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Beach-Goers Are Divided: Are Thongs Right Thing?

VISITATION RITES: The Southern California Experience. One in an occasional series.


Kimber Lee says the sun is brighter, the water is warmer and the beach is cleaner back home in Seaside, Fla.

But the beaches are more suitable in Manhattan Beach, where she was visiting this week.

That's because on Southern California's public beaches the 21-year-old can wear her favorite swimsuit. If she wears it on Florida's state beaches, she risks ending up in the slammer instead of the surf.

Lee wears thong bikinis, a "swimsuit" that does little, if nothing, to cover the buttocks. Florida officials last month banned thong bikinis on state beaches, saying the suits violate obscenity laws. Some Florida cities have arrested thong-wearers on municipal beaches.

The ban on thongs--worn, incidentally, by both men and women--has triggered a debate that has extended far beyond Florida's 780 miles of beach. Newspaper columnists coast to coast have begun to debate the issue. The subject also has been aired for radio and television talk show audiences.

Visitors to Southern California beaches this week were divided on the question, although it should be noted that bikini shops' stocks of the thong suit were stretched thin.

"They sell really well," said Debbie Stevenson, manager of Diane's Bikinis in Manhattan Beach. She said she sells about 20 of the $55 suits each week--"mostly for back yards, I think."

But increasingly, thongs are popping up on public beaches in Southern California.

About a block from Diane's, Lee was reading a book while her boyfriend, Joel Hamm, surfed. Both are flight attendants whose jobs take them to East and West Coast beaches.

Lee blames her home state's strict enforcement on tourists and retirees who are surprised by the beach attire when they visit Florida.

"Some beaches don't have a lot of young people," Lee said. "In the winter, they have a lot of Canadians and older people everywhere. They passed this law without local people voting on it."

In California, one might argue, beach-goers traditionally share a more permissive attitude.

"I think it's very attractive," Rip Masters of Torrance said of the swimsuit style while visiting Hermosa Beach with his 5-year-old daughter, Sheila. "But I'd probably have mixed feelings if my daughter came home in one."

Marinella Giarratana, 18, of La Jolla wore a conventional bikini as she stretched out on a beach towel next to her friend, Tricia Cardella, an 18-year-old Redondo Beach resident who opted for the thong.

"They're not for me," Giarratana smiled. "I've got underwear that is that size. But no swimsuits."

Thong bikinis were one of many surprises for Venice Beach tourist John Bailey of Corinth, Tex. His children, Ryan, 9, and Kelly, 7, watched wide-eyed as the usual assortment of oddball boardwalk regulars passed by as the family browsed at souvenir stands.

"I don't think there's a place for them on the beach," Bailey said of the style. Added his wife, Wendy: "The kids see so much on TV and on videos. I think we need to pull back a little bit."

At Newport Beach, visitor Florence Poland of the Bronx, N.Y., sat under an umbrella and nursed a nasty sunburn as she mused over the latest fashion. "The young fellows might like it, but I don't," the 60ish woman said.

The style is not the exclusive domain of women. Men's thongs are also being sold at beachwear boutiques, and can attract as much attention as the bikinis.

Beach-goer Todd Keefe, who was arrested in Florida and jailed for wearing a male version of the suit, charged during a recent "Donahue" TV show that Sarasota patrol officers snared him in a questionable "undercover operation."

Sarasota City Commissioner Fredd Atkins defended the bikini patrol--and the controversial state law that set the officers in motion.

"This is nothing but obscenity," Atkins said. "If you've got to show it, show it to yourself--keep it home and off the streets."

Newport Beach city lifeguard Keith Head said many visitors to his beach seem to feel the same way.

"We have tourists coming over all the time pointing to someone in a thong and asking if it's legal. Fathers and mothers tell their kids, 'Don't look!' " said Head, 20.

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Mike Miskowiec said: "I've never had anyone complain about those suits, not one person. But then this is Venice Beach."

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