I was raised like most women to believe that my body wasn't good enough, and I bought into it. I hated my body: too short, overweight, hair I didn't like, scars that come along with living a life.
In 1995 a boyfriend took me to Lighthouse Beach on Fire Island. I'd heard about the clothing-optional beach, but my image of the place was of someone standing at the entrance judging anyone with a less-than-perfect body. I encountered something very different -- large crowds of people, most of them naked, of all ages and shapes and sizes. To them, nudity was simply no big deal.
My friend introduced me to others, and within a few weeks I felt as if I knew half the people on the beach. The naturists became like family.
Now the government is changing that world. For the first summer in many years, the National Park Service is enforcing a state ban on nudity. The service said this affects several Fire Island beaches on federal property, including Watch Hill, Sailors Haven, Barrett Beach, the beach at the Wilderness Visitor Center, and the most popular, Lighthouse Beach.
We're still at the beach this summer, and both women and men are "New York legal," which means we must keep our intimate areas covered -- to our opposition.
For decades, the park service demonstrated that it knows the difference between mere nudity and lewd behavior. Nevertheless it cited lewd behavior as an excuse for breaking the faith with the skinny dippers, who are dedicated stewards of the beach. We believe the agency is citing only 3- to 5-year-old incidents because naturists had already begun speaking to those who behaved improperly. Even the rangers commented on the improvement.
The naturists at Lighthouse Beach have developed a true community that only begins at the beach.
There is a group called the Long Island Travasuns; I am on its board of directors. We hold clothing-optional events all year long so our "family" continues off the beach. We hang out together, go to each others' weddings, which are occasionally clothing-optional. We watch our children grow and attend our friends' funerals. I have friends who were raised as naturists at Lighthouse Beach and have opted to raise their kids that way. These kids possess a self confidence that I never had at that age.
That family and I will not disappear. Working closely with the Naturist Action Committee, a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of naturists, we are exploring all of our options. Long Island has a lot of shoreline, surely there's a spot for us.
I began to understand from that first day at Lighthouse Beach that some people do judge others not by what you look like, but by who you truly are. When you are nude with others in a social setting, you remove more than just your clothes. You show your true self. You learn to look past the exterior layers and drop the protective shell and the pretense. I learned body acceptance.
Reader Susan Rothberg lives in Lindenhurst.