The Freedom of Topless Beaches
In popular culture, women’s breasts are often seen as the ultimate symbol of sex. Women are bombarded with a variety of consumeristic options to “improve” our breasts: we can buy numerous types of bras (gel, push up, "bomb shell"…the list goes on), which all seem designed to emphasize women’s breasts up to the point of actual exposure. It's a thin line: women are encouraged to clearly demonstrate their cleavage, yet actually going topless is considered shameful and reserved for Playboy. In settings where men can acceptably go shirtless, like the beach, breasts “need” to be covered. But why do women "need" to constantly cover -- yet simultaneously strategically expose -- an ultimately benign aspect of our bodies?
This past August, I was fortunate enough to travel to Spain for the first time. I lived with a Spanish family for two weeks and had the opportunity to study the language and explore the town of San Sebastián, which is primarily a beach-based community. The beach was incredibly inviting with warm blue water, white sand…and topless women.
When I first visited the beach, I was in shock. I couldn’t keep from staring in disbelief at the topless women. Little girls frolicked in the surf without tops, bare-chested young women in their twenties sun-bathed and strolled along the beach, and women in their sixties and older enjoyed the beach sans bathing suit top. Then I realized that everyone at the beach (men, women, children, the elderly, etc.) was simply enjoying the beautiful summer day. There was no undercurrent of sexual tension: In fact, the men seemed almost indifferent to the topless women around them.
Every woman looked different and very few women had bodies that would be seen as “sexy” by mainstream cultural standards. Yet not one single woman looked uncomfortable or embarrassed. They were happily enjoying themselves. Their exposed breasts didn't define them. Their bodies were just bodies. Instead of being viewed as sexual objects of desire, they were able to just be people.
Even though the majority of women were completely comfortable without a top, I was not confident enough to join them. I scanned the mental checklist of my insecurities and felt a little safer hiding beneath my bikini. However, in hindsight, I wish I had experienced the freedom of being topless.
Even though I didn’t, my experience at the beach helped me realize that I, too, have nothing to be ashamed of. My breasts are a part of my body and they shouldn’t need to be covered or altered by lingerie or bathing suits. Although I understand that people could be uncomfortable at a topless beach like I initially was, I believe women should be allowed to have that freedom over their bodies. The societal expectation that women’s breasts are “shameful” or “unseemly” perpetuates a double standard and begs the question: Why can men go shirtless and bare-chested if women can’t?
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