By Bob Wolke
No doubt about it. Men and women are different. I discovered that fact several years ago when I began to frequent nude beaches. But I don't mean what you think.
The difference between men and women is -- are you ready? -- that women who are contemplating going to a nude beach are most anxious about BEING LOOKED AT, about how they'll stack up, so to speak, while men tend to be most anxious (not to say eager) about LOOKING.
Maybe a better way of putting it is that there are two distinct apprehensions about participating in a mass exposure of human epidermis: How you'll feel and what you'll see. It's a battle between modesty and voyeurism, and each gender finds its own point of balance between the two. Of course, the two must be faced in tandem, because seeing without being seen is a serious breach of etiquette at a nude beach; if you're going to play the game, you must "wear" the uniform. Any clothed male who hovers within eyeshot of nudies is immediately labeled a creep. And that goes double if he's toting any optical equipment beyond an untinted pair of spectacles.
I'm a veteran of nude beaches in the United States, the Caribbean, Scandinavia and the south of France. There are hundreds of such places around the world, probably on every continent except Antarctica. And that's not counting the myriad secluded locations, sandy or not, where the devil tempts isolated onesomes or twosomes to doff their duds out of sheer impishness. Nor am I talking about what most people think of as "nudist camps," those Elysian asylums of eternal volleyball established by dyed-in-the-sun naturists for the purpose of going about their business, ostensibly oblivious to their nakedness.
I'm talking about multiple public nudity in a sandy or rocky seaside setting, where complete strangers congregate to unveil themselves. You've seen coy references to these havens in the guide books. Or perhaps you've heard that there's one nearby while travelling. And admit it: you couldn't help wondering whether you have the guts to show up -- or off.
But after all, you travel for new experiences, don't you? How many museums, cathedrals and ancient ruins must you visit? There's more to sightseeing than that. And what the heck, you're far from home, right?
The biggest physical, as opposed to psychological, barrier, is getting there, because in order not to offend casual observers, nude beaches are generally rather remote. But once you've pried directions out of an open-minded guidebook, concierge or local free spirit, you'll need to know what on earth to do when you get there.
In the United States and much of Europe, people generally arrive at Bare Beach already in bathing attire, shedding it only after deploying their blankets or chairs and umbrella -- the last being highly recommended for the tenderfoot or, more to the point, the tendertush, who may otherwise experience a hitherto unimagined sunburn. But in France, I sometimes observed the bewitching custom of women appearing at the beach in street clothes and stripping down in situ. In most other cultures, however, the flash of lingerie in broad daylight is considered indecorous; the very purpose of lingerie is to appear more provocative than nudity itself.
Beyond a few subtleties, nude beach etiquette is pretty much the same around the world. The main prohibitions are against bug-eyed gawking and physical demonstrations of affection; in these surroundings, co-ed nakedness must be strictly disconnected from its customary context. For those who don't favor co-ed activities, incidentally, there is often a part of the beach that is tacitly reserved for males. It's very easy to spot.
But after overcoming the obstacle of actually nudifying one's self -- which Americans do self-consciously, the French do nonchalantly and the Scandinavians do with absolute abandon -- what most people want to know is what one actually DOES on a nude beach.
Well, not much, really. You do just what you'd do on any beach, which is practically nothing. But with the sunshine and fresh breezes washing over your entire body, you will savor a kind of sensuous freedom that can't be experienced in any other way. For this once, you're an integral part of nature, rather than just a spectator. And it feels great.
So sunbathe, go into the water, and yes, stroll along the shoreline looking at whatever there may be to look at. (Zigzagging too far inland, however, may smack of reconnoitering.) And because of the vast assortment of nekkid bodies, you just don't look too long at any details that may particularly catch your fancy -- er, your eye.
Beneath the veneer of studied nonchalance that everyone on a nude beach affects, there is of course an undeniable undercurrent of eroticism. What, then -- as everybody wonders -- is a man to do if his thoughts should wander a bit too far into taboo territory, and his all-too-visible appearance threatens to give him away?
Whatever works, that's what. Strong-minded types might find that thought control will work, whereas less self-possessed individuals may discover a sudden impulse to dash into the water, and the colder it is the better. While we're waxing anatomical, it should be recognized that no one, male or female, can resist comparing or contrasting what they see with what they've got. Each gender has its own insecurities about how its endowments in certain specific regions measure up, so to speak. But take it all with a grain of sand. Nude beaches aren't exactly "Baywatch" sets, and there are always lots of folks to feel superior to.
Bob Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Barber -- More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions." Marlene Parrish, his wife, is a Post-Gazette staff writer and winner of a James Beard Foundation Journalism 2000 Award. They live in Pittsburgh.