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Nobody Looks - And If They Do, What Do They See?

My first vacation in Europe couldn’t have been more romantic or exciting. A wedding in Saint, France, a town in the region of Bordeaux, included a week in a cottage in Menorca, Spain with my future husband and two other couples before a stopover in Barcelona and Paris on the way to the festivities. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? My friends thought so, but I dreaded it. Over lunch with a girlfriend and a senior officer of the company where I worked I announced my vacation plans. Each spewed forth their fondness for Europe.

“Paris is lovely and Saint is quaint”

“Barcelona is fun, and the beaches of Menorca are beautiful!”

They waxed lyrical until they noticed me squirming in my seat. “What’s wrong?”, my friend asked me.
“I’ve just gained so much weight”, I answered, and I had. Though not fat, I was, well, voluptuous, having gained a full two cup sizes on top of two extra inches around the middle and three around the hips. “Oh, Paulina, what are you worried about! You look fine! You’re not fat!” I squirmed in my seat more, she pressed, “what?”

“They sunbathe in the nude over there!”

At that my friend laughed out loud and the senior officer choked on his drink and almost fell off his chair.  But I barely noticed because I was so uncomfortable at the idea of being naked in front of strangers. It is…..well, it”s everyone’s worst nightmare, isn’t it? This was no way to make a first impression!

My future husband didn’t get it. “what do I bring?”, I asked him meekly. He stared at me blankly, not understanding the question.

“What do the other girls look like?”, I pressed. “You’ve seen pictures!”, he answered.  That’s right, I had….all skinny, pretty little girls!

“Are they going to wear bikinis?” “I don’t know!” he yelled, exasperated.

“well it says in the guide book that they sunbathe topless in Spain and France, I need to know what to pack!”

My future husband, an Australian, had grown up with topless sunbathers every summer.   

“Ha, ha, ha! Is that what you’re worried about? Awww…it’s nothing! Nobody looks! Growing up around the pool would be my sister (he says shrugging), her friends (he says shaking his eyebrows up and down) and my mom and her friends (he says recoiling)” I ignored the body language and resigned myself to just deal with it.  “When in Rome….” I’ve eaten duck’s feet and blood sausage in order to fit in with other cultural traditions, surely going topless can’t be as bad as that? We arrive in Barcelona, jet lagged, and meet up with the Australian friend and his skinny, blonde French girlfriend. Nice, good-looking couple.

“Paulina’s worried about going topless in Menorca” my husband announces. “Hm, thanks, hon!” I think to myself.

“Aw, mate, nothing to crack a bone about, nobody looks”, says his friend in his Australian accent. His skinny, blonde girlfriend adds in her French accent, “Oui, ce n’est pas comme Ameghreecah” she says, “eveghree bah-dee baayze sans tup!” and shrugs her shoulders in that way the French do, making me feel like a reeeally dumb American for even thinking about it (albeit South American).

“Fine”, I thought, “that’s it! When in Rome…..”And I shrugged and said only one thing more about it, “OK!”  But I secretly dreaded that moment. You don’t just throw away a custom that’s been ingrained in you all your life. I swear I lost sleep over it.

On the second day we arrived in Menorca and met up with my husband’s American friend, a tall, black skinny guy with an afro, liquid eyes, and cheerful grin. Beside him, his Basque girlfriend, a petite, skinny girl with huge brown eyes, creamy white skin, and straight black hair.

“Nice to meet you”, says the American, bending low into his knees to give me that continental kiss on the cheek.

“Encantada”, says his girlfriend, taking hold of my shoulders and planting a sincere kiss on my cheek.

“OK”, I thought, I can deal with this. It’s all going to be alright.

At dinner that night the subject came up again. “Puhlee-nah is afghraeed of bee-ing, tup-less” says the French girl

“No teneisshh por-kay!”, says the Basque girl.

“Yeah, Paulina, there’s nothing to worry about” says the American, “nobody looks!”

“OK, ok! I get it! Nobody looks!” I was tired of the whole subject.

On the third day we were off to the beach. I had my coffee in my pajamas and saw that the girls wore bikinis under their clothes, bottoms and tops, so I did like they did and wore both parts of my bikini under my dress.

All six of us piled cozily into a tiny little Mini and drove on narrow dirt roads through thick brush where all you can see are miles of foliage in every direction as white dust blows into a perfectly clear cerulean sky. After what seems like hours of sweating on top of each other in that crowded little car, we arrive at a parking lot with scarce another car in site. I was glad I wore my suit under my clothes, there were no changing rooms. Funny enough, the Australian and American went behind the opened door of the Mini to change into their suits. I guess people look if you're a guy?

We climbed down a steep cliff into a little alcove with white sand and the clearest, most beautiful, turquoise, green and blue water I’d ever seen! “Oh!” I exclaimed, “this is BEAUTIFUL!”, and I forgot all about my dilemma as I hiked down the trail.

The beach was separated into two parts by a natural ditch filled with seaweed between the soft, dry sand near the cliffs and the moist sand near the lapping clear water. We found a spot near the cliffs behind the people. I looked around and saw brown bodies lying flat on blankets in bikini bottoms. The men’s bathing suits were similar to the women’s, and the men wore their hair longer than they do in the US while women wore their hair shorter. It was hard to tell the difference between the men and the women when they were lying down. In fact, the only time you could tell the difference was when a woman chose to leave her top on, which, I learned that day, was an option.

The French girl wanted to test the water and I was happy for a dip after that sweaty ride so I followed her as she led, in both her top and bottom, to the water. The water was ICE cold, but, to this New Englander it was heaven! The boys went as far as their ankles and turned around, the two of us waded right in. No matter how deep we went, even when we treaded into the deep blue part of the water, we could clearly see our toes and more. It was amazing!

As I tread water with the French girl I noticed a figure stepping gingerly on the rocks to the side of the beach. It was a woman with dark brown curly hair, small breasts and big hips balancing carefully from stone to stone, in the nude! When she got to the ditch with the seaweed, she jumped over it with her arms outstretched like a child to keep her balance.  She was perfectly comfortable in her skin. I looked at the rest of the people on the beach and no one looked! “I guess it’s true”, I thought, “No one looks”

The French girl and I went back to the rest of the group and set up our towels to soak up the sun. The guys were already lying down and, first the Basque girl, then the French girl took off their bikini tops and lay down. Facing the water I observed them through my eyelashes. They made no bones about taking their tops off and I noticed that they each had perky little breasts with large nipples. It hadn’t occurred to me to notice their breasts before because, when you’re dressed, and not calling attention to cleavage the way people do here, you just don’t notice another woman’s breasts. Then I realized I was looking and blushed profusely. “Nobody looks, Paulina, remember?!”

Calling forth all the determination it took to fit in as a foreigner in the States I reached around the back, untied my bathing suit top, laid down, and pulled it off. My husband was laid down next to me, on his other side the French girl. On her other side, the other Australian. On the Australian’s other side, the Basque girl, and on the other end, the American. All were laying flat on their backs with their eyes closed soaking up the sun. As I lay there, squinting through one half opened eye to make sure no one was looking, I thought, “surely I can’t be the only one who looked”, but…nothing. No one on the beach even moved.

“Nobody looks!” I thought.

Five minutes into it I started to relax. I finally stopped worrying and started to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I forgot about my exposed breasts and felt myself melt into the sand. I was no longer fat and topless on the beach, conscious of my body and the judgment it could procure, I was just me, lying in the sand being sunkissed in a way I had probably only been sunkissed as a baby. The warm breeze that rolled into the cove swept over my torso like a mother’s hand. Lying topless on that beach under the warm sun was as sensual as licking every ounce of Kansas City barbeque sauce off my sticky fingers. Hmmmmmm, it was good!

And just as a smile started to creep over my lips I heard the deep voice of a Spanish woman ask, “Y tu que miras?” (and what are YOU looking at?)

I opened my eyes to see a slender, middle aged topless woman hiking through the sand carrying a blanket. Behind her a slouching, pot-bellied man with long wavy black hair followed with his head turned squarely in the direction of my boobs… I could almost see the drool hanging from a bulbous lower lip.

Two other girls in our group and this creep singles me out. Doesn't that just figure!I guess nobody looks unless Paulina is at the beach?

I think, even though I never caught them at it, it's more likely that everybody looked. I’m inclined to think the men in my group probably snuck a look at me just as I snuck a look at the other girls. It's as natural to be curious about something you don't see everyday as it is to be comfortable in the nude. But, whether they looked or not makes no difference in the end because we all transcended back to our true natures, which, in that group, were essentially pure. Who we are when no one looks is who we are when everyone looks, if we are honest. In our group, everything was clear--there is nothing to be ashamed of if there is nothing to hide.

As for that slouching man with the pot belly, well, it’s possible that he was breast-fed as a child and hadn’t had anything to eat that day. I certainly felt like a fat, juicy steak under his stupored gaze. If so, well, you can’t really blame him. Deprivation, whether it’s of the soul or of the belly, makes clarity impossible. Fortunately for him, he had a woman to guide him. Fortunately for me, I was amongst a group of decent men—the kind who have enough clarity to understand there is more to a woman than her body parts--the kind of men a woman begins to notice with her own bit of clarity.

Today I see there is a social media campaign for women's equality called “Free The Nipple” where I learn that men were once required to cover theirs before demanding and obtaining their right to go topless in 1934. As he is interviewed in the campaign video, a topless man recoils in shock and amusement as he emphatically states, “no!” when a woman asks him if he doesn’t think exposing himself is an invitation to others to just do what they want with his body. I am amused and impressed.  It seems there is a new wave of feminism emerging. 

When the early second wave feminists protested against the Miss American pageant in 1968 by tossing their bras and girdles into the trash, they were branded by the media as bra-burning man-haters angry that they were not attractive enough to compete in Miss America. The backlash I witnessed in the decades that followed has accompanied me throughout my formative years, closeting my feminism until I discovered pole dancing.

Engaged in the activity first as a recreational dance-sport then as a business owner, I had to confront the issue of objectification and sexualization and empowerment of women head on. First, from the Marxist/Socialist Feminists who really were so angry with the subject that I couldn’t even continue the dialogue much as I wanted to understand their anger with pole dancers. Then I had to endure the ostracization, discrimination, hostility, and disdain of the people I encountered who were not in, what we in the sport affectionately call, my “pole bubble”.

“It’s not that they have a problem with pole dancing, Paulina, it’s that they object to the kind of people who would patronize your establishment”, I was told. Whaaaat?!?! The women I met in pole dancing classes ranged in occupations from students to lawyers to doctors to engineers to financial analysts and more. There was obviously the occasional stripper, but they hardly ever stuck with the classes and I had met just as many ex-strippers when I worked in corporate.  Furthermore, the vision I had for my studio is to create a safe haven for the Divine Feminine using the tenets of dance, holistic health, and yoga. What I learned from pole dancing is that it is an empowering activity.  One in which women learn to overcome fear and rely on their own strength.  Creating a place where they could feel safe learning this is certainly isn't objectionable, is it?  Why would people object to women looking for a place where they can feel safe being women?

Having wrapped up his review for the insurance on my studio, the forty-something bot-bellied inspector asks me with an excited glint in his eye, “So, what -- you teach strippers here?”   SIGH!   "Um, I teach people to dance on the pole, not take off their clothes." I tell him. Still, I have to ask, what is it about female nudity that threatens so many and ellicits such excitement? I mean, isn't a boob just a boob?

I think back to the “bra-burners” of 1968 and it dawns on me.  The problem isn’t really with women or their willingness to expose their breasts. The problem is that women who do so willingly, like their exposed breasts, are  …unbound.  They no longer accept the restraints society has placed on them and act according to their needs.  

As much as I try I can't imagine a world where women walk around topless without eliciting violence and excitement, just as I find it difficult to imagine a world where women are truly treated equally.  But there was a time when the rules and expectation for men was the same as those imposed on women, so , I suppose anything is possible.  This is highly encouraging!  

And, as I've learned in my years of practicing and teaching yoga, such a place exists in a raised consciousness.  When we gain clarity we can start to see beyond our differences.  When we learn to see the Divine light that lives in each of us we can begin to recognize that Divine light in the rest of the world.  Thus, we can understand what we say when we say, Namaste.

Did you know that 8 out of 10 guys think it's messed up when women are disrespected?  To learn more about the "Be That Guy" Campaign, supporting men who would stand up FOR women, go to Be That Guy

To learn more about the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest, visit: The 1968 Miss America Protest 

To learn more about the #freethenipple campaign, a statement about equality for women, go to Free The Nipple Campaign on Mic