Having My Body Issues Stripped Bare Among European Sunbathers

The real reason I didn’t shed my bathing suit on Burriana Beach was because I was insecure about how my body looked.

“Are you English?” the topless woman inquired, leaning over my beach chair.

I didn’t want to stare, but how could I not? She was in her late 40’s, tall and quite trim, seamlessly bronzed from bikini bottom all the way up, without interfering bathing suit lines. She had beautiful breasts, a C-cup, I estimated.

My friend and I were vacationing in Nerja, a formerly sleepy fishing village, interspersing hectic days of tourist sites with relaxation on Burriana Beach on Spain’s Costa del Sol. The sun shone more than 320 days a year, the Sierra Nevada mountains cascaded down to the turquoise sea, and conversations surrounded me like a U.N. gathering: British, French, German, Japanese, and oh, yes, Spanish. Burriana Beach wasn’t even the “official” nude beach, but I was one of the only women who didn’t need to slather my mammaries with sunscreen. I felt overdressed.

“Where did you get your towel?” the topless woman wanted to know. 

I’d recently shopped in the touristy souvenir shops lining the beach, searching for the perfect beach towel for my week’s vacation. I’d passed on the Disney offerings and didn’t want to rest my butt on a British royal crown, so I selected a garish I-♥-Nerja pattern with a rainbow of bold stripes. My purchase became my GPS: I could always spot my beach chair after a brief sojourn for grilled sardines or ice cream from a dozen helado vendors dotting the shoreline.

The real reason I didn’t shed my bathing suit on Burriana Beach was because I was insecure about how my body looked. I didn’t want younger girls to view me as grotesque, the way I once had in the steam room. As uncomfortable as I’d been as that flat-chested seventh grader in the gym locker room or by a 13-year-old boy’s insulting remarks, now I felt conspicuous as a bosomy, mature woman. ​

“I bought it in the third store,” I said, pointing toward a display of inner tubes and swim noodles. 

“Thank you,” the topless woman said and retreated to her chaise longue to reinforce her seamless tan.

“I could’ve sold my tacky towel for a profit,” I joked to my traveling companion, who was sharing the straw umbrella we’d rented for the day for five euros. 

“She just wanted to show off her breasts,” analyzed my friend, a psychiatrist I’d known since grad school. She was so fearful of sunburns, she wore a shirt over her bathing suit, even in the shade.

“Really?” I said, surprised.

“She’s an exhibitionist,” she assured me.

“Isn’t toplessness a form of freedom?” I postulated. “Or a statement about gender equality? Maybe we Americans are just too puritanical.”

I’d never seen so many breasts in one place. Big ones, tiny ones. Firm, floppy, fleshy, perky, asymmetrical. Mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends, teenagers, and little girls — who sometimes went bottomless, too. 

The lanky woman on my right was getting a foot massage from Honey, a muscular Asian woman who traipsed through hot sand all day from chair to chair, marketing her services by waving a reflexology chart. My neighbor lay still, clad only in a scant bikini bottom, her eyes blissfully closed, her breasts jiggling and dancing as Honey briskly rubbed her legs with oil. Later I handed over 15 euros in exchange for Honey’s half-hour foot massage, but my breasts stayed firmly in place, out of sight and hidden inside my conservative black one-piece bathing suit. 

Back home, women dutifully covered up at the beach, whereas guys exposed their man boobs and wore Speedos even when they shouldn’t. Last summer an emergency ordinance was passed in Ocean City, Maryland, stating, “there is no constitutional right for an individual to appear in public nude or in a state of nudity.” 

No such constitution exists in Europe, and I became keenly aware how the women around me were comfortable in their own skin. Wrinkled seniors with rolls of flesh who might not be seen in a modest one-piece at home demonstrated no body shame about parading around in their birthday suit in the Mediterranean sun. 

Oddly enough, all genders donned shirts and cover-ups when they stepped a few yards away to dine al fresco in cafés, cooling down with sangria and feasting on all-you-can-eat paella for only 7.5 euros. It seemed to be some unwritten law that you and your bare breasts could hop around in the sand, playing volleyball and diving unabashedly into the gentle turquoise waves.

I watched my beach neighbors change into dry bottoms after a swim and hang their dripping half-suits up to dry on a wire under their straw umbrellas. I was the only one who hadn’t brought a second suit for my lazy day at the beach, but it made perfect sense not to sit around in wet nylon and spandex. They didn’t even need the privacy of holding up a towel, as my mother insisted in Brighton Beach, where I’d grown up, long after I was too old to transform outfits in public without feeling mortified. Even today, nursing mothers in my liberal east coast city retreat to a private room or drape a scarf across their breasts and their infants’ heads in public, the way I demurely did decades ago. 

Part of me wanted to roll down the top half of my racing suit — not necessarily to look like everyone else — but to share their liberation from cover-ups. 

I’ve had a mixed history with breasts, like many women I know. I’ve always identified with Nora Ephron, who said more than a few words in her legendary essay A Few Words About Breasts: "I suppose that for most girls, breasts, brassieres, that entire thing, has more trauma, more to do with the coming of adolescence, with becoming a woman, than anything else."

Like Ephron, I was younger than all my classmates because of my school’s misguided notion of having me skip third grade. My friend Laurie and I were the only two in second grade who scored high enough on a standardized test to leap ahead lest we be bored academically. Nonetheless, we were socially and physically immature. Laurie caught up sooner than I did, her breasts emerging two years later, while mine were nonexistent, perhaps permanently so. I don’t remember wanting them as much as being distressed at their absence. I felt like her younger sister rather than her peer.

 

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In seventh grade, I was eleven and still flat-chested. My mother, a first generation American with old-fashioned values, refused to buy me a bra in spite of my begging. “You don’t need one,” Mom insisted, unable to realize this was less about need and more about yearning to look like everyone else. In gym class, we all undressed in one room, and my classmates quickly noticed that I was the only braless one. They howled and pointed as if I were a freak. I felt like one. 

Surreptitiously I bought a bra the next week, stuffed it into my book bag, and clasped it on before school four blocks away in a restroom in Dubrow’s, a legendary cafeteria on Kings Highway where JFK and Jimmy Carter once campaigned. My mother never knew I was Cinderella, sadly transformed back into a flat-chested braless child at the end of each day.

Michael sat behind me in Algebra, whispering into my neck while our teacher busily posted equations, “You’re nothing but a flat broad.” I held back tears. No wonder I fell behind in math that year after years of enjoying solving mathematical puzzles with my engineer father. I didn’t yearn to be voluptuous, but I certainly didn’t want to be ridiculed for the absence of a body protuberance whose appearance, if it ever arrived, would supposedly transform me from a girl into a woman. What would be scarier than that? I didn’t want to be flat-chested, nor did I want to be my zaftig Prussian grandmother — a baker whose fingers always smelled like butter. Less than five feet tall, whenever she sat down her rolly-polly silhouette seemed to have no definitive waistline or lap.

I wasn’t a flat broad forever, but I was at the end of the bell curve in breast development until I started taking birth control pills in college. Finally, I needed a bra. Then, in my twenties I blithely tossed away my bras as a feminist statement, proudly prancing around in slinky tops with what my daughter would now call “nipplitis.” My mother winced when she saw the distinctive outlines of my breasts through my form-fitting tops.

Pregnancy and nursing turned this “flat broad” into a permanent 38D who didn’t feel free enough to roll down my bathing suit and join my fellow European nudists. 

Was I the opposite of an exhibitionist? Too buttoned up, afraid to shed my outer layer?

I can still hear Michael’s voice in the back of my neck in math class: “You’re nothing but a flat broad.”

I can still hear the cruel girls in gym class, pointing at my breastless braless chest, humiliating me into the image of a little girl rather than the grown-up women they falsely believed they were.

And here on a Spanish beach, where I am anonymous and will never see anyone again, I remain covered up. 

I want to shed my inhibitions like everyone around me — but I can’t. I’ve dedicated my career as a writing professor, taking pride in the knowledge I’ve acquired and store above my neck — not below.

After my vacation, I ask my 22-year-old daughter what she would have done on Spain’s Burriana Beach. 

“Definitely would’ve taken off my bikini top,” she immediately declares.

“Why?” I ask.

“For a total tan,” she says.

All those years following her around armed with a tube of sunscreen, and she still craves overall tans.

“You should’ve gone wild, Mom,” she advises. 

Those women didn’t seem wild — simply serene. I didn’t believe they were exhibitionists but instead natural and uninhibited. I found myself staring at them like a voyeur — as if I were still the preteen who used to sneak into the steam room at our summer pool club to gawk at the naked old ladies — Polish and Russian immigrants — schvitzing over their huge, drooping breasts. How could I have pretended to enjoy the steam room when my friends and I were really there to poke fun at their mysterious and shocking bodies? Shapes we never imagined we might inherit one day.

Over the years my breasts have been sexual to my husband and nurturing to my infant daughter. And now at the end of the day, taking off my bra brings me a feeling of private bliss.

The real reason I didn’t shed my bathing suit on Burriana Beach was because I was insecure about how my body looked. I didn’t want younger girls to view me as grotesque, the way I once had in the steam room. As uncomfortable as I’d been as that flat-chested seventh grader in the gym locker room or by a 13-year-old boy’s insulting remarks, now I felt conspicuous as a bosomy, mature woman. 

So often we crave what we don’t have: breasts that are smaller or bigger. But the European sunbathers shamelessly demonstrated that we can be perfectly satisfied with what we have.

I missed the opportunity to bare my upper half on that idyllic Mediterranean beach, but I am revising my dress code at the university pool where I swim near my apartment. In the women’s locker room permeated by chlorine, I’ve become less self-conscious promenading around the communal dressing area without the security of a towel wrapped around me. Buck naked, I emerge from the showers for all the college students to see: this is what I look like. This is what you might look like someday. 
 
Much to my surprise, and relief, no one is laughing at me anymore.


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