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In France, A New Generation of Women Says No to Nude Sunbathing

Saturday, Jul. 25, 2009
In France, A New Generation of Women Says Non to Nude Sunbathing
By Bruce Crumley / Paris


A woman sunbathes on the beach during the 62nd International Cannes Film Festival in May of 2009.
Kristian Dowling / Getty

For decades, the French have relished any opportunity to mock Americans for their supposed childish Yankee puritainisme 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 say "non, merci" to the summer tradition of topless sun bathing.

Since France's summer vacation season kicked off in early July, the 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 actually use both pieces of their bikini. Le Monokini, C'est Fini! shouted Le Parisien in its July 21 report from a Mediterranean beach, using the preferred term for toplessness. "Nude Breasts Are Less Trendy" concurred free daily Metro France. "The fashion has become common, and as a result, less appealing," explained sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann in an accompanying Metro France interview. Some observers, including Kaufmann, have also noted that the return to the two-piece is also a response to rising concerns about skin cancer. (Read "In France, a Government-Led Revolution in Entrepreneurship")

But the more concealing swim wear 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 way French women of the 1970s and '80s demonstrated their freedom, their daughters and grand-daughters seem less comfortable with exposed flesh. "We're seeing a return to more [conservative] and families values," said Kaufmann. "Modesty and discretion are in fashion now."

A survey titled "Women and Nudity" released by polling agency Ifop captures the move to cover up. It indicates younger French women not only have a problem with nudity — but actually consider themselves prudish. Fully 88% of the women question qualified themselves as pudique—a term that can mean anything from "modest" or "prim" to full-blown "priggish".

And they aren't joking. Though 90% said they get naked with their husbands or partner, nearly 60% actively avoid being nude around their children. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they also refused to undress around women friends. Around 22% said they considered a woman in her underwear already naked.

With sensitivities like those, it's little wonder that the poll also 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 simply prefer to see a lot less flesh hanging out for in full view — male or female.

Those attitudes got even more pronounced with respondents aged 18-24. Fully 25% of women within that age group described themselves as very pudique, and 20% saying they considered any nudity as tantamount to indecency. That, sociologists say, helps explain the changing scenery on French beaches. Younger women disinclined to barring their more private parts make up the majority of female sun bathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women who blazed the trail all those years ago. Or, as the Times of London's website phrased it: "Only The Oldies Go Topless on French Beaches".

"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," said a 19 year-old named Elodie as she visited Paris' summertime artificial beach known as Paris Plage. Elodie pointed out that a municipal fine — and frequently lousy weather — made going topless at Paris Plage a non-starter. 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."

Good point — and one apparently leading most French women of Elodie's age to keep themselves bikini'd up. But the contrast with U.S. practices are hard not to notice. After all American women visiting France these days have no 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.

French Women Say Non To Topless Sunbathing and Other Nudity -- Printout -- TIME
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