Adieu, sunkissed breasts

French feminists don bikini tops, national mourning ensues

By Amy Benfer
Published July 23, 2009 6:24PM (EDT)

Those of you planning to summer on the Riviera (a group I will think about with fucking envy from here on my Brooklyn, N.Y., patio) may have one less natural attraction to admire: According to the Guardian, young French women are “rejecting toplessness, boosting the sales of two-piece bikinis and old-fashioned bathing suits.”

Only a few places -- mostly public pools and an artificial beach -- have banned topless sunbathing outright; a recent poll found 24 percent of women were “perturbed” by toplessness, while 57 percent said it was “OK in the garden.” But here’s the fascinating thing: The debate is pitting young feminists, roughly 18-to-30, against older feminists, in their 60s. And it’s the younger feminists who are choosing to cover up.

Just picture the scene: Man goes to beach and the only thing to ogle is the 60-something women confidently displaying their flesh, while the young, nubile things are rocking the retro '40s bathing costume (full disclosure: I have one. Having a fetish for all things retro, I find this look inexplicably hot). But there is good reason. “In the 1960s and 1970, toplessness was linked to the women’s liberation movement, sexual liberation, and a return to nature,” French historian Christophe Granger writes in his new book, “Corps d’ete,” a social history of French beach culture. Since then, things have changed:

Historical feminist writing details how the row over toplessness was a struggle for women to do what they liked with their bodies. What has been projected on to it today are different values, identified not with equality but desire, sexualization of the body, voluptuousness and the body perfect ... It’s less about women feeling at ease and free. It has been linked to the harsh cult of the body beautiful, where no imperfection is tolerated.”

It’s interesting to contrast this perspective to feminism in the United States, where generational differences among feminists have been caricatured, often wildly inaccurately, as “sex-positive” Third Wavers in their lip gloss and hand-knitted Barbarella bikinis with self-designed skull motifs vs. -- what, sex negative? -- Second Wavers with their Birkenstocks and armpit hair (the exceptions to this are legion, so much so that I expect you all can supply them as well as I can). But maybe it’s not so different: What, after all is a breast? Is it something that solely exists to titillate one’s sexual partner of either gender? Or is it just another part of a woman’s body, designed, among other things, as a feeding device for young mammals?

Any woman who has ever whipped out her breast to nurse a baby in front of anyone other than the person she’s sleeping with is already maddeningly familiar with this particular debate. But it also gets at one more basic difference between men’s and women’s bodies: We’ve got three erogenous zones that, as the old slogan goes, should be covered by a swimsuit (but not, at one time, in France!), while guys have two (we both have the equal opportunity option to wear g-strings). I’m pretty sure no one’s considering mandating that men must wear t-shirts on the beach.

As Sarah Hepola and Thomas Rogers pointed out a few weeks ago, the male member -- still shrouded in mystery as the phallus whose power is all the more great by virtue of being implied and rarely seen -- makes such infrequent appearances on-screen that when it does, we all get worked up about it (and often it can mean the difference between an R rating and an X). And in fact, according to the Guardian article, at least one public pool banning toplessness cited the fear that men might take this as license to appear sans bathing trunks. Quelle horreur!

OK, so there’s a difference between everyone running around with their genitals hanging out in a family pool, and a few ladies showing their breasts. If we are to think of the children -- well, they are the most likely persons of all to think of a dangling breast as “lunch” rather than “Playboy centerfold.” But whether or not public nudity reads as “sexual liberation” or “sexualization” has everything to do with context: While topless Dyke Marches and guys, in or completely out of, chaps at, say, the Folsom Street Fair are part of the old-school gay liberation movement in America, Hugh Hefner in his smoking jacket surrounded by naked Playmates has always turned me way off.

I would be perfectly happy to go topless on the Riviera (please someone, send me a ticket! the summer is not yet over!), so long as I had plenty of company (though, depending on the month, I’d probably be more worried about the state of my abs than my breasts, which don’t change much -- a concession, no doubt, to the body beautiful). I can’t imagine doing so in the local public pool in Red Hook. But I’ve been even more comfortable being completely naked in situations -- the odd nude beach, hot tub party, Burning Man -- when everyone, women and men, are as well. Funny thing about nude beaches: When everyone around you is naked, the whole thing feels more silly than erotic.

Back in the '90s, the odious Jean Marie Le Pen, head of France's Front National, produced an anti-immigration brochure that contrasted lovely, golden French ladies lying topless on the beach with the specter of burqa-clad women who he presumed would storm the beaches by 2010. It’s hard to capture more perfectly the sexual hypocrisy of the man. But if he wants to hang with the naked ladies, I have a suggestion: With all due respect, sir, perhaps you and your cronies should consider dropping your trunks to beautify the national beaches? C’mon, not even a G-string? 

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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