I’m pretty sure it’s the only time I’ve bought a naggin of whiskey, intending it for my own sole consumption. (Of course, I disregard my wild teenage years when God knows what I bought and how much of it I drank; we did whatever we could get away with whenever we could manage it back in those days.) No, I’m talking about as a mature adult. Sure, I’ve bought naggins before – heck, entire bottles of whiskey, when around this time of year, the cold gets into me bones and I might arrive home from work of a Thursday evening and suggest to Geoff that an auld hot whiskey is in order. I’m not talking about any of that; I went into a shop, bought a naggin of whiskey, threw it into my handbag and pegged it off to a certain Wicklow beach, hoping against hope that the liquor would give me the bravado to take off all my clothes and run into the sea, naked as the day I was born.
My first Skinny Dip. Year two of Deirdre Featherstone’s event in aid of children’s cancer charity Aoibheann’s Pink Tie. She had expected me to do it the first year, but alas and alack I was in the States at the time. Year two, and she wasn’t hearing of my absence. These pushy warrior women, with their strength of spirit – I had no choice. Alright, I agreed. I’ll do the fecking thing. But the day had arrived, and for some reason I hadn’t a soul to travel with; I had decided to do this all on my own and so I set off, hoping that I was suitably adorned (I plaited my hair and wore a dress with a split up the centre and a couple of stick on tattoos.) I bought the whiskey and set off. So far so okay. I arrived at the scene: women everywhere, every shape, every size, every age, every personality type – and they were all in high spirits. The Preamble to the Event, in the grassy car park: prosecco, chocolate, full on body art and a complete lack of modesty. These were women of experience; year two for most of them and they intended to slay. I searched around for another newbie like me. I spotted her; that girl I sort of knew, the friend of a friend. I immediately recognized the look of terror on her face; it was like looking into a mirror. She looked like I felt. We connected.
“First time?” I said.
She nodded, her eyes distracted by every new group of women, wheedling into the car park, honking horns and spilling out of wagons with scarcely a shred of decent clothing on them. My modest stick on tattoos seemed ridiculous beside their full on body art: ‘Swipe your credit card here’ and a massive arrow pointing to a bare arse; ‘Park your bike here’ – there was worse, believe me. Everyone screaming with laughter. Flowers painted around one surviving boob. A woman posed for a photo with a wig jammed down a flesh coloured pair of nickers: the spell was broken and I laughed till I cried. I opened my whiskey and accepted a chocolate. Suddenly a loud horn sounded and Deirdre announced we would make our way down to the beach. Throw a dressing gown over your naked self and let’s go. I looked at my first time sister, silently saying: “Are you going to go through with it?”
She looked at me, silently saying back: “I don’t see that we have any choice.”
Alone, at the door of my car, stepping out of my knickers, with my Doctor Who dressing gown secure around my shoulders, I honestly seriously considered hopping into the car and wheel spinning the heck out of there. This, I told myself, is the worst moment of my recent life. How can I expose myself in this way?
I had the most appalling sense of worth; my idea of my own body was that I was huge, and that it was a bad thing. My arse was the size of a small country and regardless of how many women that were bigger than me, nothing could convince me that I was not the ugliest one there. And that it actually mattered. Scars of my life glared at me for having the cheek to expose them. Stretch marks from my first pregnancy; my twenty-year-old body punished for the rest of my lifetime. A threatening varicose vein; the trials of carrying three children and nursing two. It takes its toll. How many women stand in front of their naked selves and lament?
I was grateful for the whiskey. Apart from giving me the courage to go down to the beach, it was brutally cold that day; we even had icy rain mixed in with the cold Atlantic wind that whipped at us from the seashore. Brilliantly, Deirdre had massive posters, each with a single letter. Like everyone around me, I dropped out of my dressing gown and hid behind a letter. We lined up on the shore, buck naked, save for the posters, while our female photographer did her best to get shots of us: the giddiness was rife; the energy was beyond electric; we were gagging to run into the sea, and yet we had to be photographed: push the message home – “Cancer, you haven’t a hope.” “Don’t be a mug, check those jugs.” We were united by our genitalia, by our breasts – some women didn’t even have breasts any more. There were battle wounds but no more war cries; the screams that came from the beach that day were ones of jubilant defiance – come and fucking get me, but don’t stop me having fun! You can only hold back a hundred elated women for so long; politeness snapped and we were off, flying into the sea, screaming, singing, laughing; the shock of the ice cold sea really making an impact as it hit our fannies: a hundred curses rising into the winter-like May sky. A moment: the sound of a hundred women laughing; a hundred female souls, released from giving a flying fuck. The Wise Woman within in me, who reveals herself on the rarest of occasions, said:
“Do you see now? It is only skin; it houses something far more important. Here are a hundred sublime souls, exposed and shining. The scars and blemishes, the size and the shapes mean nothing. I am dancing with my sisters and we are all glorious.”
Deirdre and I walked out of the sea together. I hugged her, thanking her for making me do it. We walked slowly back up the beach, and chatted next to the discarded dressing gowns and towels; it was only the cold that prompted me to eventually cover up. Beyond, were women, well into their fifties, doing naked cartwheels and everywhere were women hugging and laughing. The mad ones stayed in the sea for a while and the rest of us sat on the soft cold sand, retrieved our prosecco or our whiskey and sat within the best of ourselves, smiling at life and feeling the cogs of perspective slide back into place in our lives.
That is the truth of my first strip and dip. Some of the women stayed over in a hotel and partied through the night. I had a party to attend back in Dublin. A beautiful friend was turning fifty. I burst into that party full of joie de vivre in the purest sense of the word. I took selfies with every group of people there, honestly, because I was delighted with myself and was getting a kick out of my own pure smile. That’s what the strip and dip did for me. For almost the next year, I got up in the morning and just got dressed, without the drama of tearing my hair out because something made me look fat. It released me from the pain of that daily trauma. As we got closer to the date, I recognized the need for this, what would become my annual balancer; something to help me remember what I really am and what my connection is to everyone around me.
Not everyone gets this from the Skinny Dip. Some people take it in their stride. They’ll do it once, but maybe never again. For some people, body image is not an issue. Some people will never do it because body image is beyond managing. I was lucky. I had this pushy girl prodding and prodding me to do it and because of her, I found my soul on the beach that day. I mean I really connected with myself. I didn’t get to do the dip last year, and I am emptier because of it. This coming year is going to be the biggest ever, because that relentlessly brave woman Deirdre is going for the Guinness Book of Records. A thousand women will scream into the sea: A thousand warriors will release their scars to the skies and we will laugh and we will dance and we will sing.
These are amongst the things that help to heal me. They are important.
Join us this year: June 9th