By Tara Wesson
It was March 2016. I’d stumbled upon McIver’s Ladies Baths on one ridiculously hot day. I was eighteen, fresh out of high school, the bare bones of feminism: that is, principles of equality and empowerment, were faintly familiar to me. But until McIver’s, I had no real understanding of what it meant to be a woman and the weight that it carried.
That day I walked down the steps and paid twenty cents to see women of all ages, languidly stretched across the rocks, natural wonders extending over the blue ocean below for some hundred metres. I had never seen women topless in public before. And they lay, bikini tops shed, baring their bodies to the sun with a peaceful abandon I had never seen before. I remember, even two years later, the sense of peace that flooded my senses. It’s stayed with me as I’ve grown up and been exposed to harsher realities. It’s stayed as a steady waterline of internal safety, a haven that keeps my essence and core as a woman, learning her womanhood, burning brightly beneath all the smoke.
The first time I was there I felt a liberating sense of rebellion – like I was doing something brave and new; when I, too, left my bikini top on the rocks and joined the unspoken legion of sun mermaids.
Since then, I always do the same thing while I’m there. Lie down, take pictures, draw, with wax crayons and graphite… read. Write. Let the cold and unpredictable ocean splash and smudge the ink as it runs under the salt water.
That first day, I left feeling refreshed, and as though McIver’s and I shared an illicit secret that existed only at the bottom of those steps.
I watched one morning at sunrise as an old woman did tai chi on the rocks below. Though I wasn’t really watching, I was there and she was there. We were each presently aware of the other, though there was no power in my gaze. Merely a coinciding existence where I could see her, and she could see me. It was comfortable. Easy.
More recently, I had an emotional, confusing night. The feeling of flailing and being flooded by a feeling felt like old, tired muscles creaking into reluctant action. And I didn’t feel uncomfortable in my own skin… just tired of it. Tired of the thick and stultifying feeling that always left me paralysed in the foetal position, wondering whether to text my friends and ask for help. The next morning I knew I needed to go to McIver’s and bring myself back to the self that knew how to love all my selves. I needed a safe place where I could nurse and nurture myself, far from the pressures of the outside world.
That day was a hot day. I wondered whether the peace of the rocks would be ruined by crowds and was proved beautifully, spectacularly wrong. While it was busy – no expanse of rock spared – the mix of women was new and brilliant to me. Tan older women in big sunglasses laid beside chatting women in burqas, and girls my age, tattooed and tattooless, slim and voluptuous. There were younger girls, too, who I felt a small pang of happiness for. I could have used McIver’s in my teenage years. I was glad they’d discovered it.
The ocean and sky flooded me with a flowing blue calm. The red, raw pain left my body like poison. That day, a sign warned of bluebottles in the ocean pool, and as I hovered on the bottom step, my feet cold in the water, women slowly began to gather behind me. Together we spotted and warned the swimmers of the ominous stingers. One girl jumped in and began fishing them out with the long net. One by one.
Women helping women.