Reclaiming the Sun: Why I Sunbathe Topless
It’s springtime and sunshine drips from the sky like honey from a spoon. I curl my long arms up towards the sun, crane my neck to bring my face closer to its warmth. ‘It’s like you’re flowering’, my friend says. I tell him yes, I’m like a plant. I hate the cold; I live for the summertime. And although summer means many things to me, it means sun on bare skin most of all.
I was inspired to sunbathe topless as a teenager after reading the novel I Capture the Castle. It’s a work of magic hidden beneath a dull title, a tale of first love and countryside and long light nights. The novel’s eighteen-year-old protagonist Cassandra sunbathes nude one summer’s day, up by castle turrets. She speaks of the sun and the wind touching her bare skin and how strange and golden it feels. I wanted to bathe in celestial light too.
Maybe I was on a Nice or Barcelona beach when I first took my bikini top off. I don’t remember. I do remember how good the warmth of the sun felt on my skin, the coolness of the ocean up to my neck. And how, back on the sand, I didn’t have to lie for an hour with cold wet synthetic clinging to my breasts. My skin dried in a minute. I lay reading blissful and brown, lazy and tan-line-less. I relished the sense of freedom that came with doing what was not expected of me. It felt bohemian and glamorous. I felt like Zelda Fitzgerald a century earlier, swimming in a skin-coloured costume to scandalise her whispering neighbours.
I didn’t consider myself very political as a teenager. Not like my mother, who spent her weekends at protests. I found the real world too harsh, I wanted to escape it through literature and romance, and the privileges of my upbringing enabled me to do so. Sunbathing topless began for me as a personal rebellion; not a political one. I did it simply because I liked the way it made me feel.
Then, when I was twenty, I first heard the phrase ‘The personal is political’ in a university class. It resonated with me. The last two years had relieved me of my sheltered cool. I had met boys and I had met men who didn’t like literature and romance quite so much as I did. What they really liked was the way my body looked and the way my body moved. I felt their cool hard anger when I told them I didn’t want to have sex with them. I felt the deep, ugly shame of being recognised only as a body and not a person. At first, I felt disgusting. Then I learned to be disgusted.
Through challenging men’s objectification of my body, I learned to stop self-objectifying it too. I started to value my body for more than its appearance; for its life and its health as a home for my soul. Now, I refuse to engage with men who treat me as anything less than a whole person. My body is not on earth to be sexualised. It is here for me to live in.
And thus, the personal became the political. I still sunbathe topless because I love the feeling of the sun on my skin. It makes me feel radiant, and close to nature, and free. But now I do it for other reasons too. I do it because I do not accept that it is right for men to sunbathe topless yet wrong for women. I feel repulsion for a society that views male nudity as mundane and female nudity as threatening. My body is a marvel of creation and I refuse to be ashamed of what is natural and mine.
I’m sure that there are people who think that women sunbathe topless because we are seeking attention. They are wrong. Like mythical goddesses, we simply wish to be left alone to bathe in peace. May the fate of Actaeon serve as a warning to those who might disturb us.