COMMENT

It's time to get naked. That's what I've learned after a walk last weekend with my dog in Papamoa near the Mount Maunganui border.

I've known for years about the nudist beach near the junction of Papamoa Beach Rd and Maranui St. That patch of sand has been renowned as a place to get your kit off for decades. But it seems nudists are shifting east, into an area near a retirement village and hundreds of new homes.

Our Brazilian exchange student returned from the beach a couple Fridays ago after walking the sand from Pacific View to Evans Rd. She breathlessly exclaimed, "There were sooo many naked people. Some of them were grandpas!"

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I pictured Miss 16's togs - pieces of string hanging from our washing line -and reminded her Brazilians aren't known for modest swimwear. "But at least we wear SOMETHING," she said, "and the guys are definitely covered."

I saw mostly fat, older naked men, though a couple women were splashing in the sea in the altogether, too. I posted on Facebook photos of distant naked people and a message which read, in part, "... Put it away, I say - no one wants to see your mountains of flesh and floppy bits on this beautiful day at lunch time ..."

Most of the roughly 20 comments that followed were from friends who recounted experiences with nude beaches involving obese tourists, hippies and voyeuristic school teachers.

One friend took me to task for fat shaming. "I don't think nude bathing is restricted to bigger people. I don't support suggesting that some body shapes are more entitled to be shown in public than others. Surely nude bathing is enlightened in this age rather than something that should be banished into the past?"

It's one thing to be rebuked by a stranger; another to be chided by a friend whose opinion you respect. My comments were indeed, ageist and sizeist. It was a cheap shot - going for the laugh. Would I have cared if Bradley Cooper sauntered into the water baring washboard abs and everything else? I've been wondering why public nudity makes me squirm and whether anyone who's overweight or obese deserves singling out.

Part of the discomfort stems from my American upbringing (we're known as puritans who lead the world in traffic to porn sites by a long shot). Also, my first encounter with beach nakedness happened around age 13, in Virginia, when a man in his 20s approached while I was sunbathing. He asked, "Have you ever seen one of these?" He was not referring to a frankfurter. I did not have a snappy retort.

The closest I've been to skinny-dipping as an adult was in 2001, when my late husband and I visited the island of Elba, in Italy. Many of the women were lounging topless. I told Sean, "I'll never see these people again," as I rolled down a one-piece swimsuit to my waist and dashed across pebbles to the sea. I saw a heavily pregnant topless woman on the same beach and thought she was courageous and beautiful.

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When a group of running friends posed topless for a backs-only photo at the top of the Papamoa Hills trig months ago, I hid behind the camera. Would I survive a weekend at a naturist resort? I've considered whether it would help cure the gnawing feeling my body's not ready for full display. Maybe it's connected to a childhood spent browsing Playboy magazines left beside the toilet? Women in centrefolds were skinny, free of body hair, and pert. I might endure a naturist retreat by sucking in my gut, giggling and sneaking peeks from behind a book, which I doubt would make anyone feel great.

While personal hang-ups contribute to my reaction about public beach nudity, consider how squeamish teenagers might react. Rather than guess where nudists are hanging out, let's designate an area and erect signs: "Attention: Beyond this point, you may encounter nude bathers." At least I could tell my kids where not to go.

Public nudity is legal, so long as people behave appropriately. The Bay of Plenty Times reported last March two girls, one aged 13, alleged a man masturbated near them on the beach. Police say depending on circumstances, nudists could be subject to laws for offensive behaviour, indecent exposure, or performing an indecent act in a public place.

Bay of Plenty Naturists co-ordinator Glenne Findon last year was quick to distance "genuine naturists" from the alleged masturbator.

"Naturists are sick of these perverts giving us a bad name," she said.

I saw naked beachgoers sunbathing and wading into the ocean. Nothing lewd, though some men have an uncanny ability to jaunt to the water the moment I approach with my dog. The dog doesn't care.

Bodies are beautiful, right? With our scars, jutting clavicles or extra rolls, perky bits or sagging bobs, pale skin or brown flesh, we're human. Real. Just like neuroses about my own body are real. It makes me unsure how much realness I want to see in public. No matter your size, enjoy your nakedness - at home, or in a designated beach spot, among people who appreciate bathing in the buff.