I pull my shirt off over my head, arms high, underarm hair on full display. Next comes my sports bra, the tight elastic smashing my breasts then releasing them. I unbuckle my shorts and they fall easily. I wonder if I look self-conscious. Then I change my question: I wonder if I am self-conscious? I turn around and smile at the dozen or so people already in the soaking tubs. I see two bikinis, a pair of swim trunks, and other than that all skin. A few pleasant smiles in return but honestly, most people don’t seem aware of me. My near-nakedness feels irrelevant– even to me. I am not self-conscious. I am powerful and safe.
I choose a tub and slip in, T settling beside me. I love that I know he is proud of me, loves my power and comfort in my own (exposed) skin. I love that I am safe with him– but not because of him. I want him beside me enjoying our evening, but I don’t need him to defend me or my right to opt out of clothing in this consensual space.
Last week I came to rest on a phrase that so encapsulated my footing on the complex relationship between sex positivity/ body positivity and push back against harassment. It has been echoing in my head and smoothing away the last barbs that have been keeping me from relaxing into my own beauty:
You can find me attractive without making me feel unsafe.
Chatting comfortably with my fellow hot tub occupants, I lift myself half out of the water, elbows resting on the ledge behind me. Having lived in this body for a while now, I know this presents my breasts. You know what else it does? It helps regulate my temperature and allows my arms to support me, giving my thighs a break. It also exactly mirrors the posture of the two other men in the tub. I am mid-sentence when I rise from the water and I see their eyes follow… my eyes. With conversational ease they continue our chat, looking at me, each other, the sea and sky. It is natural, safe and lovely. Of course they see my body, and I see theirs. Maybe my breasts enhance the view for them, but then, the moon enhances my view. Beauty is nice. We are all happy.
“All you fuckin’ hippies and your nakedness! I’m not used to all these naked bodies!” In the tub next to ours a loud, disheveled man holds court. He stands squarely in the center of the pool, hands on hips, penis on display, somehow violating everyone’s personal space simultaneously. He’s been there for nearly an hour, his abrasive voice never quite fading into background noise as he lectured a young couple about their relational fate. She’s planning to break his heart, this random man confidently warns the boyfriend. She should appreciate what she’s got, some day she’ll realize. He should be careful. He should watch his back… The young couple has given up attempting to respond and has long maintained the frozen polite smiles of those trapped but needing to earn their Good Human badges by never disengaging or seeming uncomfortable around the apparently less privileged. With this abrupt shift of topic they try again to make this a conversation.
“Oh, is it your first time here?”
He doesn’t bother to answer as his gaze locks on a naked woman emerging from the shower and entering their tub. “You are fuckin’ beautiful.”
She chuckles uncomfortably. “Thank you.”
WHY do we thank people for uninvited editorial comments? Why do we humor the absolutely inappropriate? WHY does he get to continue unchecked, while the rest of us pretend we aren’t miserable? No. We don’t have to be polite. No. NO.
I meet eyes with a woman in my tub– she looks ready to vomit. She covers herself with her arms and pulls her knees up to her chest.
NO. He cannot have our safety. This space is not his. She doesn’t have to disappear so he can remain large. NO.
“Excuse me,” I abruptly interrupt my conversation and hoist myself all the way out of the water. I walk directly to the loud man, who has not slowed down.
“All these fuckin’ naked women! I just can’t even–”
He looks at me and I realize for the first time that I am naked. I am confronting a bully in my panties. Standing on the side of the tub I am towering over him, and he is seeing my face through the curves of my breasts. And I don’t care. My nipples do not make me vulnerable.
“Hey,” I say again. “One of the courtesies of places like this is that we do not comment on each others’ bodies. We do not talk about nakedness or stare at each other. It makes us feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”
“Oh, it was just a compliment.”
“This is not a place for comments on other peoples’ bodies.”
“Fine, I won’t compliment a beautiful woman,” as if it’s our loss.
“Don’t. It makes everyone feel unsafe.”
I slip back in beside T and he squeezes my shoulder. I’m shaking, but taking deep breaths and begin to thaw. The other woman mouths thank you and we cringe together. “I’m tense in a hot tub,” she whispers.
Clothing is optional, harassment is not.
This is not his space.
I don’t have to be polite.
I don’t have to hide my body.
I don’t have to leave.
I am powerful.
I curate my own safety.