Before this summer, upon the mention of nude beaches, I would immediately drum up the beach scene in Eurotrip. That’s how far from my version of reality they seemed. Even being in a bathing suit in front of people felt close enough to nudity to me. My opinion completely shifted one day over the summer when my best friend and I, by the navigating powers of Google Maps and a small miracle, ended up at the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath in London.

The ponds were segregated by gender and we reached the men’s swimming pond first. What we didn’t anticipate was the hill overlooking the men’s pond, which was filled with the happiest, most diverse group of half-naked men we’d ever seen.

They were lying in the sun, playing catch and listening to music. The lack of clothing was just part of the landscape, no one seemed concerned with it. Nothing we hadn’t seen before in the States where shirtless men only draw attention when they’re over 75 and mowing their lawn.

today @lauraeule and I tanned topless in a meadow full of topless women #freethenipple

A photo posted by nalab628 (@nalab628) on Jul 10, 2015 at 11:40am PDT

When we came upon the women’s swimming pond and its small overlooking meadow, we saw the most breathtaking sight. There were women of all ages, ethnicities, races, shapes, and sizes lying out. Everyone was topless and some were even completely naked.

But no one was giggling nervously or slyly checking out other people’s bodies. I got the sense that this was a form of release for many of the women. After a few minutes of hesitation and debate, we decided to join in and timidly took off our tops.

My self-consciousness eventually gave way to an appreciation for my own body as well as everyone else’s. Our bodies simply became part of nature and the background instead of a point of comparison or judgment. Lying there topless for a few hours was one of the most relaxing and freeing experiences I’d ever had.

Nude beaches

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The media is full of unrealistic examples of how we as women should look, clothed or nude. No wonder we don’t want to be topless in front of one another; we live in constant fear of falling short of unattainable standards. On top of that, it’s basically illegal for women to be topless in 35 of our 50 states. Meanwhile, men have complete freedom.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the media is highly correlated with causing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. From social media, where everyone seems to put their best face (and body) forward, to the examples of beauty we see in movies and online catalogues, the message is clear: Show off your body if you look a certain way, otherwise don’t bother.

Nude beaches

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The culmination of these factors makes nudity for women taboo as well as illegal, further causing us to either hide our bodies or to focus completely on how we look to the point of developing eating disorders. If we all got to experience more regularly the freeing feeling of just being comfortable showing off the girls, we could learn how to celebrate each others’ bodies instead of judging them.

Promoting positive body image is one of the best ways for us to reverse the way media forces us to see ourselves, and can fight body dissatisfaction and its contribution to eating disorders and the pattern of thinking that causes them. A few uncomfortable moments spent covering our chests are worth it if it means we can start to love ourselves, both naked and clothed.