Once upon a time, when the world was young, I spent several months studying in Europe, as one of a group of around fifty students from Mississippi, Arkansas, Colorado, and New York. When we met for our first “mixer” in New York prior to our flight, each group fit their regional stereotype to a tee. We southerners were almost aggressively friendly, like we were all in some kind of congeniality contest. We sounded like this: “Hey, y’all! Where’re y’all frum? I’m frum Missuhsippi/Arkansaw!”. The two southern groups connected almost immediately, though our accents were slightly different, with the Arkansas contingent having more of a mountainy twang, and the Mississippi contingent having more of a “Gone With the Windish” sound. But we looked alike – conservatively dressed, girls with perfect hair and make-up, etc., and we acted alike, with our non-stop attempts at humor and conviviality.
The New Yorkers were cool and a little intimidating, sort of worldly-wise and jaded. But after a couple days of touring with us, they didn’t seem to notice anymore that they were hanging out with a bunch of obnoxious southerners and we were all best buds.
The biggest divide was between the southerners and the Coloradans. The Colorado contingent was the only all female group, and they were all beautiful – tall, mostly blond, and healthy looking, but with unshaven legs and no bras. The unshavenness and bralessness was mind blowing to us southern girls of that pre-historic era. I had never seen a woman walk around in public with no bra and hairy legs. And despite our strident friendliness, they just stayed in their own little group and stared at us. Like in horror or something.
We made it to London, where we spent about a third of the term, and hooked up with our British professor, Matthew, who stayed with us as we continued on throughout Europe. Strangely, or not really I guess, customs in England largely reflected my own conservative middle-class southern culture, with the exception of not having to say “Hey” to everyone you passed on the sidewalk. After a couple days of watching the entire southern contingent do this, Matthew told us to cut it out. Thank goodness. What a relief to not have to do that anymore. But I had gone from one well-mannered, proper culture with clear social parameters to another, except that this one had a lot more general coolness.
So it was really in France that my internal switch flipped. One day while touring in Paris, we happened upon a group of women, just regular, every day looking women, bathing topless in a fountain. The southern belles expressed their shock and disapproval, and I think I feigned shock and disapproval right along with them, but inwardly, something clicked in my brain. Something that was vaguely about freedom and the lack of shame and repression. So when we got back to the hotel, I threw all my bras in the trash bin. Not “buried them in my suitcase” – threw them in the trash. When I went down for dinner, in all my newfound freedom and braless glory, the southern belles looked at me with shock and disapproval. I walked straight to the Coloradans and stood beside them.
By the time we got to the restaurant, things were almost back to normal, and I sat with my own group as usual, but the Colorado girls kept looking at me. I had thrown them a curve ball and they had to mull it over. The next morning, when we all met in the lobby, most of the other southern girls, with the exception of a few of the future spinster cousin variety, were braless as well. Things started to change. By the time we reached the final stop on our trip in Athens, we were all bonded. On our final night, the leader of the Coloradans – the tallest, blondest, hairiest, and most gorgeous one – apologized with tears in her eyes for their behavior at the beginning of the term. She said that they had wrongly assumed that we were all backwards, racist idiots since we were from the south, and that she was so ashamed for having been prejudiced against us, because she had been wrong, and we were all nice people. The southern girls all cried and said they were sorry for having been judgmental about their hairiness and lack of brassieres.
Back in Jackson, my parents met me at the airport. I strategically carried my purse over my chest, and resumed my normal wearing of foundation garments, for the most part, when I got home. I lost most of my film somewhere in Austria, and the few pictures that I do have are hidden away – I can only show a couple of them publically because of the underwire revolution, but it was worth it. ¡Viva La Revolución!
Better free your mind. You know it’s gonna be all right.
We live for just these twenty years; do we have to die for the fifty more? We were all just young Americans.
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