Bare beach for beginners

2012-07-06 10:16

If the Spanish have lost their shirts in the Eurozone economic crisis, the number of topless women on Spain’s beaches would seem to indicate that they’ve lost the top half of their bikinis too.

On a family holiday in the elegant seaside town of San Sebastian this week, I was reminded that seeing women suntanning topless is always a bit of a culture shock for South Africans, however well travelled or cool we think we are.

Seeing grannies in bikinis follows a close second. Especially when you notice – as they jiggle down to the sea for a swim or build a sandcastle with their grandchildren – that many of them are only wearing the bottom half.

South African culture admits nudity or semi-nudity under strictly prescribed circumstances.

There are the bare-breasted Zulu girls who annually perform the royal reed dance as part of tribal custom. There are the select few beaches where, unofficially, nudity or topless tanning is acceptable – like Clifton and Sandy Bay in Cape Town.

But for the most part we South Africans prefer to keep our kit on, though this can be academic.

I’ve seen enough erupting cleavage at Monday morning office meetings to make me wonder whether half of the workforce came straight from a nightclub.

But if I, as a woman of an Uncertain Age, have started to mutter things like “inappropriate office attire”, what do Muslims who come from communities where women are concealed from eyebrow to ankle think when they see a woman with exposed knees in Woolies?

Are Muslim men aroused by the sight of a naked shoulder in Pick ‘n Pay? Are they scandalised? Do they turn a blind eye?

What about their burqa-clad partners who crowd into sexy lingerie shops in Sandton City? Do they feel uncomfortable in the presence of their non-Muslim sisters who go about the world unselfconsciously in transparent scraps of fabric and bouncing T-shirts?

Such questions went through my mind as we settled ourselves on San Sebastian’s Zurriola beach alongside ripped grannies, tattooed yummy mummies, surfer chicks and semi-clad women of every age, size and shade of bronze in a thong.

This, I thought, trying not to stare, will take some getting used to.

On a holiday website someone called Helen had posted a question (in lower-case).

“Is there a holiday place in europe where they don’t allow topless sunbathing?” She explains: “i was hoping for somewhere like greece or spain, where they don’t allow it, i find it very upsetting if my bloke can view topless women, it makes me feel bad and insecure and i don’t want it to ruin our hoilday.”

Someone called Andrea replies:

“I don't think your friend will look at topless all the time, It will be rude behavior! Only small part of woman are topless and a big part of these are old woman, and other part put on the top before go swim.

“In europe who stay in topless don't do that for be watched, so don't worry, after some hour you will be accustomed and topless will seem natural.”

I love Andrea’s Euro à gogo reply, even though I must, on principle, protest his saying that “old woman” remain invisible to the majority of the population, whether they’re in flattering three-quarter sleeves or stark naked.

“Oh.My.God.” my son exclaimed as the woman next to us stood up and took off her top, revealing breasts like hot air balloons.

“Be cool, darling,” I said, “we’re in Europe.”

We chewed on our sandwiches for a while and tried to look everywhere else. At the surfers, at the waves, at the cute kid and his little dog digging in the sand…

Then my daughter gave a start. “Eeeuw, that granny’s got tats on her titties!”

“Eat your sandwich,” I said.

“I’ve gone off it,” she said.

A man in a Speedo walked past. “Now that,” I said, “that is unforgivable.”

I have no doubt that after some hours we will be accustomed and topless will seem natural. But a man in a Speedo? That’s not natural.

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