objection, sustained

As I walk south on the shore I see two girls ahead, splashing in the water, diaphanous scarves held high in the breeze as they run and twirl.

Otherwise, they are naked.

An older burly man holds a sophisticated camera to his eye and follows them.

He’s fully dressed.

I pass them, and yes, not a stitch of clothes on the girls. The man wears a baseball cap, long-sleeved shirt, shorts, running shoes, and socks. Glasses.

The girls are boyishly slim.

There’s a family up ahead, with a younger, shorter girl, and some surfers farther south in the distance. All clothed.

Two young men sit on a log, up from the cavorting girls and photographer. They are shirtless. Eventually I realize they’re all together. Perhaps the boys are awaiting their turn before the camera?

I sit on my regular log, near my regular swimming spot, about a quarter mile away, and watch them. I can’t tell how old the girls are.

I’ve been hiking for hours, north to Marker 4 and back. I’m tired.

I remember my mother’s mechanic taking photos of me on Venice Beach early one summer morning. I wasn’t completely naked, like these girls, but I was topless. I can’t remember how old I was. Voting age? Drinking age? When is the age of consent?

Today I am fully clothed, though I intend to swim soon. And yes, when no one’s around, I occasionally skinny dip. But now I am wearing my new cream cowgirl hat with the wide brim, my dark sunglasses, Levi’s, lavender hoodie, and bright yellow (official looking?) windbreaker. I stand up.

Walking purposefully toward the photographer I say, “Sir. May I see your permit.” It’s not a question, and I hold out my hand.

They all have their backs to me as I approach, looking at the camera’s view-finder, the three of them. They turn toward me. Close up I can see that they are young women, probably in their early 20’s.

“Permit?” he says. His accent sounds German or Swiss, and I wonder if they are European. Hmmm. “I didn’t know we needed a permit.”

“My bad,” says the blonde woman, stepping toward me. She has no accent, speaks United States English. She’s all business, despite her lack of apparel. “I didn’t know we needed a permit. For the landscape?”

“State park,” I say. “No nudity.”

“O-oh,” says the blonde. She has terrible acne, which does not lessen her beauty. “We came in from the neighborhood.”

The pornographer starts reciting something about a “Cahill statute, that nudity is permitted as long as no one objects–”

“I object,” I interrupt, raising my hand as if I’m in court. I object.

And they stopped. They folded up the photo shoot and hiked back over the dune, toward the city.

I am amazed. Adrenaline courses through my blood, my body prepared for flight or fight.

“I wanted to make sure that you were okay,” I told the young women before they departed.

“Thank you,” says the blonde, looking me in the eye. Sincere.

“Have a nice day,” says the brunette, walking away with the pornographer, wrapping the translucent red scarf around her body. It hides nothing. Protects nothing.

I object.
I object to the objectification of women.
I object to the institutionalized privilege of the male gaze.
I object to Jack the mechanic taking advantage of my non-existent self-esteem. I didn’t object then, but I do now. I wish an older woman had come over to make sure I was okay.

Because I wasn’t, then.

It has taken me decades to realize that I can object. I am allowed to object. That — what a concept! — I can raise my voice without someone harming me. That I can delineate my comfort zone. Have boundaries.

Maybe those young women were fine. I hope so. I pray that they know that they are beautiful, whether someone’s taking pictures of them or not; that they have value beyond their bodies; that they are loved for their own sweet selves.

If the pornographer/photographer had also been nude, would I have objected? I don’t know. I do know that the disparity — in status, in privilege, in power, in economics — between men and women disturbs me deeply.

I object.

writer Elizabeth Shé, performing as
writer Elizabeth Shé, performing as “Mama” in Lisa Loomer’s play, Distracted