Why French Women Are Losing Their Appetite for Topless Sunbathing


For a variety of reasons, the modern French woman at the beach is far more likely to keep her top on than to take it off

“As much as I’ve never had any wish to go nude, I’ve never had any problem with going topless on the beach.” For many years, Gaëlle from the Cannes area used to dispense with the little triangles of cloth covering her top during an afternoon at the beach. “During the 90s, everyone was topless. My mother, my aunts, my friends… There was really nothing out-of-the-ordinary about it. We basically did it to avoid any bikini lines.”

But two pregnancies and two decades later, the 50-something has lost her old habits.

“What seemed perfectly natural to me at the time isn’t any more. I don’t know if it’s age, the era we live in or the looks from other people that have changed but it must be more than ten years since I took my top off. I even bought a one-piece this year!”

She’s not the only one. According to a poll carried out in 2013 by BVA-Le Parisien, only 12% of French women regularly set their breasts free on the beach; a figure that belies the image of the liberated French topless woman and one which is continuing to fall. It’s a strange phenomenon given that it was the French who virtually created the whole notion of going topless, as popularised by Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. At that time, taking off one’s top on the beach was a provocative gesture; a sign of emancipation in a man’s society and a way of reminding them that a woman’s body and her sexuality belonged to her.

"On the 4th of September, I'm taking off the bottom" - This racy advert in 1981 showed how normalised the topless tradition had become in France

“On the 4th of September, I’m taking off the bottom” – This racy advert in 1981 showed how normalised the topless tradition had become in France

But the daring quickly becomes the norm in this era of mass media. A famous publicity campaign in 1981 involved a striptease carried out over weeks on huge billboards across France (see pic) – “Tomorrow, I’ll take the bottom off?”

Although it did cause a stir back then, it was mostly outside of France that the shock factor was felt, with the cheeky campaign gaining occupying many column inches in the foreign press. 33 years later, such an advertising campaign would be pretty much unthinkable for any company, fearful as they would be of their public image. There is the factor of skin cancer and breast cancer to consider too. 86% of women polled stated that they wouldn’t take their top off for health reasons. Fashion has also moved on. The all-over chest tan (or the bronzage monoï) of the 80s is today considered a bit of a has-been by the younger generation of French ladies. But these facts alone don’t fully explain the return of a certain degree of public prudishness that seems to extend beyond the beach.

Changing of the Role of Nudity

Nowadays, exposing yourself has taken on certain airs of aggression. The infamous Femen movement were quick to grasp this concept with their veritable armoury of topless women daubed with graffiti. Whilst in the 60s, feminists burned their bras, now they march with slogans written across their bare chests, emblazoning images of naked aggression into their target audience. The objective is clearly to shock and keep their ideals on the public agenda.

“From the point when the naked body has become a desirable thing and something of a positive value that is useful to all strands of society, it’s not surprising that it then becomes a conduit of communication; a tool used to defy the laws of modesty in the political sphere.” So explains Christophe Colera rather philosophically in his book “La Nudité: pratiques et significations” (Nudity: Practices and Meanings). “But in order not to pass itself off as gratuitous exhibitionism, it has to arm itself with new connotations, often even at the expense of its sexuality, as Femen do. Otherwise, the exhibition itself makes the message null and void.”

Top off or top on? Today's French woman is more inclined towards option A

Top off or top on? Today’s French woman is more inclined towards option A

So has French society returned to a form of puritanism? If the polls are to be believe, more and more French women are ill at ease with their bodies. 63% of French women refuse to get undressed in front of friends, 40% of them admit to being bothered by the nudity of other women in a sports changing room, 37% of them are uneasy with images of female breasts in an advert. Even in a more intimate setting, nudity is not to be taken at ease with all French women, it seems. while 98% of women have no problem being naked in front of their betrothed, 29% prefer to make love with the light out.

“There is a feeling of overkill when it comes to images of nudity,” says one sociologist. “The dominant notions of beauty with their powerful normative hold on society count for a lot. While 88% of women regard themselves as modest, this figure is even higher amongst those that don’t like their bodies. In other words, more than half of women have difficulty in accepting themselves physically.”

A Complex Generation

The siliconised hairless bodies of pornography and the models with faultless figures have given the latest generation even more complexes than ever to think about. And that includes men. A quarter of under-25’s admit to having complexes about the oversized bodily organs in some of these films, according to an IFOP survey.

Nowadays, in order to seduce, you need to put your clothes back on; the power of suggestion but don’t show too much.

“Modesty works as much for self-protection as for sexual conquests,” says the same sociologist. “A woman can increase her self-worth better by showing herself to be modest and inaccessible than by getting undressed.”

Harassment on the Street and on Social Networks

Exposure attracts attention: today's French woman prefers to keep a lower profile

Exposure attracts attention: Were French girls in the 70s more thick-skinned or was harassment more playful and less threatening?

But hiding your body has also become a means of defence. “Pornography and the dissemination of a certain misunderstood libertarian ideal have often led to the image of a woman being sexually available to everyone,” continues the sociologist. “This manifests itself, for example, by touching in the métro. This feeds into the idea of protective reflexes by women.” In order to lessen the incidence of harassment in the street, young women often don’t wear a skirt in the evening or they raise their neckline; habits that they tend to keep as they grow older.

With the ubiquitous nature of smartphones these, days, there’s also the not-inconsiderate fear of having pictures of yourself in a state of semi-undress on the online social networks, under the glare of judgement by ones peers.

“I used to practice naturism for years,” says 44-year-old Valérie from Montpellier. “I found that looks from people were, paradoxically, less sexualised than on normal beaches. But things have changed. Not only have looks from men begun to put me ill at ease, but I’ve also realised that some were taking sneaky photos with their phones.”

It would seem that while in the past, taking your clothes off was synonymous with a perfect over-all tan, exposing oneself nowadays can leave permanent traces…

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