overcoming fear, courage, personal power

3 Unexpected lessons learned from topless sunbathing

It took all my courage.

But once I did it, I was instantly hooked. 

The power was intoxicating.

The implications went far beyond the shores of the Canaries.

Like many of life’s unknowns, we don’t always know how an event or action will impact us. We may need ‘processing’ time before it sinks in. It can take days, weeks, months, or even years to fully understand its significance.

As an American holiday-maker visiting the UK and the Continent for 15 years, I encountered many topless women sun-bathing before moving to the UK. I didn’t think much of it and chalked it up as another cultural difference.

I had no strong feelings either way.

Reflecting on it today, I realize the reason I didn’t have strong feelings about it was because I was of two minds.  I was stuck between two ideological views. On one hand, I was supportive of the long held European tradition where it is neither sexualized nor objectified. Daughters, mothers and grandmothers exercised their right to sunbath topless together without judgement. On the other hand, I had witnessed another side to it. Mostly from tourists seeking a near perfect tan. In this case, I viewed it as a sexualized act of defiance, frivolity or plain indulgence on the part of the privileged.

For 17 years I did not see the need to assert my right like a local, or indulge as one of the privileged tourists. That is until my mid-40s, when I hit ‘rock bottom’ — after selling my business, getting laid off, selling my house, along with most of my possessions to move to another country — only to find myself as a hostile ‘homemaker’ with no job prospects and nothing else to lose!

Why wouldn’t I go topless on a beach in the Canaries?

Two years later I understand why I had to do it and how it has helped me to release fears and realize my own power.

1. Fear of being judged

When I left home over 25 years ago to ‘make it in the world,’ I shed more than my ghetto clothing, speech and mannerisms, I lost the core of my confidence. In making the conscious decision to fit into a white business world, I slowly molded myself into other people’s definition of success. This transformational process was not easy, nor was it fun. But I believed it was required to have a better life for myself. Today I am grateful for people who have helped me along the way. Like my first badass female boss in New York City, whose constant correction helped me to avoid potentially threatening clients. ‘”You are not calling to ax’em, she’d say, “you are calling to ‘ASK’ them.”

However conscious my decision to ‘fit in,’ I was unconscious of the consequences. Over time, it eroded something more fundamental to me: the person I used to be before leaving my tribe. While I never lost confidence in my abilities, I had lost confidence in allowing myself to be the ‘real’ me. The process of ‘fitting it’ is a common occurrence for many black professionals. It has many names and derivatives: ‘assimilating’, ‘leaning in’ and ‘selling out’. Regardless of the name, the principles are the same, and can be applied indiscriminately to anyone who fears other people’s judgements, for whatever reason.

So when I took off my top, I was not expecting the immediate physical impact it had on me.

It brought me to tears.

How could something so seemingly simple have such an unexpected impact? It was just that simple, and can be summed up in one word: freedom.

It was the first time in three decades that I felt the freedom to just be me — not the always-got-it-together, not the always-fitting-in, not the always-focused me — but, plain old me. Taking off my top symbolically peeled backed a career’s worth of trying to fit in to another world and instantly freed me from the mold of other people’s definition of success.

The relief was both immense and shocking.

2. Fear that judges others

Immediately after taking off my top, I also learned an important truth about myself. That I was both a coward and a hypocrite. I realized was far too easy to judge others’ actions, particularly when we ourselves do not have the courage to act. This phenomenon is common in the business world, where successful women are particularly disliked by other women.

Once I accepted that I was a coward, I realized that it was my own inability to act that was the cause of my conflict, not other women’s actions. My lack of courage was a mask for my well-hidden judgements about ‘some’ women who went topless. When I held up the mirror to look at my own judgements, I saw that I only judged those who I believed who were not ‘entitled’ to the right to go topless. That is, the privileged tourists seeking the near perfect tan. What my judgements prevented me from seeing was how much courage it took to do it. That no matter the reason whether by birth or courage, women are entitled to assert their rights and should not be judged for doing so.

3. Fear of my own power

The most profound lesson I learned is the one that has taken two years for me to process.  And is, how I feared my own power. Power is one of those overused words that often gets a bad rap. What I mean here is the power from within ourselves.

In Robert Firestone’s article “ Personal Power: There is a clear distinction between personal and negative power,” he writes: “Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion, and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one’s interpersonal world. This type of power represents a movement toward self-realization and transcendent goals in life; its primary aim is mastery of self, not others. Personal power is more an attitude or state of mind than an attempt to maneuver or control others.”

It was this lack of personal power that gave rise to fears in the business world for me. Each time I walked into a room full of men in suits I fought back a quiet panic attack. I felt intimidated.  My social conditioning led me to believe that they were more ‘powerful’ than me. It was obvious to me they knew more about business than me, a 5 foot tall, black, fair trade retail, women business owner. It didn’t matter that my business survived The Great Recession when several dozen had not, nor did it matter that I advised others how to save and grow theirs.

The problem was all in my mind.

I did not accept, believe or own my own strength, courage, competencies, determination…in other words, my own power.

Today, when I walk into a crowded room, I remind myself of the power I felt walking across a crowded beach in my size 14 bikini bottoms, over the age of 40 – and I say to myself: I got this.