Topless sunbathing - once perceived as a symbol of liberated France's joie de vivre - is apparently under assault.
Topless sunbathing has served as a contrast to American prudery since the early 70s, when a swingin' new post-'68 France refused to ban topless sun babies from its beaches. But while the stereotype of nubile and unselfconscious bathers insouciantly breast-saluting the sun persists, statistics say it's really just the same women - now over 60 - who fought for the right initially who embrace the practice today.
According to a piece in today's Guardian, younger women are, increasingly, finding topless bathing problematic. Those aged 18-30 are springing for one-piece swimsuits in far higher numbers, with 24% of French women polled saying that the practice of topless bathing actually "disturbed" them. Some are concerned about skin cancer. And rather than a feminist expression of values, many feel it plays into a culture that objectifies the female body. Writes one author quoted in the piece,
[W]hat has been projected onto it today are different values, identified, not with equality but desire, sexualisation 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."
The government has followed suit, imposing fines for topless sunbathing in some public places and throwing wraps over those protesters who want the right to forgo their top. For, indeed, other feminists take the opposite tack: a group calling themselves Les Tumultueuses have made several topless raids on public pools under the banner"My body, if I want, when I want" , objecting to the fact that under new regulations it's only women whose bodies are deemed unseemly.
There's also a political element: Right-winger LePen has used the example of topless sunbathing as a fundamental French right that could be compromised should sinister Muslim immigrants be allowed their druthers. But while this is a major leap, maybe it's an inevitable one in French consciousness. Certainly, it's hard not to think of the nation's injunctions against the hijab in public schools. Obviously, France has no qualms about imposing its own conceptions of morality on its people's dress, and "freedoms" are open to official interpretation. Some critics of topless sunbathing worry that it will lead to full nudity - a 'where will it stop?' argument. One could ask the same thing of these clothing dictates: women must show their heads but can't show their breasts. It's a country of freedoms - until it's not. Of course, there's a measure of arbitrariness to any nation's dictates on these matters. But given the sanctimony with which the state has touted its secular commitment to women's issues, it's interesting to see them doing it again - but this time covering up. And rather than declaring what's best for all women, it generally seems wise to let them choose; at the end, isn't empowerment the best means of avoiding objectification?