A few years ago I had a breast reduction, and although the benefits of this surgery were innumerable (see “A Little Off the Top”), I found myself going through a strange period of adjustment. 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 they’d pay more
attention to the full package: legs, abs, ass, personality. But at my lowest moments I found myself trying to measure up to my former sexiness, even if that sexiness had been too much for me to handle. I’d actually look down at my new, perfectly proportioned, size-B breasts and think: Did I make a mistake?
But these moments of neurosis were, thank God, short-lived. As it turned out, fate led me to the South of France and there, despite being surrounded by tan goddesses, I got back my flailing confidence.
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. In the North, you might see entire families bathing naked: Maman with her over-taxed breasts sagging unabashedly on her stomach; Papa with his grey-pubed zizi shriveled in the cold. But the real spectacle, where only the babes go topless and the topless are all babes, is on the Riviera.
It seemed like the perfect spot to take my new rack for a test drive. I knew no one, nobody knew me and nobody, presumably, cared. Bare breasts were everywhere, after all. There were breasts on billboards and breasts on bank notes and breasts on primetime TV. I once saw an Italian game show where the object of the game was for a blindfolded man to “recognize” his wife by feeling up a row of naked contestants. This intrigued but also confused me. Were breasts revered here or weren’t they? If they weren’t revered if they were, as the French kept insisting, “no big deal” then why were they used so fetishistically in advertising? And if nudity was so naturale, why wasn’t there one penis appearing in the media for every pair of breasts? Or one for every ten? 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.
Soon I knew if I wanted to keep the invitations coming I’d have to keep my mouth shut. And that if I wanted any answers I’d just have to find out for myself.
So I set off for the beach. I purchased a new thong for the occasion (which was so cheap I thought it must be government subsidized) and brought along the other essentials: tanning oils, reading materials, my Tommy towel (as in The Who, not Hilfiger), some tortoise-shell Ray Bans and my gay friend David. David, like me, was new to the country and eager to figure out this odd Homo sapien, l’ homme francais. I also knew I could trust him to make acute observations of the topless scene without being clouded by lust.
The beach we chose on our first outing was the Gravette in old town Antibes. It’s small, with two jetties on either side that make it shrimp-shaped (and for months I mistakenly called it the Crevette). On one side of the jetties were the famous Antibes yachts, bigger than most Manhattan apartment buildings. On the other was an ancient fort, famous for something we never bothered to look into. We were too focused on the beach.
The sunbathers at the Gravette were mostly women. They lay on towels and chaise longues with small inflatable pillows for their heads. They each had about six tubes of tanning products one for each body region, we assumed and they were all, without exception, topless. “Oh boy, breasts,” David said flatly, and spread out his towel. He had worn a thong Speedo to our first outing, which, he proudly pointed out, gave a favorable lift to his hefty
goods. “You owe me two hours at the leather bar for every one I spend with you here.”
I arranged myself next to him and made sure I was safely on my stomach before I took off my top. “Oh come on, luv,” David said. “What’s the point of going starkers if we can’t see your nips?”
“Give me time,” I said. “I need to ease myself into this.” I dug a little trench beneath my towel for my breasts, then I slid on my Ray Bans and began to spy.
There were some men around but they seemed to hover on the periphery, playing loud rounds of volleyball or smoking at the tables up by the ice-cream truck, adjusting their scrotums in their trunks. Occasionally one of them would have to chase a stray Frisbee through the sea of female bodies saying pardon Madame, ooh pardon Mademoiselle and the others, when he returned, would crowd around him, as if to find out what wonders he had seen. But all of them the French and foreign males alike had the same look on their
faces. It was one of awe and delight. It was kid in the candy store. It was, There are like eighty naked babes here and I didn’t have to pay to get in. What a country!
Meanwhile, the women seemed to have a placidity about them that said, Nothing comes between me and my sun. If they moved at all, it was to turn from one side to the other, or to adjust the strap of a bathing suit bottom, or to take it off altogether. They did not once turn their eyes in the men’s direction. The grunts of the volleyball players got louder, and their stunts more show-off, but they might as well have been seagulls the women just didn’t care. Sometimes I’d see a girl who looked self-conscious, who replaced her top each time she went for a swim and, back at the towel, scanned the crowd nervously before slipping it off again, but David would say, with a sniff, “English. Just look at her skin. Pale as potatoes.”
One afternoon a lovely girl to the right of us rose, à la Venus, from her towel. She was tall and willowy and fair and looked to be about sixteen. Her body had a budding awakening quality to it, untouched and ripe, with the most perfect pair of breasts I had ever seen: high and round with pink nipples that looked soft and tender and just-kissed. As she made her way toward the ice-cream truck I rose up to my elbows to see how the crowd would react. I was expecting traffic jams, lost volleyballs, cigarettes lit on the wrong end. And sure, there were glances everyone looked, but no one stared. Or I should say, no one drooled. And that surprised me. True beauty comes once every hundred years, Fitzgerald wrote. And here she was. Topless.
That night, and for many nights thereafter, I looked in the mirror and realized I was jealous of Miss True Beauty. And it wasn’t because of her surface perfection (okay, maybe a little), it was more that she was so comfortable with her body, her nudity. She was fluid and graceful, unselfconscious and sixteen! Yet here I was in my twenties, still not completely comfortable doing it with the lights on. Sure, I had made great strides since my giant-T-shirt phase, but still. She was born this way. And she spoke French. I wanted to be her.
From that point on, each time David and I visited the Gravette I tried to be braver. At first I would lie on my back with my breasts exposed to the sky, but I found I was self-conscious about the way they were flattened by gravity. “How do I look?” I’d ask David. “Can you see my scars?”
It was wonderful to have a male friend who could study my breasts without wanting to lick them. “You look babelicious,” he said. “When you get a tan you won’t even notice the scars.”
Soon I was able to sit up without a top on and feel proud about it. I had a better view of the other bathers this way. At first I was grateful that none of them were looking at me, but after a few days of sitting up with my stomach sucked in and my legs tucked to
the side like Jayne Mansfield in the haystack, I got annoyed. I pulled the
“That’s because you’re looking at them,” David said. “When your eyes are closed, all eyes are on you.”
“Really. Look to the left.”
I saw a man with binoculars suddenly train them on a seagull.
“Now quickly, look to the right.”
As I did this, I caught a few men averting their eyes. One of them pretended interest in the old fort. Another wiped some imaginary sand off his arm. I stuck my chest out a little more and tossed my hair.
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 rubbed and rubbed, oiling 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 a bulge in his trunks. “Frat boy,” I said, and flipped over onto my stomach. David smiled at the cameraman and waved, then turned around and displayed his waxed buns.
Two more months went by, and I had developed the most incredible tan of my life. My skin was an uninterrupted terrain of bronze, except for one perfect triangle of white flesh in the pubic region that I checked daily as a kind of tan-o-meter. I was also fit and ex-pat slender (read poor), and my hair was bleached to a strawberry blonde. I was as close to true beauty as I’ll ever be.
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 an acute 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. Almost. If you consider that most of my sexual fantasies involve some kind of public nakedness, then the simple routine of oiling myself lasciviously in front of a sea of strangers and strutting around in a thong was a perfect substitute for the sexual act.
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. On those French beaches I felt I could freely explore indeed, exploit my body and trust that no one was going to react. At least overtly. It was the perfect look-but-don’t-touch scenario, and I loved it.
So yes, the nude beaches are a gawk-fest, but it’s a two-way street. The women enjoy sunning themselves (and subtly torturing the men), and the men enjoy watching. Everyone is having their cake and eating it, too.
By the end of the summer there were no longer any insecurities or doubts in my mind 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.