In The Breast Archives, Petra Roelofs, one of the nine women who so boldly share their stories, tells us of her first visit to the beach after moving to the United States from the Netherlands as a young woman:
“My sister and I … I believe I was… my early 20’s, she was 3 years younger… we came to America for the first time on vacation and went to L.A., and we were so happy to see the beach and be out of the plane… like a 12 hour ride… and so we were ready to go in the ocean and so we took everything off except our bikini underwear, so to speak, and… topless. I mean, that’s what we were used to in Holland and other places in Europe where we would go on vacation — But before we could even reach the water, there was a lifeguard running after us, right away. And we’re like, “What’s going on?” And he realized that we were visiting, and were from Europe, and so he took us back to our parents and explained to them: “I could have arrested them, I could have fined them; this is big deal. Can you please tell your daughters to put on their tops?” And I remember this feeling that we had done something wrong.”
This summer, Ocean City, Maryland is playing host to a Battle of the Breasts, but it’s not a wet t-shirt contest at one of the local bars. Rather, it’s a legal fight over whether or not women can sunbathe topless on the city’s famed white sand beaches. On one side is Mayor Rick Meehan, who says, “We will not allow women to be topless on our beach or on any public property within city limits.” On the other is Chelsea Covington, an activist who has submitted a 78-page legal brief that pressed the county and state on women’s right to sunbathe bare-chested. Currently, police are looking the other way when women go topless at the beach, but that could change.
As we enjoy the beautiful New England summer, this got us thinking about women going topless on the beach. Who does it? Where? How do they feel about it? We reached out to some friends to learn more about their experiences.
Many women take advantage of the anonymity afforded by travel to enjoy topless sunbathing. The first to speak up was Debra, a massage therapist living in Maryland. She said, “I’ve been to topless/nude beaches in Majorca, St. Martin, and Anguilla. I didn’t go totally nude but did go topless. It appears that it’s just the U.S. with the hang up on nudity.”
Jenn is a lesbian from Brooklyn. She has been to many topless and nude beaches, especially during trips to Fire Island, home to a vibrant gay summer vacation community. In reflecting on her experiences, she was interested to note that, while she has been to gay women’s beaches and mixed queer beaches, she’s been most comfortable disrobing on straight beaches. She says, “I am a larger woman with a short, masculine haircut, three tattoos, and hairy legs and armpits. Although my breasts are very large, on a straight beach, I am ‘other,’ and not part of then men’s gaze. I have no relationship with being sexualized. I am much more cognizant of my body shape, size, and everything else among my queer peers.”
Some women make their choices about going topless based on who is with them. Sharon is a working mother from Seattle. She once went to a topless beach on a vacation with her best friend. “I could only be comfortable taking my top off either in front of someone I knew intimately or a bunch of strangers,” she said, “Never someone I knew casually!” Debra tells of a trip to Europe on which she and her husband were joined by another couple. The group went together to a nude spa in Czechoslovakia. When asked if she was uncomfortable with a male acquaintance seeing her breasts, she replied, “He sees mine, I see his…what’s the big deal?” On the other hand, Jenn says that, while New York City law makes it entirely legal for women to be topless on the beach, she avoids the one where she is most likely to encounter co-workers. She doesn’t so much care that they are topless but she feels that, because her breasts are large, she is “more topless” than others and that it’s awkward to share that with co-workers, especially those who report to her.
Sometimes, a visit to a topless beach is a life-changing experience. One of our favorite stories comes from Jackie, a writer who lives in Connecticut. When Jackie was 20, she spent a year living in Paris. Her French boyfriend Alex spoke Spanish, and the two of them took a trip to Barcelona. Jackie says, “I have always had particularly severe body issues. Alex was such a kind soul. Others invalidated my body issues. They said, ‘You have a beautiful body!’ but he said, ‘What if you just start loving your body the way it is and go from there?’” When Jackie and Alex got to Barcelona, they went straight to the beach. Jackie says, “I realized that not everyone on the beach was gorgeous. There were old people, fat people, women with saggy breasts, and I thought, ‘Ok! I can do this.’ First I took off my top and lay on my stomach so just my back was showing but, after a while, we were playing cards and hanging out and it was no big deal.” Jackie had such a good time that she didn’t realize how much sun she was getting. “Suddenly,” she says, “ I had a feeling like every cell in my body was cooking, like I was in a microwave!” By the time we got back to the hotel, I was turning purple and my eyes were swelling shut. I had to spend the whole next day or two inside. But it’s a sign of how comfortable I had become that I lost all track of time. Not only did I go for it, I forgot that I was going for it. I lost all sense of body consciousness, to the point that I literally let myself catch on fire!”
This year, Petra moved back to her home in Holland after many years in the U.S. She and her boyfriend too his daughters, aged 12 and 14, to the beach this summer. The first thing that Petra noticed was that fewer women were choosing to go topless than she remembered from beach trips years ago. A 2014 Guardian article backs up her observation. For reasons including fashion, cancer concerns, and social media, fewer European women are taking their tops off than did years ago. Holly, of Portland, Oregon, agrees. “In this era of a camera in every hand, and the Internet, no way.” Petra offers one more possible cause for the change: “If they don’t have a mother or another women to show them that this is ok, then they choose the other image.”
On their excursion, Petra removed her top after swimming, as she prefers to do. She says she just likes the way it feels. “I feel it’s natural when I go into the ocean and I put on the top and when it’s wet I take it off and I’m exposed to the sun topless.” The girls are used to going to the beach with their mother, who prefers not to be topless, but were very interested in what Petra was doing. The younger girl, who is not yet developed, took off her top, saying, “Dad takes his off, and I am equal!” The older daughter, whose breasts have grown, declined to do so, but Petra was pleased nonetheless. “I am just happy that she knows that she is allowed, that she has a choice.”