The desert taught me to be naked the fall I was 18, stepping nervously out of my shorts and sports bra on the tamarisk-choked banks of the San Juan. Above us, Mexican Hat rose tilted and precarious, looking less like a sombrero than a red cartoon anvil set to drop.
Six of us stood barefoot in the mud: three women and three men. “Let’s get naked and start the revolution,” one of the men said, and charged into the river.
I hadn’t been naked in front of someone since I was a child. In the sprawling suburbs of Chicago where I’d grown up, no one stripped down. At least, my friends didn’t: If plenty of teenagers were whooping their nude way into Lake Michigan, I was of the other sort — a never-been-kissed teetotaler and youth-group leader. Nakedness seemed inextricable from rebellion. It had to do with drunkenness, with sex, which to me seemed both terrifying and wrong.
More than that, I hated my body. Since puberty, it had never fit in the spaces it was supposed to go. It seemed impossible that someone would want to see it. And while I could have chosen to prune and pick and starve it into shape, my other option was to ignore my body entirely, to let it grow and spread. I wore sweatpants to school, gave up on school dances, and quit shaving.
But in this corner of the Colorado Plateau our bodies looked different, slipping into the milky waters of the San Juan. Mine felt different, too. I ducked into the current, feeling the cold water lick along my armpits and between my legs, stilling my sunburn. Here, the body fit: soothed, held, curvy and strong.
In the desert, beauty is the way a place has been tangled with: rock thrust upward through the crust of the earth, terrifying pours of water from a sudden-dark sky, tumbles of mud and rock racing downstream. The desert is all stretch marks, a shifting old skin, ugly and devastating in its resilience. And for every inch of it covered by detritus, another corner is exposed, glaring whitely under the full moon. Small white flowers erupt in last year’s wash.
Where I grew up, land was fixed into endless patterns of tract homes and ball fields. We planted zinnias and marigolds in rows. What I hungered for was the tangled thicket, the untouched marsh, but by the time I reached high school little remained. Everywhere, strip malls lined big roads. My classmates, too, seemed trimmed and predictable, eyebrows disciplined into perfect arches; it was no surprise that I disdained my own lumpiness, my unbridledness.
Nakedness was about rebellion, never about acceptance. But in the desert, there was no one around to judge my body when I slipped off my shorts — just these five people, and they seemed more concerned about swimming to the other bank to sun themselves on the rocks. Perhaps it didn’t take bravery to go unclothed. But I was still around; the revolution in that water was not that others saw my nakedness, but that I could let myself be. Somehow the sight of myself dimmed; self-consciousness began to melt away. In a place where nothing was plucked, it made sense that I could be OK as I was — ever-changing, gorgeous with catastrophe.
In the years afterward, I would be joyously, obsessively naked, baring my breasts comically off mountaintops. But I would also be angrily naked, obnoxiously naked, naked to make a point, the way liberal arts freshmen are wont to be. At my parents’ house in Illinois, my mother called after me, “Put some clothes on! We don’t need to see your naked body.” I was naked in protest of something I was just learning to put a finger on, something to do with how deeply our lives were sculpted, the way we required our bodies be trimmed and tucked and hidden — our disdain for the animal form, our unwillingness to let both land and bodies just be. In the context of my hometown, this new self-acceptance seemed miraculous, like a boil of red mud surging into the suburbs — and so I provoked, pushing back against the geography of control, what I’d been told I was supposed to be and not be.
Later, I realized that I wasn’t so much trying to convince others as straining to hear my own voice. I wanted to carry that sense of my body as beautiful, no matter where I went. I wanted to hold some kind of deeper wild, stretch-marked and sunburned, imperfect and stunning.
That first night we left the San Juan and slept high on a plateau, surrounded by piñon and juniper, burning long-dead limbs into a sweet smoke. The stars webbed around us, infinite and sharp. And I slept with the full sense of my own animal, the way my body turned air and water into the fuel for a day, the way bare feet gripped steep sandstone, the perfect ways curves fit the contour of slickrock.
Katherine E. Standefer’s work appears in Best American Essays 2016. Follow @girlmakesfire