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Skinny-dip organizers Hélène Caron (left) and author Christina Paradela outside the pool in Dundas, Ont. Photo by Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator

How a women-only skinny dip changed my idea of body image

"I saw this gathering as a prompting of the Spirit, encouraging women to love the skin they’re in, reminding them that their bodies — with each roll, bump and scar — are made in the very image of God."

By Christina Paradela

Two years ago, my nutritionist turned to me and asked, “How about a little exercise?” Little did I know where this question would lead me.

As one drawn to water, I thought I’d try swimming. Front-crawling my way back to fitness at the community pool in Dundas, Ont., I soon befriended some of the lunchtime regulars. One day, when three of us women were showering after the swim, I burst out with a question: “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to swim just once without bathing suits?” Both agreed, and the idea of a women-only skinny dip was born.

We reserved the pool for a private swim, hired an all-female lifeguard team and bought some big tarps to cover up the windows. I activated social media, and the newspaper sent a columnist and photographer. My swimming pal Hélène Caron and I made a splash on the front page of the Hamilton Spectator, standing in what appeared to be our birthday suits behind a bright pink towel.

But as word of the event circulated, too many women cited their body shape as the reason they’d never be naked with others. Cultural norms dictate thin, “fit” bodies to the exclusion of anything else. It seems that visibly distinct body shapes with various scars and lumps are to be hidden under clothes.

Initially, the skinny dip was only intended for fun, but it occurred to me that it might also work as a fundraiser. My thoughts turned to the agencies that help people who struggle with body image. The staff at Danielle’s Place, an eating disorder resource centre in nearby Burlington, Ont., readily agreed to partner with us and allowed us to borrow their slogan — “Love the skin you’re in” — for our event.

On a Sunday afternoon, five days before Christmas 2015, over 40 women gathered at the pool. We spent the first half-hour dressed, munching snacks, chatting and settling nerves. Many women who participated had never been skinny dipping. Most confessed that they had to summon courage to be there.

In her own time, each woman made her way to the change room to undress. Some emerged nude with a towel in hand; others covered themselves, dropping the towel at the last second.

My preferred mode of entry: slipping down the big blue slide. I couldn’t help screaming every time I flew off the end and into the water. I’d surface to uproarious laughter. Once the swim began, the modesty, nervousness and body consciousness seemed to melt away. Women aged 20 to 75, of all shapes and sizes, simply enjoyed the soft feel of water on their bare skin as they talked, splashed and made new friends.

Suddenly, I saw this gathering as a prompting of the Spirit, encouraging women to love the skin they’re in, reminding them that their bodies — with each roll, bump and scar — are made in the very image of God. What I witnessed in the pool that day, and during six subsequent swims, was radical liberation from the oppression of society’s beauty standards.

Like a pebble tossed into a small pond, the idea had rippled out into the hearts of the women, nudging us all toward greater acceptance of who we are — even in our most vulnerable state.

Christina Paradela is a diaconal minister in Hamilton.

This story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Observer as part of the regular"Spirit story" column, called "Naked truths."  

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