There is still discrimination on our Cape Town beaches. Clifton is home to millionaires and ranked as “one of the world’s top topless beaches”. But a woman who might want to get a full tan on top would probably feel like a fish out of water on the beaches of False Bay.
Now, there are some serious issues involved here, of course. Reportedly, hidden photographers have admitted to taking photos of women on the Camps Bay beach side of town and selling them to pornography sites. Sandy Bay, Cape Town’s most famous nudist site, is typically a hang-out for unfulfilled weirdos desperate to get their rocks off, and the only time I visited it was seriously male-dominated, (though the most dangerous snake I encountered was, appropriately enough, a lazy and flaccid puffadder on the path). And given our despicable levels of abuse and rape it’s not for me to encourage women to bare all where they wouldn’t feel safe doing it. (Luckily South Africa is still full of wonderful wilderness areas where those keen to skinny-dip can do so without worrying about the watching, waiting world and its judgements).
There are cultural issues involved too, though. When my kids were under 5 and merrily chasing around an empty St. James beach in the buff a disgusted rubbish-collector admonished me severely for being immoral. There are quite a few Muslims bathing this side of town in full-body and head outfits. You will note, of course, that on the other side of the country the Zulu Reed Dance, featuring a mass of topless teenagers, is considered a major and honourable cultural event. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find any Westernised residents of Khayelitsha taking off their bikinis, on False Bay or on Camps Bay, racing as they are as fast as possible away from any hint of the supposed “primitive life” of the past.
But what is this nudity thing really all about? For centuries, in fact, it was the Muslim world that seemed ahead of the Christian west; behind the veil, in the hidden private world of women into which men might be invited, a much more sensuous appreciation of the body was possible, perhaps even emphasised by the covering up in the daily world. In the medieval West by contrast, apart from the odd sect urging a return to “Adam’s innocence,” (who usually ended up being burnt at the stake), the body (and a woman’s body in particular) was a thing of evil, preventing unity with the Godhead by using the infernal distractions of desire. Even though the covers have long since come off, this attitude to nudity as something inherently “naughty” still persists and fuels an enormously successful X-rated modern industry.
The “naughty” attitude was spread around the world particularly by the Victorian British, of course, who at the same time visited an extraordinarily high number of prostitutes in Victorian London, estimated to be 1 in every 5 women. Western women noting how certain Indian men congregate at beaches to ogle them in forbidden excitement may find it hard to believe that India is the country that gave birth to the Kama Sutra. It has sophisticated erotic statues in many of its most sacred centres, and the “naughty/distracting body” tradition (which the British rulers loved to emphasise for it coincided with their own beliefs) was only one strand of Hinduism, even if it appears strongly sometimes today. This “naughtiness” is the root of all the more cringeworthy kitsch British comedy of the 70s, and all the utter paranoia about paedophilia in that country today.
The last comment might sound flippant especially in our context, but contrast this experience I had in a German public swimming pool last year. There was a male changing room, a female changing room, and a family changing room. Since we were there as a family we went to the family changing room. It was only once inside that I realised that it was not a private family changing room. Two teenage girls thought nothing of stripping off to change while an unrelated man quietly stripped off further down the same bench. In the UK this kind of thing would lead to giggles of embarrassment or be covered with headline fears of paedophilia. I raised an eyebrow, swallowed my genetic shame and quietly got on with changing like the Germans did. I would venture that this kind of social attitude probably leads to rather less real paedophilia in Germany than in repressed England – and other English-influenced parts of the world, like our own corner.
Africans used to be like the swimming pool Germans too. The days of barely-clothed tribal living were hardly a sexy free-for-all. I would venture that they may have been for the most part a time when the body was allowed to be there, acknowledged, admired, a part of life, not something to be ashamed or embarrassed of, not something to be worried about showing off or evoking puppy-dog excitement. It would be nice to imagine a time when the same could be true on all of Cape Town’s beaches, for those that wanted to get their skin closer to the elements. That would probably show that the men of this country had finally grown up.