Thoughts from Abroad is a periodic column written by an Exponent staff member studying abroad. The column serves to illustrate differences in culture, issues and perspectives observed by the way-faring student. Currently, Elise Byle is currently studying in Spain.
When I told my friends I was going to study in Spain, they asked the usual questions: “Do you speak Spanish? Are you excited? Are you going to visit the nude beaches?” Cue the nudging and exaggerated winking. Surprisingly, I did not choose to study in Spain in the hopes of glimpsing at partially-clothed people. However, the reality of partial nudity here is vastly different from the American portrayal.
Nude and topless beaches are an endless source of fascination for Americans. I have to admit, the first time I went to the beach with my teacher and she took off her top, I was mildly shocked. But the idea of desexualizing the human body has grown on me. At the beach, little kids run around naked. In the U.S., however, there would be a stressed parent chastising the children while running after them with clothes. But why? Children are too young to interpret the significance of being either naked or clothed. By requiring swimsuits at such a young age, the U.S. is sending a message that there are parts of your body that need to be hidden. This idea carries over as kids grow and it can lead to emotionally damaged youths. I’m not saying that because you wore a swimsuit as a kid you will never fully accept your body. What I am saying is that when your parents insisted you wore a swimsuit, it showed you that you had something that had to be hidden. It made you aware that there were parts of your body that were inappropriate simply because they existed.
I have yet to encounter a beach specifically designated topless in Spain. At all of the beaches, people are free to wear swimsuit tops if they so choose. It isn’t a choice driven by the woman’s desire to impress people with her boobs, maybe she doesn’t want tan lines. The point is that her desire to go topless should have no impact on anyone else’s day. Breasts are a secondary sex organ. Like the Adam’s apple. The only difference is that breasts have been so sexualized that women have to hide them. Why don’t men have to wear turtlenecks all the time? There is no advertising campaign telling men the sexiest way to hide their neck. It isn’t a big deal for men to go topless, why is it such a problem for women?
I think one of the key differences between Americans and Europeans is that Europeans are exposed to far more nudity from a younger age. There are statues and paintings of nude men and women scattered throughout their upbringings. It is a fact of life rather than cause for stifled giggles. Bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. Shockingly, everyone I know has a body and they greatly enjoy the benefits of having one. People should be able to live their lives without fear of their own body.
MSU does not have a dress code for class but has updated its dress code for the gym. If they allowed us into their school, you would think they would trust us to dress ourselves. But apparently when going to the gym, one needs to be told what parts of their body are not acceptable. And why? No one can explain or justify why some parts of our body are bad. These are the bodies we were born with. We cannot change them. What we can change is our reactions to the bodies of others. So no, I do not need to justify the women who go topless at beaches in Spain or the children who run around without clothes. What requires explanation is the people who are sexualizing other people, without their consent and without cause. If you disagree, I know a great place to buy turtlenecks at a discount.