During my vacation, I decided not to go topless on the beach, even though I could have if I'd wanted to.
How common is it for female beach-goers here in France to go topless?
I don't know if you're actually curious about this question or not, but since I'm not sure whether National Geographic has explored this fascinating indigenous local custom with photo spread, I've decided to do some of my own investigative reporting about it.
I've been to the beach along the Mediterranean (in Marseille) and in Brittany and now in the Aquitaine and once in a place in Africa where there were a lot of French tourists, and these beaches were all about the same in terms of what proportion of the women chose to go topless, which I would guesstimate at around ten percent, maybe less.
Now you may be wondering if these are these the same people that you would like to see with their shirts off, orientation permitting.
To me it seems to be more or less a cross-section. The decision to bear half seems to be more a function of the woman's own comfort level than of her hotness-or-notness. (Okay, I know that's not really a word, but you understood it, didn't you? So let's go with it.)
The next thing you're probably wondering is "Chanson, did you really look at all of these women (in a polite, discrete, and non-staring manner) so that you could discuss your impressions with everyone?"
The answer is that indeed I did. As an expat, I have an important role of cultural exchange to carry out, and I take that role very seriously.
(Well, "seriously" is maybe the wrong word here, but I think you know what I mean.)
In my case, when I chose to wear the top half of my bikini, I took my own comfort level into account, and I took my husband's comfort level into account as well. He's happy to see me dress in an attractive manner, even sexy, but within some limits (in public).
This isn't a big deal to me. If it were, I could always have stuck with my first husband, who was willing to go along with me when I decided I wanted to try going to the nude beach. When I started my relationship with my only true husband (sorry, no offense previous husband!), he wasn't quite as game for the whole nude beach thing. We joked around about the possibility a bit, but it was pretty clear that he was not into it. That's okay -- it was fun, but not incredibly important.
If any feminists have actually read all the way to this point, you might be thinking it's bad -- or at least questionable -- that I would admit to dressing for a man's comfort as much as for my own. However, by agreeing to be monogamous, I'm in a sense allowing a man to control my sexuality. So if you're okay with monogamy and know anything about how relationships work in practice, you know there's some gray area that a couple has to deal with regarding what both partners are comfortable doing with other people. And the way people dress (especially women) naturally has sexual connotations.
It's kind of unfortunate that men typically get to dress for their own comfort whereas women generally end up dressing for the comfort of men, whether they're actively dressing "modestly" (to avoid making males feel uncomfortable about their own sexual feelings and judging women accordingly) or whether they're dressing provocatively (in order to attract).
Part of the reason men don't have to take the female gaze into account when they dress is that women aren't really looking at them, at least not nearly so much and not in the same way.
My older brother (who is gay) has argued that one reason straight men are so sloppy is because straight women aren't picky enough about a man's look, and straight guys would clean up their act if it made any real difference in their romantic and sexual prospects. Maybe that's true, but maybe straight women and gay men aren't really attracted to the same sorts of things, or maybe gay men are just naturally more fabulous on average than straight men. It's hard to say.
Anyway, it probably seems pretty absurd for me to be talking about "modesty" in terms of whether to wear a bikini or just the bottom half of a bikini. It's not like I'm being asked to wear a burqa or something. But it's interesting how the concept of "modesty" isn't really absolute -- it's relative to culture and cultural norms.
And it's always entertaining to watch what happens in places where cultures mix. I remember one time I saw a woman sunbathing topless along the side of the Seine right in the middle of Paris. The funny part was all of the (young male) foreign tourists interested in getting a look and taking pictures. This is the main reason I would not sunbathe topless in the middle of Paris. As much as I like to support the French tourism industry, I'm not sure I want to be one of the colorful local sights people are excitedly writing home about.
So, in case you missed it (being distracted by thoughts of naked people), the hidden discussion topic (for feminists) is the following:
"Modesty": is it all about dressing for the comfort of males, and hence just the flip side of deliberately dressing sexy for men's sake? Discuss!
Either that or else please recount your own entertaining experiences on nude or topless beaches. :D