In 6th grade, a new friend came over and saw both of my parents lounging naked in the backyard. This is when I found out my family was a little different than most.
My friend screamed. I thought another rabbit had fallen into the pool so I screamed, too.
My mother leisurely laid a towel over my father’s bare butt (he was asleep, face down, thankfully) and slipped on her baggy London Calling t-shirt. It almost covered everything.
My friend admitted this was the first time she’d seen a naked man.
“Not even your dad?” I asked. In the moment, I was kind of proud too; for once I wasn’t the prudish, flat-chested teenager I was becoming. She looked even more appalled at my question than she had after seeing my dad’s ass. She left and I was mortified.
When I asked my mom to wear clothes next time I brought a friend over, she refused: “It’s my house!” she said, t-shirt free once again. “I’ll wear pants when you pay the mortgage!”
At home, my parents were almost always naked. I was used to it because I was pretty much always naked, too. Photos showed my family happily bathing suit-free in our hot tub and my twin brother and I running bare through the sand with naked parents in tow. Apparently, this was not the case for most kids my age. Apparently, most kids wear clothes while participating in family activities, even in California.
My parents are both baby boomers. They grew up in a time of strict parents with tight ties and merciless girdles and sympathize with Sally Draper when we all watch Mad Men in our underwear on visits home. They became teenagers, burned bras, took acid in the Woodstock mud, deemed themselves hippies and never turned back. They actually met each other naked, during a business meeting held in a hot tub (again, this is California). However, my parents would not call themselves nudists. They would call themselves comfortable.
And that’s what growing up with my parents was: comfortable. My parents’ nakedness was never a political point, never something they forced on others, and it was definitely never sexualized. I remember walking in on my parents having sex once when I was home from college; they both screamed and covered their parts in awkward body contortions, as if I had never seen them in anything less than Downton Abbey-style dressing gowns.
My parents’ nudie ways seemed pretty normal until I reached middle school and started seeing bodies, especially my own, as something to be embarrassed about. As I entered the inescapable body-hating stage of puberty, I took to wearing as many clothes as possible. It was awkward–and aggravating at times–coming home to two people so comfortable with their bodies while all I wanted to do was escape the fact that I existed underneath my Limited Too built-in-bra spaghetti strap camisole. Looking at my parents, I wondered if I would ever be able to be that open in front of anyone, if anyone would be that comfortable in front of me.
I remember coming home in tears once, not long after the naked dad incident. There had been a classic middle school squabble at the back of the bus–where all the cool kids sat of course–and one of the more ostentatious of the twelve year-olds tried to end the battle by declaring: “It’s not over until the fat lady sings!” At which point, my crush had replied: “Quick, Kate: sing.”
I explained all this to my mother, sobbing on her bare shoulder. After a few minutes, she told me the most adult advice I’d ever received (at that point): “Well, you’ll never be skinny, but you’re definitely not a fat lady. Just exercise, and maybe don’t eat those ice cream bars every night, and you’ll be fine.”
Yes, this was frank advice for a kid who’s biggest problem was being popular on the school bus, but her openness to treating me like an adult made me view situations like these in a logical way. As I struggled through the seemingly never-ending perils of teen body image, my parents’ brazen comfort with their bodies ultimately instilled in me a glimpse of freedom at the end of the puberty tunnel. Though the outside world was swarming with judgmental peers and unrealistic images of what someone should look like, here, at home, no one gave a shit that I might never be a size 2 or might have different sized nipples, as long as I did the dishes and got good grades. Here were two people that were healthy, and confident, and in love. Two who had made it through the dark years into naked martial bliss (maybe even not bliss, but at least comfort).
Once I naturally emerged from the puberty tunnel–older, more confident and with my body image in tact (as I hope most do)–I realized that seeing my parents’ ability to live without shame had help me internalize a stabilizing mantra: if they were fine in their skin, I eventually would be too.
The older I get, the more I realize that life at home wasn’t strange because my parents don’t wear clothes… it was strange because of our openness. Most people I know couldn’t talk to their parents the way I could growing up. Most parents didn’t give their children such logical, straight-forward advice. A lot of my friends feel more open with my parents then they do with their own. You know how they say you should imagine people in their underwear to make them seem more approachable? I didn’t have to.
The other day, my boyfriend came home with some friends and, before opening the door, he knocked loudly and yelled: “KATE! Are you wearing pants?”
How did he know I was vacuuming in the nude? Had the stale piece of bread I used to cover the peep-hole on the front door fallen off again? As I pulled on the closest thing to clothes within reach (cat hair-covered snuggie), I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I realized how he knew I was naked, how he knew to knock: he knows me. After living together for the last year, he knows I am rarely clothed when I am at home.
So it goes: like so many people before me, I am slowly becoming my parents and although this is a little horrifying, it’s pretty comforting, too.
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