When a topless Sharon Stone appeared on the cover of the popular French magazine Paris Match, the perennial femme fatale could be forgiven for believing that she was being très française. With a cover line that read, “I’m 50, and so!” the picture of Stone—who is barely recognizable, whether from digital photo manipulation or top-dollar surgeons—seems to scream: This cougar still looks like one of France’s young kittens. Alas, the glossy snapshots inside, of her slick, slim, and preternaturally firm flesh, actually made her look her age in today’s France.
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How is that? What could be more French, after all, than breast-baring in the nation that gave the world Brigitte Bardot and the Grands Tetons? Hell, the national symbol, a fictitious woman named Marianne (who represents the eternal struggle for Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) appeared on France’s old 100-franc notes with her breasts exposed. Even France’s most popular far-right political party, which has often played up its links to the Catholic Church, once put up anti-immigration advertisements showing burka-clad women invading beaches where French women took in the sun topless.
Yes, but it turns out that the fashion-trendsetting nation that brought us the mono-kini is bringing back the two-piece suit, as well as demure one-pieces. After decades, if not centuries, of ever-shrinking clothing on France’s female forms, cloth is making a comeback at the seaside. “It is the big deal of the summer: Breasts have disappeared,” noted the respected magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. “The trend experts all agree: Nothing is more ringard (tacky, or out of date) in 2009 than strolling around on the beach without a bathing-suit top.”
In some places, it isn’t even a choice. At Paris Plage, the four-week sunfest in which several kilometers of Seine-front highway are converted into an artificial summer “beach,” women risk fines for going topless. Tops are even required at public pools—which has spurred some old-school activists to plunge into the deep end, literally. They engage in commando-like operations in which they dive into the water, bosoms free, to force policy change (as staff plead for them to cover up). But such actions are hardly the sign of a broad-based new topless movement; rather, they are the spasms of a fading trend.
Teenagers and young adults in France are shifting toward greater cover. Many young women have never sunbathed without a top, and many others have stopped. This leaves most of the nudity to women with links to and memories of the sexual liberation, feminist, or naturist movements—women, like Stone, who are somewhere between middle age and their golden years. To demoiselles, being topless on a beach is about as cool as Club Med.
This transformation goes well beyond fashion issues (which can be serious enough in France), touching on deeper changes in French society, the way people see themselves, and what their country represents to the world. The survey of the summer—picked at widely in the French media—found that 88 percent of French women now describe themselves as “modest” or “prudish.” Nearly two in three avoid stripping down in front of other women, and more than one-third are troubled by exposed bosoms or backsides. More than one in five French women—get this!—perceive a woman in lingerie to be essentially naked. Among women between 18 and 24, a quarter describe themselves as very prudish or shy ( pudique), and one in five believe that any nudity is indecent.
Beneath those numbers is a changing reality in a country where women are legendarily at ease with their bodies and their sexuality. For a new generation of French women, who take the advances of the feminist and sexual liberation movements for granted, nudity does not necessarily glorify personal freedom and naturalness. More often than not, it just broadcasts their own inadequacies in comparison to the steady stream of young models, Photoshopped to perfection, in ads, music videos, magazines, and films. In today’s France, more than half of women say they don’t like their own body.
“Nothing is more ringard (tacky, or out of date) in 2009 than strolling around on the beach without a bathing-suit top.”
This is in stark contrast to the 1970s, when France’s clothing optional beaches really came into their own and bikini tops were considered démodé, conservative and uptight At the time, politicians were pressured to mandate a coverup on the beach, but they resisted. More recently, some politicians have been trying to mandate fewer clothes, not more, in the case of a Muslim woman who was ejected from a suburban Paris pool for wearing a "burkini" (a swimsuit burqa that includes a water-resistant tunic, pants and a hijab that exposed only her hands, feet and face). This time, conservative French lawmakers are pushing to declare the swimwear illegal. (Pool rules ostensibly banned the burkini on the same grounds that require men to wear skimpy Speedos for swimming, rather than voluminous board shorts that can be worn around town.)
But social trends, and new data about skin damage and melanoma, accomplished what an earlier generation of lawmakers dared not try: Now it’s toplessness that is démodé and old-fashioned. Even a middle-aged woman like former supermodel-turned-French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy—who is famous for her libertine past and (artistic) nude modeling photos—is wearing a modest black bikini this summer. So when Le Nouvel Observateur declared that “The tits of the summer…belong, indisputably, to Sharon Stone,” that was in part because her in-the-flesh competition in France ain’t what it used to be.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.