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The Skinny on Topless Sunbathing: It's Best to Respect Local Customs


You are lying on a terry-cloth towel, face down, at a beach in St. Bart's, Santorini, San Diego or Moorea. In the warm sun, you push the straps of your two-piece bathing suit off your shoulders. When you turn your head, you can see women--most likely speaking German or French--who won't leave the beach with tan lines above their navels, and they've abandoned their tops altogether. Cautiously, you undo the back clasp of your swimming suit. But then a strange man walks by, so you stay on your stomach, equivocating.

That's me on beaches around the world. I went to Sunday school and had to wait until I turned 13 to get a training bra, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't been tempted to sunbathe without my top on. I'd also be lying if I said it's to avoid tan lines because anyone who's ever gone skinny-dipping knows the zest of skin in direct contact with water. At a camp in southern Missouri many years ago, the counselors set aside sex-segregated periods for taking baths in the creek, and I can still remember the amazing sensation of hopping off the dock in the raw.

Women started taking to the water, clothed from toe to crown, at English seaside resorts in the 18th century. In 1946, Louis Reard, a French mechanical engineer, invented the bikini, exposing "everything about a girl except her mother's maiden name," according to Diana Vreeland. The monokini followed in 1964, but it landed with a thud, horrifying everyone from Kremlin leaders to Gina Lollobrigida. In this country, men began baring their chests when swimming as early as 1937. So they simply don't know how constricting and troublesome bikini tops are, poking underwires into your most tender places and threatening to fly off when you jump into the water.

My mother thinks women have certain very intriguing body parts men don't have, which ought to be covered. "Going topless isn't necessary," she says. Of course, she's 75 and Lutheran. Still, she's my mother, which is why turning over without my top on at the beach makes me so conflicted.

Nudists, or naturists, as they're now called, have been arguing for decades that it's every person's right to enjoy the beach in the raw. But even if you buy that, full nudity and toplessness are different things, as anyone knows who's visited a nude beach like Zipolite on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico, or Little Makena on Maui. There, pale-skinned men and women frolic like children of paradise, in gender-blind freedom. But for me, part of the joy of beaches has to do with the fact that they are intrinsically sexy--not pickup zones per se, but places where you see more live body parts than usual. The mystery goes by the wayside when you chuck everything.

I have to concede that topless sunbathing is provocative, especially around men who didn't grow up with it. Any woman who takes off her top at most American beaches should only expect men to act like the primates all humans really are. But at beaches cultivated by Western Europeans, chiefly in the Mediterranean and ethe Caribbean, etiquette comes into play. Cruising and fondling your topless partner are irritating faux pas, as is ogling. On a vacation in Martinique, I couldn't help but notice how several American men spent mornings on a beach frequented by topless French models, with books and sunglasses to disguise their true interests. French men, for instance, don't engage in such antics and seem unaffected by the sight of bare breasts at the beach. But France is a far more homogeneous country than the U.S., where cultural, religious and ethnic multiplicity results in differing attitudes about proper beach attire.

Look at U.S. law concerning naturists and the policies of our national park seashores, which recognize that nudity isn't a federal crime but respect local values in places like Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park on the Big Island, where nude bathing was recently prohibited due to native Hawaiian cultural mores. At Fire Island National Seashore on Long Island, nudity is tolerated, even though it's against state law. (Interestingly, in New York courts, women won the de facto right to go topless, based on rulings against sexual discrimination on beaches where men were allowed to bare their chests but women weren't.) Worse than taking off your top at most American beaches is going topless in the Third World. Last fall, at a resort on the east coast of Bali, a Hindu island, I almost went up to a Frenchwoman, sunning her breasts by the pool, and told her to put her top back on. It seems to me that women who sunbathe without their tops in countries where even an arm exposed is taboo are the worst kind of ugly Americans--though, in my experience, most of them are European. It is as if to say the native pool attendants and swim-up bartenders don't exist, that the customs of their country don't matter.

The rule should respect those who might be made uncomfortable by women going topless. Don't do it in most of Mexico and Morocco. Indulge yourself at St. Tropez or Salines Beach on St. Barthelemy. Be careful on the coast of Maine or at Black's Beach north of San Diego. And, I suppose, don't tell your mother.

Still, my mother knows how I climbed down the cliff one morning several years ago to Black's Beach, wondering why it should be so hard to get to a clothing-optional littoral in California. She also knows that there, I did something she doesn't approve of, by simply turning over.

I haven't made it a custom since then, but somehow, on that occasion, it meant a great deal to me. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to kick sand in the face of a guy cruising in the buff, and recognize the unparalleled view enjoyed by the hang glider who flew off the cliff and paused above your beach towel. I think my mother understands, though. She's no fool.

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