A Wednesday Story: Naked
In an ongoing quest to live fearlessly, how I exorcised a lifelong fear of my own nakedness by night bathing, in the nude, with two dozen strangers at Esalen.
My apologies for having had to absent myself for a few weeks while I finished a couple of client projects and began ghostwriting a book, which is what, by Labor Day, will be my answer to, “What did you do this summer?”
Posts may be more sporadic in the coming weeks as I work on this new project, but they also may not be as I know me and likely will welcome finding the time and space to write about something different. I have a backlog of music and film and television and experiences I hope to translate into stories, long and short, to share with you.
Here’s one of them. It’s long, but I owe you a good yarn.
TW: dysmorphia, food/eating issues
So what in the world are we whispering for?
There's nothing to hide
— from Seven Psalms by Paul Simon
I’m not sure exactly when I became aware, as Adam and Eve did according to the biblical story, of my nakedness.
But I know the shame about my body arrived early, and that it began with my feet.
From the time I was in nursery school, I worried they were too big.
I have a vivid memory of riding in the back seat of my father’s Karmann Ghia staring at my maroon oxford lace-up shoes resting on the console between the two front seats, ruminating about how large my feet appeared to be. Too big. Like Popeye’s lady friend Olive Oyl. Outsized compared to my skinny legs and even skinnier (a kinder person might have said slender) ankles.
Why a five-year-old girl would fixate on the size of her feet is anyone’s guess, but I’d imagine someone must have said something. That someone in all likelihood was my mother, as one of her favorite pastimes was critiquing my physical appearance.
In actuality, I do not have big feet. They are average-sized. Still, when I was in junior high and high school (and even through college and into graduate school, if I’m honest), I used to wear shoes at least a half-size too small to make them appear smaller (to me). Daintier. Prettier. So boys would like me, or so my dysmorphic reasoning went at the time.
In addition to my fixation with their size, the fourth phalange or “ring toe” on my left foot is slightly deformed. I call it my “hide-away toe.” It curves to the right and a portion of it is tucked under its neighbor, the little piggy that had roast beef in the nursery rhyme. At some point during my adolescence, I became wildly self-conscious about the hide-away toe. Years later, I’d discover that it’s a genetic trait on the Irish side of the family (thanks, Mom), one that a few other relatives share. But as a young person, I thought my toe was freakish.
When I got to college, a requirement that members of the campus theater company attend weekly group exercises barefoot (socks were acceptable, but the social mores clearly favored stockingless feet) almost kept me from auditioning for it.
I had anxiety about my feet. About that toe. About my body, my horrible, too skinny or too fat or too hairy or too flat or too much or not enough body.
I was 25 before I allowed myself to have a pedicure. It was so unusual for me to show my bare feet in public, when Bobby, one of my dearest friends whom I’ve known since our first week of college, saw me in a pair of sandals one night in New York City when we were nearly 30 years old, he remarked on it: “I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen your feet!” I’d been married for several years by then.
My husband was the first and perhaps the only person with whom I’ve ever been comfortable being naked. His loving gaze helped me to see myself differently in so many ways. I shouldn’t have needed someone else’s lens for me to recognize the beauty of my physical person, but that’s what happened.
I’d love to say a my-body-is-a-wonderland epiphany changed everything going forward for me, but it didn’t. Too often, I see only what I perceive to be flaws and, to my eye, there were and continue to be plenty.
Outside the privacy of my home and in the company of my adoring life partner, I was afraid to be naked in the presence of anyone else. I was so cruel to myself about how I looked, what the critical eye of a stranger or even worse someone I knew might see in the locker room at the gym, the communal dressing room at Loehmann’s (an absolute nightmare from my youth), or if the bathroom stall fell open while I was changing in the ladies’ room at work was enough to send me into a full-blown panic followed by a gravity-defying shame spiral.
The technical term for it is gymnophobia — the fear of nudity (yours or that of others); of being naked at all (such as Tobias “Never Nude” Fünke from Arrested Development), or being naked in public. Like most other phobias, it’s more complicated than that.
It’s never just the one thing. It’s a whole thing. My fear of being naked had co-dependent accomplices. The things under the thing.
Alongside gymnophobia in the gumbo of loathing I’d created for myself were flavor notes of pocrescophobia (the fear of gaining weight) and atelophobia (the fear of imperfection), with a rancid roux of anthropophobia (the fear of rejection) thickening the whole dish.
I was not always crushed or defeated by the weight of such heavy fears that surrounded my body. Throughout my life, there have been periods of time when I felt good about myself and that I looked good, where I was largely happy with my appearance, or when I was able to overcome fear and embrace my physical self, even if with baby steps.
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was one of those times, a short period that felt like an epoch in terms of self-growth. I worked as a nanny for the summer minding twin tween girls and their younger brother in a Chicago suburb a few towns away from where I went to school. I lived at their house where I had my own room, and sufficient time off in the evenings and during the week that I got to spend time with friends who also remained in town for the summer.
One of our gathering places was the house of our theater director, Jimma, who would ask a few favorite students to move in to mind the place while he and his family spent the summer in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire.
The summer of 1990 holds many fond memories for me. Long summer nights spent on Jimma’s porch talking a lot and drinking a little, playing games and flirting, learning how to cultivate friendships with young men with and without romantic overtones. One of my closest friends lived year round in the town where our college was. Her father was a professor. She’d grown up there. I’ll call her Jewel. She was artsy and well-read, kind and funny and brave with an activist’s heart and the hippie wardrobe to go with it. She was easy-going, comfortable in her own skin, and I loved being around her. She made me feel safe and seen and because of those two things, she also helped me feel brave.
One midsummer’s night, some of the boys from Jimma’s house and a few others who were part of the college theater company or had ties to it, wound up using the in-ground pool in the backyard of the home of a classmate whose parents, we knew, were out of town. Memory is a funny and imprecise thing, but I seem to recall that Jewel and I were the only women in the group of friends and that neither one of our romantic interests at the time were present.
We entered the yard without invitation and with some trepidation. Then perhaps the most lionhearted among us, stripped off all his clothes and with a whoop, cannonballed into the pool. The guys were naked. Jewel and I, again if my memories are correct, kept our under garments on, but for modest, virginal me, even not quite in the altogether, not truly fully exposed, it was a catharsis of courage. We almost went skinny-dipping with a bunch of naked guys. And when we fled the pool after lights in the next-door neighbor’s house came on, I felt so alive. Free.
It's not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
Of recklessness and water
They cannot see me naked
These things, they go away
Replaced by everyday
— from "Nightswimming" by R.E.M.
Eighteen months later, when I was a senior having fallen desperately in love with photography, our professor gave us an assignment to do some self-portraiture. This was long before digital photography, the dawn of smartphone cameras, and the ubiquity of selfies. I had to set up my old Nikon on a tripod, hook up an long shutter release cable, and hope for the best.
I started by donning a black slip dress and shooting on what I recall was an early Sunday morning in the courtyard of the theater, when no one else was around. I was barefoot and bra-less. I put on dark lipstick and eyeliner. And I shot a series of photos of me that, when I developed and printed them, felt a little dangerous and a lotta sexy. I liked how I looked. I still do. Two of those photos still hang in my bedroom.
What I remember next is that I shared the photos in class and they were well received. I felt validated and a bit bad ass. I also remember the professor taking me aside and suggesting I might want to push myself further and take more risks in exploring self-portraiture. He didn’t explicitly suggest nudity, but he didn’t not suggest it either. I honestly do not believe he was being creepy. I think he was trying to help me traverse my comfort zone as an aspiring artist (and human.)
So, the next Sunday night, I took my camera and tripod into the attic of the off-campus house I shared with Jewel and a half dozen other women students. I cleared away some cobwebs and made space among the wooden planks that covered most of the floor, took off all of my clothes, and began making pictures. Crouching, with my back turned toward the camera, in profile, partially obscured by furniture and some empty wooden picture frames (that I also still have and hang on the walls of my house.)
Then I swept my hair up into a messy bun, sat in the lotus position a few feet from the lens, palms of my hands bracing the floor, purposely unfocused the lens a bit, and shot a single frame. A blurry full frontal nude.
I don’t remember whether I shared the images in class or with the professor. I don’t think I did. But I recall being alone in the darkroom when I developed the film, made a contact sheet of the images, and picked these two below to print for myself.
I wish 20-year-old me could have appreciated or even grasped how beautiful I was.
When I reflect on how I have felt about my physical person throughout a half-century of conscious memories, as I have these last few years — part of the process of making an inventory of fear in my life — I can tell you precisely where I was when I felt the most beautiful.
I was standing in the living room of my friend Carrie’s house in Chicago. It was my 35th birthday party, I had just turned in the manuscript for my first book, my career was booming, and I was back down to the same weight I had been when I was a senior in college. My hair was glorious, thanks to the stylist in New York City I’d started seeing on my frequent trips there while writing the book. I was wearing skinny jeans that sat just above my hips where the bones protruded just a bit, tall oxblood high heeled Kenneth Cole leather boots, and a sleeveless blush-colored layered top with a tank underneath and a light mesh with tiny sequins over it. I’d ordered it online, one of my first such purchases. I fit into everything in that era. And it fit perfectly.
That, I’ve told many friends over the intervening years, was the moment I “peaked.”
What I didn’t say to anyone for many more years was that what I saw as the “peak” of my physical beauty and of my career trajectory also coincided with the height of the eating disorder I’d been battling (or, rather, not battling) for nearly a decade. I’d turned to bulimia, diuretics, and diet pills (when they were still available over-the-counter) when I was engaged, to slim down even more (I was always slim, but I wanted to be skinnier mostly to show my mother, who had come upon me lying in the sun in a bikini a few years earlier, physically recoiled at the sight, and scolded me with the words, “Oh God, you’ve spread!” that I could do it).
After the wedding, I stayed slim. And if I started to “spread” again, I would binge and purge. This vicious cycle went on for years until my life partner lovingly intervened, worried that the disease, if untreated, might kill me. That intervention saved my life.
By the time that first book was released, I had begun therapy and began to get the bulimia under control. I put on a little weight, which I detested, but I was still a version of lanky and slim. A year later, though, after we visited Africa for the first time and met the boy who eventually became our son, while I was finishing work on my second book, something went sideways. We still don’t know exactly what the catalyst was — it might have been a reaction to malaria prophylaxis or something else I picked up on our three-week journey, it could have been the stress of a deadline or something entirely other — but as if someone had powered down my metabolism with the push of a button, I put on more than 60 pounds in three months.
Because of the dysmorphia, at first, I didn’t realize how acute the change was. That happened when I saw friends I hadn’t seen in a while and more than a few of them happily assumed I was pregnant. None of the tricks I’d used in the past to shift my weight worked. I didn’t look like me anymore. I had the body I had always been terrified of having and felt trapped in it.
It would be another 15 years of fighting with, punishing, hating, berating, and hiding my body before a clever doctor in the summer of 2021 finally diagnosed me with Lyme Disease, something she believes I’ve had since birth, that my sudden weight gain and inability to lose it again no matter what I tried, along with debilitating joint pain, and brain fog all had an explanation.
Not long before I got the diagnosis that explained a host of strange, seemingly unconnected symptoms I’d had on and off throughout my life, and after a lot of soul/self-work, I decided that I wanted to focus on being stronger instead of smaller, that I wanted to enter the second half of my life physically capable of lifting heavy things, pulling my own weight (literally), developing strong musculature and a core that would help me live a healthier existence as I got older.
That shift in focus arrived just weeks before my Lyme diagnosis. With a new, healthier perspective about my physical self and armed with medical information that, while challenging, was immensely helpful in making decisions about how to live with an incurable chronic disease, I changed many things in my life and, eventually, I got a lot stronger and even a little smaller.
But I don’t believe I would have been ready to make the many changes required to fight the disease and nurture my body if it hadn’t been for two hours in the middle of the night in Big Sur, California on August 31, 2019.
Three weeks after my mother’s death, and a week after I bungee “jumped” off that bridge in Bend, Oregon to confront a lifelong fear of heights, shortly after midnight, I pulled my car to the side of the road on Highway One and waited for more cars to arrive outside the entrance to the Esalen Institute.
Esalen is the stuff of legends, or at least it had been to me since I first read about it as teenager. Founded in 1962, four years after my beloved monks at New Camaldoli Hermitage set up shop on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway about eight miles to the south, Esalen is widely considered one of the birthplaces of the Human Potential Movement, where spirituality and science have been studied, learned, taught, and explored together by generations of pilgrims of every kind. Fifty Septembers before my arrival, it hosted the Big Sur Folk Festival where Joni Mitchell joined Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joan Baez and others to perform and commune a month after Woodstock.
Today, most folks might recognize Esalen as Don Draper’s ultimate destination (where he dreamed up the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” jingle while meditating) in the Mad Men series finale. The institute has been and continues to be many things to many people, “neither a school, nor a church, nor a spa, nor an inn, nor a monastery… and yet its utterly unique mixture contains a bit of all of the above,” according to an older description on its website.
I regularly perused the course catalogs for years, hoping someday to be able to swing a weeklong retreat, but schedules and finances (it is not an inexpensive affair) always got in the way. So, when I found myself in Big Sur during my extended #GriefRoadTrip after my mother’s death, I checked the website again and discovered an option I hadn’t seen before: Several nights a week, Esalen would open its renowned sulfur baths to 25 visitors who won their place through a lottery system, which opened online at 9 a.m. If you were lucky enough to snag a spot, the charge was $35 to access the baths from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Perfect, I thought. Only problem was I was staying at the hermitage where there was neither internet connection nor cellular reception. I would need to find a friend who would be willing to hop online at 9 a.m. sharp and try to secure a spot. Enter my friend Burt, cousin to my son’s godfather, a fabulous human always up for an adventure. If memory serves, I phoned him from the monsatery’s land line (it happened to be working, although it often does not) and breathlessly explained my plan. “I’d be happy to do that for you,” he said without hesitation, “But how will I let you know?”
“Call the monastery,” I answered, giving him the landline number. “Leave a message with the monk who answers.”
Burt laughed. “OK, honey, I’ll do my best.”
The next morning I was up with the sun and went for a morning hike. By the time I got back at midday, there was a scrap of paper taped to the sliding screen door of the small hermitage where I was staying with a message from Brother Ambrose that read, “Burt says you’re in.”
Ecstatic, I hopped in my car and drove to a spot where I knew sometimes there was an available WIFI signal from a nearby motel. I lucked out, logged on, and there was found a confirmation email from Esalen waiting for me, that said:
Please attend sober, bringing no drugs or alcohol or glass
Park and wait on Highway 1 at the Esalen entry, an Esalen Staff member will meet you there
Arrive at 12:45am
Please consider your health and wellbeing, and ensure the hot tubs are suitable for you and your friends
Bring a flashlight and comfortable footwear
Stay hydrated and monitor your duration in the hot water
Please support Esalen’s sustainable practices and if possible bring your own towel, and consider your towel usage and impact on the planet, thank you.
The Baths are clothing optional, with communal changing rooms and showers. There are no lockers for personal items.
I spent the rest of the day driving around Big Sur looking for a large scarf or sarong to wear into the clothing-optional experience where I was determined to exercise the option. That’s how I found myself in the dressing room of the women’s boutique at Nepenthe, a restaurant and cultural staple of Big Sur since the ‘50s. I was trying to decide between an oversized, gauzy scarf printed with a photo of a cypress tree against as blue sky and a dark-blue-and-white block-printed cotton sarong when I heard a familiar voice from outside.
“Do you have any men’s pajamas,” the sultry, gravelly woman’s voice I recognized but couldn’t quite place asked the shop manager.
I poked my head out to identify my “friend” just as it dawned on me who the voice belonged to: Catherine Keener, a member of the Parthenon of my most beloved actors, and a perfect stranger to me otherwise. Our eyes locked, we smiled and mouthed, “Hi,” and then I disappeared back into the dressing room like that Homer-Simpson-in-the-Hedge MEME.
Keener often plays strong, fearless women. I was having all kinds of anxious thoughts about my upcoming nude adventure at Esalen and somehow just hearing her voice silenced the frightened ones in my head. I bought both the scarf and the sarong and returned to the monastery in time to have dinner, shower, exfoliate, shave my everything, and take a disco nap before driving the short distance between the two thin spaces at midnight.
I was early. I waited in my car listening to a Pema Chodron audiobook, The Places That Scare You, meditated for a few minutes, and once a few more headlights appeared and car doors started to slam, I exited with a satchel containing my ID, asthma inhaler, a comb, a metal water bottle, and the cotton sarong, and joined the group waiting at the top of the steep hill that lead into the grounds of Esalen built along a spectacular swath of land on a cliff a hundred feet or so above the roaring Pacific.
There was a waxing crescent moon that night, so the sky was almost entirely dark but for the tapestry of celestial bodies that appeared once my eyes adjusted to the light (or lack thereof). We walked in unison, 25 of us, most in pairs or small groups, but a few of us loners, toward the baths that sit on the edge of the cliff.
I don’t know who designed the lights for Esalen’s baths, but whoever they are they should receive all the awards. They are low and amber, providing enough light so that you’re not tripping over your feet or anything else, but not enough to clearly see anyone’s wibbly bits or to interrupt the Dark Sky Area in which Esalen is perched.
The sulfur baths are fed by hot springs that are as ancient as the cliffs, millions of years old. The site upon which Esalen was built is believed to have been sacred ground inhabited and used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, including a tribe known as “Esselen.”
By the time Thomas Benton Slate homesteaded the land in 1882, no members of the Esselen tribe could be found living in Big Sur. When I entered the dressing area — “silent” to the left, “quiet” to the right, as the docent instructed — I was aware of the privilege of standing on hallowed ground, and the injustices that led to that moment. I turned toward the silence, as a small gesture of respect and gratitude.
Among the 25 bathers that night, I was probably slightly above median age. There were plenty of folks in their twenties and thirties, a few of us middle agers, and a number of elders. The elders, to a person, were unclothed, as were all of us in the middle. A few of the younger bathers, the ones with bodies that the dominant culture might say should be naked and enjoying their youthful bodies, were not.
Huh, I thought. When I was that age, you wouldn’t have caught me here dead, naked or fully clothed. Bless them. I doffed my clothes and, at first, draped the sarong under my armpits, before choosing a bath in which to begin my experience.
There were about a dozen bathing vessels dispersed between a couple of interior rooms and then strewn along a semi-circuitous path leading to the largest multi-person baths on the cliffs’ edge. I started in a big interior tub, alone, but it was too hot. I pulled the sarong around me and tried a second bath in the silent room. It was cooler and I began to relax until an older couple appeared in a smaller bath nearby and their giggling interrupted the silence so I moved on, this time to the “quiet” side and a claw-footed metal bathtub just big enough for me. I stayed there quite a while, feeling the sulfur water soften my skin, then my muscles, and finally whatever anxiety remained in my spirit.
After about an hour (so, half-way through our allotted 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. slot) I moved to one of the largest tubs closest to the edge of the cliff. There were a few other humans in it, but it was so dark, I could not see who or where they were. I climbed in and gingerly made my way toward what I thought was an empty spot.
Suddenly, there was skin on skin.
“Oh, sorry!” I stage-whispered.
“No problem,” a younger man’s voice said.
My eyes adjusted to the lack of light and I could see that there were maybe six other people in the bath with me. Maybe naked like me. Maybe not. I closed my eyes. Someone got out. Someone else got in. I wasn’t paying attention to them, I was listening to the waves crashing, to the baths burbling, to the beat of my heart slowing.
When I opened my eyes, I looked up and gasped, startling the human next to me.
“Sorry,” I whispered, “but can you see that?!”
Above us the Milky Way was as clear and brilliant as I have ever seen it. I was agog.
Sitting in ancient healing waters, feeling the cold spray of the wild ocean crashing on the rocky ledge, staring at the universe. All I felt was love. So much so, I was overcome and began to quietly weep and pray that best of prayers: “Thank you.”
Eventually, I got out of the bath, grabbed my sarong and water bottle, and walked naked through the quiet side to the silent side. In the room where there were showers to rinse off the sulfur, there were, as I remember it, two large windows open to the sea. Before I rinsed off, I climbed up on the window ledge and stood spread eagle — a hand in each corner on top, a foot on each corner below — and faced the sea, wind whipping my hair, standing in my power, naked and honestly unashamed.
I rinsed off, put my clothes back on, and at 2:45 a.m., made my way back to my car ahead of most of the other bathers. I was grateful for the time alone, not feeling the need to make small talk with anyone. As I passed one of the workshop buildings, there was a white board outside with a message that read, “Mother Teresa didn’t waste time worrying if her butt was too big.”
Indeed. I laughed out loud.
When I got back to my car to drive the eight miles south back to the monastery, I kept thinking of the Milky Way and the ancient waters and how for more than just a moment I’d felt a part of all of it. Lyrics from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s version of the song “Woodstock” repeated in my mind:
We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
I asked Siri to play “Woodstock” from my iTunes library and as I drove south on the Coast Highway, Joni Mitchell’s version of the song came through the tinnie plastic blue Bluetooth speaker I’d bought at a truck stop at the beginning of my road trip weeks earlier.
Mitchell wrote the song after her then-boyfriend, Graham Nash, told her stories about his time at Woodstock — a seminal music event he attended but that she skipped at the last minute when her manager insisted it would be more advantageous for her to appear on the Dick Cavett Show instead. The lyrics between her version of the song and his vary a bit, but the story is the same.
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going?
And this he told me…
I rolled down the windows of my car and sang at the top of my lungs, WE ARE STARDUST, WE ARE GOLDEN…and zipped right past the turn off for the monastery. I kept driving south another 20 miles to Ragged Point where the “Welcome to Big Sur” sign is, turned around and drove back, singing all the way.
Reborn. Baptized in stardust.
When I turned onto the two-mile switchback road that leads to the monastery grounds sometime after 4 a.m., I turned the music off and let the silence in. The monks would be up soon for Matins, their first prayers of the day.
When I reached my tiny hermitage, I was greeted by a surprise guest: a large praying mantis the color and size of a short stalk of wheat clung to the screen near the handle. We stared at each other for a while, and eventually I went inside via a different door. By the time I brushed my teeth, she was gone.
As the sun began to rise over the Santa Lucia mountains in the distance, I crawled into bed, naked, and slept until noon.
Unlike my bungee adventure, which rid me of my fear of heights once and for all, my night bathing nude at Esalen exorcised the worst of my body shame, but it didn’t wash it away completely.
That’s the thing about fear. Sometimes it can be confronted and overcome.
Sometimes you must do what you can to take the wind out of its sails and integrate (or compost) the rest.
Most of the time these days, when I start to think cruel and critical things about my body — the mortal coil that continues to function mostly and miraculously as it was intended, that is stronger and more resilient than I imagined it to be, that has been my carriage as I’ve traveled the world for more than a half century — there is a nanosecond of pause when I can interrupt my internal narrative.
And I remind myself: “You are stardust. You are golden.”
Beloveds, as we head into summer, let’s be as brave and as kind as we can.
Please never forget that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love, and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,