Friday 24 January 2020

Decline in topless sunbathing sparks French breast-beating

Bare chests have fallen out of vogue on France's beaches. 'Quelle dommage'.

French icon Brigitte Bardot in the sixties. Photo: Corbis
French icon Brigitte Bardot in the sixties. Photo: Corbis

Julia Molony

In France, a country famous for its draconian protection of the native culture, heritage and customs, there has been outcry as new evidence suggests one of those customs is in danger.

Where else but France could the sudden decline in topless sunbathing be characterised by Elle magazine as a "worrying sign of regression in the place of women." Needless to say, the establishment is deeply concerned.

Just 2pc of French women under 35 said they sunbathed topless according to a poll by the magazine, which Elle claims is evidence that an entire generation had rejected the collective unclasping popularised by their mothers, in favour or remaining firmly upholstered in public.

'Mais pourquoi?' Elle demands to know, wringing its hands over this new prudishness that has had the country's young chests in its grip. What cultural shift has precipitated the retreat of the nipples from its favourite beaches? French insouciance about nudity is now so entrenched in the national character that the number of bare breasts on beaches seems to have become some sort of benchmark for public morale.

Heaven forfend that American-style puritanism should wield its censorious influence over the liberte of the Riviera, seems to be the message from Elle, as it grieves what it calls, "Le Fin du Topless Sur La Plage."

Having just returned from two weeks at a French coastal resort spent in relentless pursuit of the public interest, I can confidently report that the crisis seems to have been somewhat exaggerated.

Although I do concede that amongst the significant number of women sunbathing topless, many of them seemed to be over the age of 30. While the younger ladies were not exactly all covered up, it was definitely the case that older women (including those up to their seventies joyfully rocking the bare-breasted look) seemed much more blase about baring all than their younger sisters. Of course, many of these were probably blazing the trail when the trend first arrived, ushered in by Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s.

Elle thinks pornography is to blame, alongside increased awareness about sun safety. It also regards this mass cover-up amongst younger women as a backlash against an increasingly binary culture in which breasts are either commodified on the internet, or politicised. The latter, thanks to the recent efforts of feminist protest groups like Femen, who powerfully exploit the 'made-you-look' power of toplessness.

Perhaps women in France are simply exhausted by all this cultural signification, confused and bewildered in an era in which bare-breastedness is almost always interpreted as a having an agenda; either a self-promoting one, as per Rihanna; a sales one, as in pornography; or a campaigning one, such as in the recent 'free the nipple' protest popularised by Rumer Willis. In the face of all this, perhaps it's easier to just put the girls away.

Or maybe, in a hyper-sexualised culture saturated by pornography, bare breasts on the beach have lost their innocence.

If true, this is a shame. I've always enjoyed the fact that at the beach, the normal standards of decorum around dress can be abandoned. It's a special space in which bodies in all their variations can 
simply be. If anything, the casual conduct around nudity on the beach is a healthy antidote to the raunch-fatigue that lots of people feel in our age of 24-hour access to on-line porn.

Bare breasts, and indeed nudity on the beach are the very opposite to pornography. It's something to do with the nonchalance with which bodies are revealed on the beach; not trussed up in cheap lace and served up like prize meat in butcher shop window, nor teasingly revealed inch by
inch like a pay-per-view peep-show. On the beach, it's all allowed to hang out, the flesh can relax, unburdened by any bigger purpose than a desire to avoid tan-lines and the benefits of a blast of vitamin D on areas of skin that rarely see sunlight.

It's precisely because nudity on the beach is not attention-seeking that makes it different. After Bardot, the pop-culture role model for this couldn't-give-a-damn type of exposure is not Miley Cyrus but Kate Moss, who strips off on the beach because it's clearly how she likes to relax. It's not done for anyone's benefit but her own.

Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that the beach is a sexually neutral space, where the complications of desire do not intrude. Nor could anyone claim that breasts on the beach are not appraised and admired in the same way as on the internet. But the openness and naturalness of their presence there forces us all to be a bit more adult about it. Seaside nudity is happily unburdened by any of the normal-life baggage of furtiveness and shame.

That's what those French ladies in the 70s have known for decades. It explains why they saunter around undressed in front of strangers and friends, chatting and laughing without a hint of self-consciousness, in the knowledge they have discovered one of life's simplest pleasures.

Sunday Independent

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