A few years ago, some friends and I made a trip to Collins Beach at Sauvie Island to enjoy some innocent fun with sand and sunshine—but I wasn’t prepared for what the beach was really about. About 18 miles northwest of downtown Portland, Sauvie is the largest island along the Columbia River and the closest place for a beachy getaway. On the winding road to Collins Beach, I looked out the car window to see sprawling green farmland, cutesy signs advertising fresh local produce, and glimpses of the river through the roadside brush.
Collins Beach is one of the best places to enjoy daytime-party vibes, but my friends left out a fun fact about where we were headed to lay out in the sun. I’ve lived in Oregon for the majority of my life. I grew up here and attended the University of Oregon, so I know we tend to be labeled as a bunch of hippies, vegans, and stoners. While many of the nature-loving, “back to the land” stereotypes can be painfully accurate, that didn’t keep me from being taken aback during my first visit to Portland’s only nude beach. No one had mentioned in the car that we were heading to a clothing-optional beach—maybe because no one felt it necessary or because it was assumed I would notice upon our arrival. I’m not sure how I missed the gigantic signs at the beach’s entrance that clearly read “CLOTHING OPTIONAL.” While I was immediately taken with the soft, hot sand, sprouting grass, and plentiful trees along the secluded riverfront, I barely noticed the topless women. I didn’t become an embarrassingly giggly mess until I saw all of the—mostly elder—penises basking in the sun.
It only took a couple hours to eventually forget that everyone was as naked as jaybirds. What was there to be shocked about, after all? It’s just the human body—we’ve all got one. I slowly realized that since my friends and I were the only fully clothed people on that beach, my anxieties about nudity were turned on their head: we were the weirdos on this island. Leave it to Portland to make you feel like you’re the one who is out of place unless you’re naked.
Since that first visit, going to Collins Beach at Sauvie Island has become a ritual girls’ day trip. My friends and I bring snacks, drinks, books, music, and some legal leaf, and spend the day working on our tans and cooling off in the river. Now I’m the one telling my friends, “Just take your top off! What’s the big deal?” It took me a moment to shed my self-consciousness, but being surrounded by all of these bodies in so many shapes and sizes made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Since I’m usually one of the few women of color on the beach, I worried I would stand out and people would stare. But I realized that this is a concern I have even when I’m clothed and out in Portland, so why let it hold me back? On the beach, I embrace it, disguise my Afro texture with some protective twists (so no one will immediately recognize me), and revel in my melanin like a sun goddess.
Nude-friendly activities like sunbathing at Collins Beach and the World Naked Bike Ride have become seasonal traditions here in Portland—even if you don’t partake in the nudity. I’ve been a bemused spectator at the annual Naked Bike Rides, as thousands of bicyclists pedal their way across the city after the sun sets. When a couple of my friends were in the ride, I stood on the sidelines to show support and cheer for all the liberated Portlanders sporting nothing but nipple gems and creative loincloths. When it comes to being nude in Portland, it feels more awkward to be an onlooker than it does to just strip down and join in. Maybe it’s because, as a woman, gawking at other people’s bodies in public is counterintuitive. Personally, I can appreciate casual nudity most when it’s for my own comfort and enjoyment, rather than as a spectacle.
I probably won’t be biking in the nude anytime soon, but we still make trips to Collins Beach every summer. Instead of worrying about how little I’m wearing, the only anxiety I have is about running into someone I know while in the buff. But that’s what sunglasses are for, right?