Vol 4, Num 17 :: 2005.09.23 — 2005.10.06
Kelly and April Crull have been living in Spain for three years, and one month ago moved to a small town on the Mediterranean. The phenomenon of topless sunbathers used to be a once a year experience, but now has become a nearly daily occurrence in their lives. As a result, they decided to record an interview of a conversation they've had at many times in different ways.
April: When we go to the beaches here in Spain, some of the women are wearing bikinis, and some of them are not wearing the tops of their bikinis. I think about these women being topless a little bit, but mostly I think about what you're thinking and how this affects you. I figure these women are the same sex as me, so I probably don't notice as much or maybe I notice different things. So I thought I would just ask you some questions about your experience.
My first question is what was your reaction when you first saw women without their tops on last year when we were on vacation in San Sebastian?
Kelly: Actually, at first I didn't even notice. Going topless is normal there. The women aren't walking around topless trying to get lots of attention. They're seriously there just to sunbathe. In my experience, guys usually have tan chests, but women don't, so when these tan women walked by, I just saw another tan body. Of course there were obvious differences, two of them, but I really didn't notice. It's funny because we were probably on the beach in San Sebastian for half an hour to forty-five minutes before I even noticed that there were topless women around. But then it dawned on me, and I started looking around. I realized that there were a lot of them. I mean they were everywhere.
I'm trying to think back to how I was feeling then. Obviously, I can't speak for every guy, but for me it was more of a curiosity than anything. I've been married for almost six years, so it wasn't completely uncharted territory, but at the same time, it was a radical cultural difference. All of the sudden there were all these women around me doing something that I never experienced while I was growing up.
April: So what were you most curious about?
Kelly: I just wondered how it all worked. Do topless women play volleyball when they're topless? Do they go swimming? Do they walk into town? Or is being topless just something these women do on their beach towels? I wondered just how far these women would take this.
I wondered about moms with their kids. How were their kids responding to their moms being topless? Or teenagers, boyfriend and girlfriend, how were they responding to this? Or married couples? There were all these different combinations of people, and I was curious how they were experiencing the situation.
April: What have you noticed about the situation?
Kelly: A couple days ago there was a Spanish family on the beach. There was a son who was maybe in his late teens, mom and dad, and two girls, maybe 10 and 13 years old. The mom wasn't swimming. She was in a dress. The teenage brother was on the beach reading a book. The dad and the two girls were in the water playing. And the two girls were topless. The one girl was obviously going through puberty, and I remembering thinking to myself, "Now that's a time in my life when me and the other kids my age were all really insecure about what we looked like." I remember the shower room at school, and that was the worst possible place you could be when you were a teenager. But here are these girls going through puberty, and they're splashing around in the water with their dad having fun.
I thought, "How can they do that?" Not how dare they do that, but how can they be okay with being out there in the water playing with their dad when their bodies are changing almost before our eyes.
Actually, if I'm honest, those girls made me wish I was more comfortable with myself. I was a bit jealous. I'm not saying I want to be teenage girl topless on the beach, but for example, as a guy I see these guys walking down the beach in Speedos, and they don't think twice about it. I know of one guy in the county where I grew up who has a Speedo, and he mows his lawn in his Speedo, and everybody knows him. If you would say, "Hey, do you know the guy who mows his lawn in his Speedo?" everyone would know who you're talking about. No one knows his name. He's just the guy who mows his lawn in his Speedo. People can get away with that kind of thing here, and it doesn't seem, or it doesn't appear that they're thinking much about it, and that amazes me. I wish I were comfortable with myself like that, even though I'm not necessarily sure I want to express it in the same way as people do here in Spain.
April: In terms of body image, it's actually been good for me as well to have so many people around wearing so little. I remember an article that Kirstin wrote for catapult a while back that was about being in public shower situations and seeing women of all different ages and body types and realizing that our culture says there's only one body type that's right, but when you're in that situation, you see that's not possible, there can't be just one right body type. There's too much diversity. Being on the beach with so many people without clothes on has actually sent that message deeper and made me more comfortable with what I look like, which is not a message I would have expected.
Kelly: Yeah, what we're talking about makes me think about being raised in a Christian community in the U.S. I've heard so many stories about people our age and even people our parents' age who were just left completely in the dark about sexuality and all the changes that you go through in puberty. Basically, we've accommodated for that by starting sex education programs in schools, which is not a bad idea, but there's something to be said about your parents or someone in your family telling you about the birds and the bees. When you're a teenager, those are the last people you want telling you those things, but it's important.
When I see the people here on the beach just going about their normal life, I sort of feel like I'm behind or something, like these people have matured beyond me or have learned a life lesson I haven't learned. They're okay, and they're not worried. Whereas I still feel uncomfortable with it.
Actually, it's funny to me how positively we're talking about being topless on the beach because I think the conversation could just as easily go the opposite direction. For me, I think there is a line somewhere.
April: What's different between seeing everybody's knees or seeing everybody's shoulders. How is seeing everybody's breasts any different?
Kelly: That's a good question. It's one I've been asking myself. I wish I were more of a science guy because I don't know whether there is physically-speaking a difference between women's breasts and women's knees, to say that one is more sexual than another. But on a cultural level, I still live in the Western world, and I'm still an American, and the way I was raised, I know that for myself a woman's breasts or other parts of women are sexual to me. This is up for debate, obviously, what is and what isn't, but there is some common ground there. People know what they're doing. People know what is off limits and what is acceptable. People in advertising know this line very well, and they push it as far as they can to get attention. I guess my challenge would be why push the limits? What is the big need to show the world what you've got, to show the world your goods?
April: How would you feel if you were with one of your friends on the beach, and she was topless?
Kelly: That's the thing. We live on the beach now, and we're there maybe three or four times a week, and often with friends. Before this summer, I was lucky if I got to the beach once or twice a year. I could get away with objectifying the women then because I didn't know them. It was easier to forget that there were naked women around. For example, when I was at the beach in San Sebastian last year with my dad, I remember talking to him about the topless women there. We were there for five days, and by the end, we both just sort of forgot about it. You're playing Frisbee on the beach with your dad, and you're jumping over these topless women to make a good catch, and it doesn't faze you. It's like a lot of things, you put them out of your mind if you want to.
But now, here we are living on the beach, and seeing topless women is an every day kind of thing. I could be on the beach with friends, and they could be topless.
April: You said something about objectifying women. Why did you use those words and how does a woman being topless require you or ask you to objectify them?
Kelly: To objectify someone is, to use a bad pun, to strip them of what makes that person a person and to see them as an object or a thing. So like beach furniture or something. There's something about seeing a topless women who is almost completely naked that seems too intimate for me.
Besides you, I have a lot of other friends who are girls who I'm close to and who I know really well. It would be really hard for me to know someone that closely and also be put in that awkward situation where I know something about them that I only know about my wife. In some ways, it's not good for me either. There's something special about my relationship with you and our marriage. We only know each other in a certain way that no one else knows. That's sacred ground. That's our space. And I like knowing that I'm the only person that experiences that with you. I don't want to know that about other people. Go find somebody else.
It's a broader concept than just topless women on the beach. This is how relationships work. We aren't expected to be intimate with everybody we know.
I read a book last year, actually a web design book about how to build community on the web, and the guy said that the best way to build community on the web is to be exclusive, to have certain requirements that you have to meet in order to be a part of that group, and then the community will grow because people like being a part of something that is exclusive. A marriage is the same way. You're not entering into the relationship just because that person is there, you're making a commitment to the person who has special privileges in your life, to tell you off when you need to be told off, to comfort you when you need to be comforted, and the one who shares a level of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy that no one else does with you.
April: When we're at the beach, and there are some women who are topless and some women who aren't, do you perceive those two groups differently while we're there?
Kelly: One of the conclusions I've come to is that there is a difference between being curious about someone and being attracted to someone. Just because I see a topless woman on the beach, and that makes me curious, doesn't necessarily mean I'm attracted to her or that I'm thinking sexual things about her. One thing I've learned from experience is that just because you're on the beach with a bunch of topless women, doesn't mean it's pretty. In my opinion, naked people are more comical than anything. Clothes are a good thing.
I think there is actually something really attractive about clothes because of the mystery involved. I remember one Christmas when I was a kid when my parents were gone for an evening, and I went under the Christmas tree and found my present. I opened it, secretly, and saw what I was getting for Christmas. Before my parents got home, I put it back together and taped it shut, so when Christmas came, my parents didn?t even know I had looked at my Christmas present.
I don't even have to tell you the rest of the story. It wasn't nearly as fun to open the present on Christmas Day because I already knew what I was getting. You know how kids get all worked up the week before Christmas about what their present could be, how much money their parents are going to totally blow on them. I didn't get to do any of that that because I knew what I was getting.
Mystery is a part of who we are, and there's something about being together and having sex and all that stuff that comes with marriage, and I think that the mystery of it all is a beautiful thing. It's fun. It's exciting. Even when you're married, you don't walk around your house naked all the time. Again, having sex is like discovering the mystery in each other again, in this sense, on a physical level.
April: I still don't know what you mean when you say you're curious about topless women. For me being curious means there's something unknown, like you're curious about somebody's middle name or what they had for lunch.
There are a few things you don't know in that situation. For example, you don't know what that breast feels like. Are you curious about that? Are you curious about her, or are you curious about her body, and if you're curious about her body, you can't be curious about what her breasts look like because you see them. You need to be curious about something else.
Kelly: There is some curiosity about who she is just like there is curiosity about anybody you pass on the street or anyone else sitting on the beach, but there is an extra curiosity about somebody who is sitting there of the opposite sex mostly naked. You're right, curiosity is about something that is unknown. But even for a guy who has been married for five years, there is still a curiosity about the opposite sex. Of course you see things on TV and in your marriage relationship you're aware of other things, but there is still a general curiosity about women that makes you think, wow, this is not an everyday thing.
Maybe if you went to the beach long enough that would change. Maybe that's the difference for European guys. The curiosity about what women look like has been demystified.
When I see a woman sitting there on the beach, and she's topless, it?s nothing sexual for me that makes me think I want to have sex with that woman. It's not that. It's more of a curiosity about what women look like in general.
April: So, it's not so much that as you look at her you become more and more curious, it's more like, this is a bad example, but you walk past somebody, and you notice they have a tattoo, and it makes you want to turn around to see what that tattoo looks like. So it's more like that. In this case, you're walking, and you notice that a woman is topless, and it makes you want to turn around and see what that woman's breasts look like because you haven't seen 2000 breasts in your life.
Kelly: Yes, exactly. I was just thinking about when we went down to Morocco for a weekend. Morocco is a Muslim country, so most of the women were walking around in the full jilaba with the headdress. Some of the girls had on pink ones. Some had the jilaba with jeans on underneath. Some women were dressed in a Western style. And still other women were almost completely covered. All we could see were their eyes. I don't know if you were like this too, but the whole weekend I couldn't stop looking at those women. It was curiosity. Once I saw them, I knew what they looked like, but I kept looking because it was something I hadn't experienced much before.
The curiosity part of the being at the beach and wanting see more of what you haven't seen a lot of in your life, I don't think that's unusual or necessarily a bad reaction. I think the part about it that I question is just the relationship that you're having with that person, and in our relationships there is this concept of what we do and do not share with everybody else.
April: You still don't know what you think necessarily. You have ideas. You are uncomfortable with women being topless on the beach, but you're not ready to send Spain to hell in a hand basket. So how are you going to deal with this on an everyday basis? Does it affect whether or not you will go to the beach? Does it affect how you will act at the beach?
Kelly: I don't think it's a unique situation in comparison to other cross-cultural experiences I've had as a foreigner living in Spain. There are so many people that come to Spain, and they don't like something, like for example, they don't like the fact that Spanish people smoke like chimneys, almost every one of them smokes, or the fact that old guys often don't wear deodorant, or other things, small things, and some people honestly think they can change the culture as one American, one Dutch person, one English person. They can just come into Spain and say, "This is really dumb. I'm going to change this." I've just figured out that that doesn't happen. There are just so many different cultural things happening in my life all the time. If I would stop and try to fix all of them, or any of them, I'd just go nuts. So, I don't know if it's good, but my approach is to live with it, and hope I can learn something from it.