The French have been known for their love of -- and elegant approach to -- hedonistic pleasures like smoking, drinking and nude sunbathing. But just as Paris is cracking down on public smoking (which, incidentally, has not had the intended effect), French women are saying “au revoir” to nude sunbathing.
An Elle magazine poll cited by the AP indicates only 2 percent of French women are comfortable baring their breasts in public. (If that statistic sounds particularly low to you, you’re not alone. IBTimes has not been able to verify key details of the Elle survey, including sample size.)
But the AP interviewed French women who have chosen to cover up. While sunbathing at Paris Plages, Paris’ summer beach, Muriel Trazie, 60, said she believes people see topless beachgoing as “vulgar” now. A woman from a later generation concurred. "People are more prudish these days,” she said. Sandra Riahi, 22, said simply: "I've never done it. I'd be too embarrassed."
French sociologists, the AP report said, see millennials as more conservative than the let-it-all-hang-out Generation X. In a more pragmatic explanation, some theorize in the age of social media, perhaps women have developed a fear of being photographed and illicitly published on the Internet by lurkers with cell phone cameras. Nathan Assouline, 22, a beach monitor at Paris Plages said: "I see lots of old men loitering around here. I have to stop them from taking photos on their phones. It happens all the time."
For Jean-Claude Kauffman, author of "Women's Bodies, Men's Gaze: The Sociology of Topless Bathing," young French women’s desire to cover up signals conformity, repression and a rebuke of feminist values.
"French young women today are more conformist,” Kauffman said. “They've already attained freedom. ... So they've gotten lazy and taken it for granted." Kauffman also sees this new modesty as a cultural reflection to economic hardship.
"France has also been hard hit by austerity since the start of the financial crisis," Kauffman said. "If breast-baring is a sign of risk and revolution, covering up is a sign of safety. In uncertain times, you always dress more conservatively."
Curiously, the new embrace of modesty in France is happening at the same time Americans are increasingly challenging the cultural prohibition against women baring their breasts. Free the Nipple, a recently developed movement whose purpose is “to empower women across the world” and to “stand against female oppression and censorship both in the U.S. and around the globe,” has staged protests in public sans tops to protest laws in 35 states making it illegal for women to go topless.
Kaufmann may have a point in noting the connection between economic hardship and more modest attire, but it seems that true feminist choice is letting women make their own choices -- whether that means keeping their tops on or taking it all off.