoys it too:

  • Respect for the environment: Wreck Beach does not have any garbage receptacles. This is not because you are supposed to throw your garbage in the bushes or into the sand. This is because you are supposed to take all of your garbage away from the beach with you. If everyone takes responsibility for their own garbage, no one will need to take responsibility for everyone’s.
  • Respect for privacy. Obviously, at a clothing-optional beach, taking photographs (except with permission of the subject) is not okay.
  • Respect for personal space and comfort. Visiting a clothing-optional beach is not an invitation to be hit on, gawked at, photographed, ridiculed or in any other way sexualized or objectified. Like any other beach, people go to Wreck to swim and sunbathe, not to pose for Playboy or be harassed.
  • Respect for each other. This one is pretty obvious. Be polite, share the space, don’t mess with things belonging to other people, and look out for each other. The “regulars” at Wreck Beach are always happy to come to your aid if you feel unsafe or harassed in any way.

Generally speaking, most people at Wreck stick to the principles outlined above, which is one of the many reasons this famous naturist beach has remained so beautiful, unique, and inviting. It’s one of Vancouver’s hidden gems and I hope it never changes.

Wreck Beach Skinny Dip 2011: Nifty Gets Nude

Wreck Beach: Forgot your swimsuit? That's just fine.

I had never been skinny dipping before. I had always imagined my first skinny dip would be some romantic or scandalous affair out at a mountain chalet, stripping off in the dead of night and slipping unseen into some glacial lake (I guess in my imaginings I was a wealthy and influential woman with access to a chalet), or perhaps a nice dunk in my birthday suit with a few inebriated friends at a lakeside cottage in the dark.

I never imagined I would be skinny dipping for the first time in the glaring light of day with 625 other naked people, but on July 2, that’s exactly what I did: stripping down to my nothings for the 2011 Wreck Beach Skinny Dip. (My TC and a spunky gal pal joined me, meaning I only had to expose my naked self to 623 total strangers.)

The Wreck Beach Skinny Dip is an annual event organized by the Wreck Beach Preservation Society (WBPS). This year, for each skinny dipper in the water, an anonymous donor pledged to donate $2 to the WBPS. As I was leaving the beach, an organizer told me the donor had decided to up their donation to $5 per bather. I was also told that the Notary Public enlisted for the occasion had counted 626 naked bathers this year, meaning we handily beat last year’s record of 489 (and my bum was among ’em!). Considering this and the gorgeous sun we had that day, I would call the WBPS’s bare-naked event a success.

Judging by their website, it seems the mission of the WBPS centres around two main concerns:

  1. Preserving the natural beauty of Wreck Beach and preventing or lessening hazards to its environment.
  2. Preserving the right of visitors at Wreck Beach to enjoy the beach au naturel, and taking action and voicing concerns regarding development in nearby areas or changes in legislation which may make this right unlawful.

No gawking!

I was introduced to Wreck Beach only this spring by my TC, and I must say that since my first visit I have been completely in love, forsaking all other Vancouver beaches, forever and ever. Here’s why (in another numbered list!):

  1. The beach is huge, and beautiful. Bald eagles soar over tree-covered cliffs, and on clear days you can see the mountains of Vancouver Island.
  2. Wreck Beach is quiet. It’s a long hike down from the road, but it’s worth it. Once on the beach, there are no cars or buildings within sight or earshot. The loudest sound you’ll hear is the lovely group of musicians who seem to favour the Police and the Beatles, playing their guitars (and trumpet!) with the kind of gusto you can only really find in people who are doing what they love, TOTALLY NAKED. When I’m lying in the sun at Wreck, I’ve completely left the city behind, and I’ve never been so relaxed.
  3. I get to sunbathe topless. That’s right, I said it. Totally topless. IT’S GREAT. The greatest part is that I can be topless or naked and nobody cares. Unlike Vancouver’s other beaches which seem to be covered in hyper-sexualized teenagers in teeny-weeny gold lamee American Apparel bikinis, at Wreck Beach, no one cares what you’ve got or what your body looks like. The beach is clothing-optional, not courtesy-optional, and gawking at others or making comments is discouraged (read WBPS’s Beach Etiquette to find out how you can be nude, not lewd). I feel less exposed naked at Wreck than I do in a swimsuit at English Bay.

2011 has so far been a year of discovery for me; a year of discovering BC and especially of discovering Vancouver, my adopted home. The relaxed, conscientious, and accepting atmosphere at Wreck Beach is a wonderful representation of the spirit of this city and I sincerely hope it will continue to be so.

And now for a poll! I used to think nude beaches were weird, and now I think they’re great! Your thoughts?

P.S. If you’re wondering how the water was on July 2, it was effing freezing. But so refreshing.