For decades, the French have relished any opportunity to mock Americans for their supposed childish Yankee puritanism when it comes to matters of sex. These days, though, France is experiencing its own blush of youthful prudishness as an entire generation of younger French women says "Non, merci," to the summer tradition of topless sunbathing.
Since France's summer vacation season kicked off in early July, the French press has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the shrinking number of topless women on the nation's beaches. As eagle-eyed reporters have made quite clear, the prevailing trend among sun-loving women these days is to use both pieces of their bikini. Le Monokini, C'est Fini! , shouted Le Parisien in its report from a Mediterranean beach. "Nude Breasts Are Less Trendy" concurred free daily Metro France. "The practice has become common, and therefore less compelling as a fashion," says sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann. "When the local baker takes off her top despite her 60-year age and sagging breasts, the gesture loses its social distinction as one of youthful beauty." Some note that the return to more modest costumes is in part a response to rising concerns about skin cancer.
But the trend is also part of a wider social movement by younger French women who are shunning the less-inhibited habits of previous generations. If burning bras and going topless were the ways French women of the 1970s and '80s demonstrated their freedom, their daughters and grand-daughters seem less comfortable with exposed flesh. "The values of our time are more conservative, traditional and familial," says Kaufmann.
A survey titled "Women and Nudity" by polling agency Ifop captures the mood. It found that younger French women not only have a problem with nudity but actually consider themselves prudish. Fully 88% of the women questioned qualified themselves as pudique a term that can mean anything from "modest" or "prim" to "priggish." And they aren't joking. Though 90% said they get naked with their husband or partner, 59% avoid being nude around their children. Sixty-three percent said they refused to undress around female friends; 22% said they considered a woman in her underwear already naked.
With sensitivities like those, it's little wonder the poll found French women had strong opinions about public nakedness. Nearly 50% said they were bothered by total nudity on beaches or naturist camps, and 37% said they were disturbed by publicly exposed breasts or buttocks. Forty-five percent of respondents reported they'd prefer to see a lot less flesh hanging out in full view male or female.
Those attitudes got even more pronounced with respondents aged 18-24. A quarter of women within that group described themselves as very pudique, and 20% saw any nudity as tantamount to indecency. That, sociologists say, explains the changing scenery on French beaches. Younger women disinclined to baring themselves make up the majority of female sunbathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women.
"There aren't any rules, but, yeah, it's true when you're at the beach and look around, the only topless women anymore are older," says Elodie, 19, as she visited an artificial beach along the Seine known as Paris Plage recently. Elodie pointed out that a municipal fine and frequently lousy weather make going topless at Paris Plage a nonstarter. When asked whether she went topless on vacation beaches and what factors made her decide when she did and didn't Elodie's reply was as chilly as it was logical. "All those things," she said, "are personal concerns."
The contrast with U.S. practices is hard not to notice. American women visiting France these days have few qualms about going topless. And plenty of young American women are only too happy to playfully flash their wares in exchange for a few beads. In some ways, the puritanical swimsuit now seems to be on the other torso a new French squeamishness that will doubtless leave some Americans, well, titillated.
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