It's actually not that complicated
Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I am 18 and just graduated from high school. This summer I’m working as a counselor at a sleepaway camp that I attended as a kid. I have a friend working here, and I also know some of the staff from when I was a camper. The first group of campers will not arrive until next week, but the staff arrived a week early to set up.
My friend has friends who live nearby, and yesterday they invited us to hike to a lake after work was over in the evening. It was a short walk, and everyone seemed really friendly. It was very hot out, and when we got to the lake, I was surprised when three people took off their clothes to jump in the water. My friend did, too. I sat at the edge with another girl and just put my feet in the water. Part of me wanted to go swimming, but I didn’t really know what to do because I have not been skinny-dipping before. I wonder if people are disappointed in me or if they judged me for not going in. Nobody said anything, but I still felt self-conscious. Now they’re talking about going to the lake again and invited me to come again if I want to. Maybe I’m sheltered, but is it normal to just expect someone to get naked?
You never have to be naked around anyone you don’t want to. Period. If the idea makes you anxious, you can just take it off the table. That said, “normal” is a loaded word, but it’s not uncommon for adults to go skinny-dipping (and it can be totally positive as long as—caveats—they’re in a private place, everyone’s comfortable with it, and there isn’t a power dynamic that puts pressure on certain people to participate). It’s also totally normal to not go skinny-dipping, or not want to. That’s why we invented swimsuits. Everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to modesty. The question is whether this is something you want to be part of or not.
Maybe you have no interest in being around naked people or find the whole thing unpleasant, in which case you should simply decline the invite. Even if skinny-dipping at the lake becomes a regular way for these folks to have fun when they’re not at work, it’ll probably become less regular once summer is in full swing—and you’ll have plenty of other things to do, too. Say thanks but no thanks, then grab a good book or hang out with some of the other counselors. Or if you really like these people, you could suggest a different activity, like scoping out a new trail or going to a public swimming place. You could even bring your own games, like a frisbee or a slackline, so that there are things to do out of the water, too.
But it sounds like you aren’t uncomfortable with other people skinny-dipping so much as the perceived expectation that you, too, should be skinny-dipping. You’re straight out of high school, and high school cultures tend to put pressure on students to conform, so it makes sense that you’d feel like you’re expected to participate. But in fact, most adults don’t care how their friends dress or what their friends wear to go swimming—and I suspect that these people aren’t expecting anything from you at all. They’re just doing their thing. They’ll probably be happy if you join in and have a good time, but they won’t think too much about it if you don’t.
What we notice in other people, more than anything else, is their energy and mood. If you’re naked and uncomfortable, you’ll stand out far more than if you’re in a swimsuit and enjoying yourself, even if no one else is wearing a swimsuit. You could be around skinny-dippers and wear a T-shirt and shorts in the water. You could wear one thing around some people and something else around other people, or you could wear different things on different days, depending on how you’re feeling. It’s all normal. As long as it’s what makes you comfortable, people probably won’t think about it for more than a few seconds. And if they do, it’s likely because they’re noticing, not judging: Oh, Emma likes to swim in shorts. That’s not a bad thing. It’s how they get to know you better.
Either way, you should let your friend know how you’re feeling so she can make a point to check in with you. And in the meantime, you can bring this lesson to your work as a counselor: when the kids get to camp, pay attention to the ones who hang back or who don’t participate in certain activities, and talk to them to find out what they need. You never know what might be unfamiliar or tough for people, and by making sure that they’re included, you’ll help make the summer more fun for everyone.