Women sunbathing topless on a beach in Barcelona. (Photo: Carton828 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

When will New Zealand finally grow up about boobs?

The groping of a topless woman at the Rhythm & Vines festival highlights just how retrograde our attitudes to public nudity remain. But, writes Kristin Hall, there is a better way – just look at any European beach.

It was a lazy day on a white hot strip of Italian beach and I was caught in an elaborate tangle of singlet strap, bra strap and bikini strap like some sort of discount Houdini who couldn’t get untied without assistance, forcing everyone to ask for their money back.

Over the tops of their dewy cans of Desperado, the bronzed goddesses the next umbrella over shot mocking glances my way, and probably said something like “silly bitch”, but it was in Italian so it sounded much nicer.

Italian women would not put themselves through such public humiliation, instead they just took their shirts and bras off and left them that way, allowing their chests to experience the full benefit of the afternoon sun. This was of course the sensible thing to do, but I am from New Zealand, a place where cow tits and their by-products are a national obsession but human tits are like fleshy social pariahs.

Until I began travelling across Europe in April last year, I had no idea that countries outside of New Zealand weren’t equally scandalised by boobs. You can imagine my shock when in France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and pretty much every other country that’s warm enough to warrant it, there were mammaries dangling uninhibited as far as the eye could see.

And not just youthful and flawless ones. There were stretchmarked boobs, withered raisin boobs, boobs that looked like two grapefruits in a pair of pantyhose, gargantuan plastic boobs, and mastectomy scars where boobs used to be. The boobs were in the water, on the beach and playing volleyball, which frankly looked pretty uncomfortable, but at least they were free. Twelve year old girls frolicked topless next to their equally topless brothers, and it made me think about twelve year old me, sitting in my boyfriend’s spa pool in knee length board shorts and my dad’s t-shirt, trying to guess what temperature the human brain cooks at.

As we are so often reminded by baby boomers and people who host shows on Newstalk ZB, the country is thriving. This much GDP, this many millions of tourists buying those funny key rings where you can make a sheep do a poo and so on. What never gets a mention is that as well as being really bad at a whole bunch of important things like building affordable houses and matching strangers for reality TV shows, New Zealand is languishing in the lowest possible percentile when it comes to the important international issue of Being Grown Up About Boobs.

You might think I’m being dramatic. Whipping your tits out on the beach, in the park or even in your local Bunnings isn’t actually illegal, but try telling that to anyone who’s actually done it at a so-called ‘family friendly bathing spot’.

What kind of monster would call the cops on a pair of tits? People in Opunake, that’s who, in the summer of 2012. There were two whole articles written about it.

Just last summer my old flat mate Lucy indulged in a casual topless sunbathe at Mount Maunganui. She’s from Amsterdam, a place that is definitely well up there on the Being Grown Up About Boobs scale. But the New Zealanders at the Mount that day were not so keen on minding their own damn business, and vicious side-eyes were being thrown at her and her innocent breasts from all angles.

“They looked at me like I’d lost my mind so I put my top back on real fast…..I just felt uncomfortable.”

“I think overall New Zealand is a little but more conservative [than the Netherlands] and maybe girls don’t feel very comfortable in their own skin.”

And then there’s the issue of harassment, given the frequency with which Kiwi lad-bros yell “TITS OUT FOR THE BOYS” from the windows of passing cars, imagine the frenzy of slack-jawed witticisms if the tits were actually out.

In Malaga, Spain, I witnessed a teenage girl, who had been sitting with her friends, run over to a group of boys to ask for a lighter. She wore only bikini bottoms, and the young boys lit her cigarette, looked at her face, smiled and proceeded to not call her a whore, a slut or any other clever permutations of the word. It was a beautiful moment.

Will New Zealand ever reach such levels of emotional maturity? It’s hard to say. Lucy hopes so.

“Maybe all it takes is a couple of girls to do it and it will be super normal next summer, free the nipple!”

So if you are reading this thinking that it would be nice to go to your cousin’s summer wedding without having pasty tiger stripes darting all across your back and chest, please do take this as your sign. Let the girls hang out, let them bob around in the sea, or at least try it, and if you don’t like it you can put them back in their sweaty polyurethane prisons.

Blokes, think about how it feels to have a warm February breeze on your nips – you take that feeling for granted. Why not take a pillow with you on holiday so you can scream ” NICE RACK” into it anytime you are tempted to say it to an actual person.

And finally, Prudes of New Zealand, if you see a bare breast at your local swimming hole, think of it as a beautiful canary enjoying a brief spell of freedom. And if you can’t do that, look down, do a Sudoku or make a sandcastle in the shape of the Holy Cross. Just don’t call the cops.


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