Well, you think, blankly, after finishing Lee Harrington's Salon essay "How a topless beach helped my self-esteem." Good for you. I guess. Really, it takes a moment to process it...all.
Here's the scenario: Harrington has undergone breast-reduction surgery and is not yet accsutomed to her new body.
For many years, my breasts had been the focus of men's attention; I could go out to bars with spinach in my teeth and still come away with a pocketful of phone numbers. Once my breasts were smaller, I hoped men would pay more attention to the full package: legs, abs, personality. But sometimes, I'd look down at my new, perfectly proportioned, size-B breasts and think: Did I make a mistake?
To reassure herself that she hasn't, she decides to join the topless throngs on the Riviera where, with the aid of a trusty gay friend, she aims to get comfortable with her nudity...or reassure herself that men find her attractive, anyway. Because, as she admits frankly,
No matter what the French say about their topless beaches — C'est naturale! You Americans are just prudes who cannot accept zee human body! — they are, essentially, one big gawk-fest. For les hommes...[I]f nudity was so naturale, why wasn't there one penis appearing in the media for every pair of breasts? Or one for every 10? Or at least some male buns once in a while? I tried to address some of these questions at dinner parties but was always dismissed as a prude. Or worse, une feministe.
While the women on the nude beach are enviably insouciante, and seem wholly unconcerned with the male gaze - or lack thereof - the author is not so sanguine. Between admiring the breasts of other dames and wishing she had their self-confidence, she bemoans her lack of male attention. Gradually, she starts to get more...comfortable.
The next step was to apply scented coconut oil to my body while in the seated position, or even better, while standing. "This is what my boyfriends always asked me to do," I said as I rubbed the oil into my breasts. "I'd do it and they'd beat off." I oiled up the undersides and the nipples, realizing that in public it was kind of laughable, but kind of enjoyable as well. I was doing what most people would agree was an incredibly sexual thing, yet, in the context of France and its beaches, we had to call it naturale. I giggled. "I can't believe no one has a hard-on!" "Turn around," David said. "Up there." Behind us, up on the wall that separated the beach from the yachts, was a young man with a video camera, his zoom lens zoomed in on me. He had a baseball cap with Greek letters on it and what appeared to be a bulge in his trunks.
Is this empowerment? Well, of a sort.
Pity that I was sleeping with no one, and no one was sleeping with me. In the States that would have been a problem, or at least a frustration, but here the fact that I was sharing my body with the masses, day in and day out, almost took the place of sex. After all, so many of my sexual fantasies involve some kind of public nakedness, being seen and desired; considering that, the simple routine of oiling myself lasciviously in front of a sea of strangers and strutting around in a thong became a sort of substitute for the act itself...So I became an exhibitionist. Soon I was the woman strutting topless to the ice-cream stand. I was the woman bouncing around in the waves. It was the perfect look-but-don't-touch scenario, and I loved it. By the end of the summer I no longer had any insecurities or doubts about how I looked to the opposite sex. So I sent a postcard to the cosmetic surgeon who had done the reduction. On the front was a tan, topless woman running out of the water with a jubilant smile on her face.
The issue of topless bathing is somewhat hot-button in France; some public pools have banned the practice, which some feminist groups have denounced as an assult of rights and a prime example of the nation's double-standard. Others feel the power dynamic inherent in the male gaze can't be taken out of the equation. (Sun damage has also increasingly become a concern.) Reclamation or status quo? It's an interesting debate - and it's hard to pin down where the author falls.
The mixed messages inherent to this piece are obvious: she admires the women so comfortable with themselves that they don't care whether men look; yet, at the end of the day, she wants the male validation. And there's no pretense otherwise. While the objectification certainly seems equal-opportunity (see: the erection) the author need not worry: she's in no more danger of being mistaken for "une feministe" than Katy Perry's "California Gurlz" alter-ego.
Look, if she feels good about herself...great. But what was the message of the essay? That you can still be hot even if your breasts are smaller? That being at your thinnest and most tanned will make you feel attractive? That nudity can be empowering? Or that titillation can make one feel in control? Certainly the comments that accompany the article are instructive in this regard. Roughly half are confused or disgusted, a few complimentary (and it's true, the breezy tone is undeniably engaging) and others are some variation on the following: "Show us." One wonders which she was going for, ultimately.