Thursday, August 10, 2006

Topless on the beach...

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


Sideon said...

I say "when in Rome..."

For me, modesty is a personal thing. It's my comfort level with my body and what I would or wouldn't wear. On the beach, I'm more likely to wear nothing since that'd be more comfortable than wearing orange shorts.

Chanson - you're a gorgeous woman. Celebrate yourself however you see fit.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Sideon!!!

You're beautiful too!!! :D

Anonymous said...

I like what you had to say here, "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)."

It remdinds me of that Seinfeld episode, when George gets caught looking at clevage.

When I was a manager I had some female employees and two them in particular liked to show their stuff. They would come into my office and show their clevage. This when I learned...LOOK THEM IN THE EYE. Of course that wasn't always possible. One was LDS too, and active.

It's all about comfort, I know for me I need to shed a few pounds so I hate going topless.

Can you help me get a job in France, so I can take August off too with my family?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey AZ Expositor!!!

Yeah, I'll just pull a few strings here and get you and your family in... ;-)

Hehe, yeah, I wish I had that kind of connections....

Good story BTW. I'm always worried my fellow feminists will give me hell for writing about dressing sexy, since often they don't like women dressing for men's benefit. But sometimes it can be so entertaining. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I would never suggest a nude beach to Sister Dunn. In fact, reading this post in its entirety would be enough to have my supply lines cut off for a week.

She SLEEPS with 3 layers on for crissakes.

As for me... no one wants to see me with my shirt off so, unless I'm in the water, I'm covered.

Cyn Bagley said...

Ho ho... I guess I get to go for the amusing story.

I earned my degree in literature from UMUC European division... and on graduation weekend we went on a trip down the river (I want to say Rhine...but I am sure it was one of the smaller rivers...LOL)...

Now some German students were camping and sunbathing on the side of the river. I don't know how, but word got out that a lot of Americans were taking a tour on three of the river boats...

Yep.. three students (two females and three males) lifted their shirts in greeting. ...all the males were snapping shots. Parents were putting hands on children's eyes. I was laughing helplessly.

Another amusing story. An American military dependent (spouse) walked into a German gas station. There were calendars and pictures of several sexily dressed girls(mainly topless)... In a loud voice (English of course) she told the manager to get rid of the stuff or she would complain to the base commander and no Americans would be allowed at his place of business.

He listened politely, then hustled her out... And politely told her, in English, that if she showed up again, he would call the base commander with her name... And that he played golf with the man.


Rebecca said...

I just think it's weird that it's weird (no, that's not a typo) for people to go topless on a beach. Men go topless, and their breasts aren't even USEFUL - only for show. I definitely NOTICE if I see someone half-naked, but I HATE that I notice. It's so stupid that being naked is gawk-worthy. Why, oh WHY do people make natural things WEIRD?!?!

PS - I would never go topless. Because it's weird.

Anonymous said...

I almost moved to Germany with one of my former employees, was beginning to pack and they pulled the offer. I now it's not easy as an American to get a job over there unless you're teaching English and even then they prefer the British. Oh well someday I will get there.

Anonymous said...

oops, I meant I almost moved with my employer. Not employee, just need to clarify... Yikes.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Pete!!!

Sleeps in three layers? Yikes!!! My condolences...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Great stories!!! Europe is fun, isn't it? :D

Hey Rebecca!!!

I understand that attitude, but I think it's largely cultural. If you lived in a society where women wore head scarves all the time, you'd probably have trouble not gawking at women who uncover their hair, for example.

Hey AZ Expositor!!!

I wouldn't say they necessarily prefer British-style English over American-style (though some do). The bigger advantage the Brits have for such jobs is that they're part of the European Union so they can work in France without the legal hurdles that Americans have.

C. L. Hanson said...


The one time I went surfing, I discovered the next day that I'd been bruised pretty badly (at the hip bones) against the surfboard. I'd hate to imagine a naked guy doing that!!!

Anonymous said...

Having lived in S.W France the first twenty years of my life, I remember various stages and attitudes when going to the beach...

As a young kid, it was quite natural for us to be let loose on the beach with minimal or even no clothes, so we could get the "benefits" of both sun and sea (and bits of sand too, but lets not get there).

As a young boy, most of our holidays were family-based and the only things we truly cared about were running on the beach, swimming, and er.. making sand castles.

It all changed when I hit puberty (no I didn't "reach" it, it was more of "hit"). First I became incredibly self-conscious about my own body, and also conscious of others, and of course very much curious about sexual dimorphism.

One of the traumatic things about topless bathers, was the yearly "invasion" of visitors from nothern France and Europe. I still have shivers remembering the sight of middle-aged men and women going all out nude or wobbly bits of flesh hanging out from red thongs. Not a pleasant sight.

Otherwise as Chanson said, the proportion of native topless bathers was fairly low and covered the spectrum from hotness to freezingness (yep, I know it's probably not a real word, but if c.l can so can I). My own reactions varied from shy interest, to embarrassment (like being stuck in a lift with lots of strangers), and in some cases trying to avoid having to look.

And then I joined the church...

The Sinister Porpoise said...

I usually wore shirts when I went swimming, following Drew Carey's advice about covering up ugly bodies.

Hmmm... don't think I'd want to move to France unless I could convince
everyone I'm a Canadian.

Well, I suppose there's always that trip to Italy I plan on taking someday. Maybe I'll throw in Switzerland too, while I'm at it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rudi!!!

Great story!!! Thanks for the added perspective on what it's like to grow up with French beaches!!! :D

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Aw, come on -- even Americans can go topless here if they want to... ;-)

AnnM said...

We looked for the "little-known but world-famous" skinny-dipping hole in Zion's last week, but didn't find it because we didn't have very specific directions.

Mostly the whole exercise was just an excuse to have a conversation about nudity in front of my 13-year-old son, who has developed such ridiculously extreme notions of modesty that he won't change in front of his 3-year-old brother. I realize that extreme modesty is common for his age, but I also know his father is freakishly modest. We wanted to transmit our values (rather less freaked out about modesty) while he was with us.

No real insight on modesty there, just anecdote.

Anyway, while searching online for the trail directions now that I'm home, I learned that
a) I call Zion's by the local name, rather than the real name, which is Zion, and
b) gay people have all the fun, at least to judge by the naked hiking site I encountered.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

Does this mean you're back from vacation? I hope you and your family had a great time!!! :D

As far as gay nude resorts vs. straight nude resorts are concerned, from what I hear you're right -- the straight ones can't compare. Oh well, I guess this one-person-of-each-sex thing creates a different dynamic...

Kalv1n said...

I dunno, I think part of the being naked bit, is the part about feeling comfortable in your own skin, and if you don't, then what's the point. I personally love nude beaches because it reminds me of how we are all different, and you get to see all sorts of bodies, and not just the "acceptable" ones that the media chooses.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kalvin!!!

That's so true!!!

I noticed that aspect the first time I went to the nude beach in New Jersey -- that you see all kinds of bodies, not just the kinds of bodies you see in glossy magazines. It almost seems kind of subversive in a way. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go topless at the beach, because I look AWFUL in just a swimsuit bottom--the lines catch me at very unflattering junctures. I would go naked, though, because I look better completely undressed than just half dressed.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

I think the complete nude beach is more fun anyway because everybody's naked, so you're not drawing extra attention to yourself by being one of the few people who are more naked than others...

daktara said...

it is anice work from you
from egypt

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Daktara!!!

Like I was saying, this post has attracted searches from all over the world, so it's nice to get reactions from a range of different countries!!! :D

daktara said...

of cours u r allright
but very happy to find this nice blog

Anonymous said...

For all you woman please send a picture of your self nude please to thank you.

Anonymous said...

To the OTHER anonymous ;)
Well, if anyone takes you up on that, at least your dates will presented to you in your preferred media of la digital.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I being in out 40s have those little bits a extra flesh hanging around. We tried a nude resort in Mexico last year and found out that it was relaxing.

We saw every body type under the sun and felt better about our own bodies.

Unknown said...

women who go topless disgust me. i recently stopped seeing a girl for cracking her tits out on the beach. i think people who accept this type of behaviour are not giving themselves away to one male, but the entire population and she is no longer attractive to me at all. the previous girlfriend i didnt even let wear skirts, and then i give this one an inch and she takes a mile.
dan 19 england

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Daniel!!!

That's actually a pretty common attitude. There are a lot of women who get off on the thought of lots of men desiring them. Lots of women are horrified and disgusted at the thought of strange men fantasizing about them. Similarly lots of guys want a woman who is super sexy, and don't mind if other guys are enviously watching from the sidelines. Yet lots of guys -- like you -- want a woman that other guys won't even have the opportunity to fantasize about; they find the other guys' fantasies horrible, offensive, threatening, hence desire a modest mate.

I'm not going to say any one of these attitudes is "right" or "wrong" or that they're entirely the product of culture -- there's almost certainly an innate component. I'll just say that this is an issue where it's important to find a compatible mate, otherwise it will be a sore spot for life.

And, note, this comment is yet another reality check for all of the anti-porn objectification-centered "feminists" who imagine that women who show off their bodies in a sexy way must necessarily be "exploited" and doing it out of some self-effacing need for affirmation from men. Dressing sexy will earn you scorn from plenty of guys like Daniel; refusing to dress sexy can be just as much or more an expression of need for male affirmation and a relationship. Going topless on the beach takes courage and confidence. Neither choice (deliberate modesty or exhibition) should carry an automatic judgement, especially not from anyone who claims the mantle of feminism.

Anonymous said...

My wife asked before going topless and was surprised that I said OK. Unless you are the kind of guy that won't look at a topless girl on the beach (are there any?), it is a little unfair to be critical of a girl who "lets her tits out". And guys who self-righteously criticize girls after having enjoyed the view are not being honest with themselves.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

That's a good way of looking at it.

Anonymous said...

Just a curious thought here, for the girls that do go topless on the beach. How is it that you can be so comfortable showing all on the beach and then across the street in a store you wouldn't want anyone there to see you the same way?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

That's a very good question, and one that I think would take several books to answer. I'll just say that -- without going topless -- I'd hesitate to wear even a modest swimsuit (with no cover) in the train or to a shop. Context is enormously important in what's acceptable.

FresnoMikey said...

Vhat? No topless pikshurs? You can take the girl out of Morbid, but you can't take the Morbid out the girl!
No, seriously, if you can parlayvous, stay there. My son & I did 9 days and lacked only a guide to show us the beautiful neighborhoods and restaurants. IOW we missed 90% of the Cite. Only other place I want to live is Seattle or western Washington.
Oh, when you figure it out, let us know how Ameriguns can learn to love life more, not be conned by Churchianity & Fame, etc. My guess is WWII brought death and joy to the doorstep with each morning's milk.

BlowHard said...

Interesting article. You show signs of Christianity and Mormonism in your values. Not that either of those are necessarily bad, but it kind of makes you a hypocrite. You are still controlled by your parents and their belief systems.

The idea of covering a woman's breast is a purely religious idea intended to punish men for wanting sex and women for being women.

Breasts are, by design of God or nature, mammary glands. Boys in France or USA only stare because they have been emotionally harmed by religious fanatics turning nurturing into sex.

A woman's breasts are sexual, just in the same way that her hands are, her lips are, her smooth skin are. But breasts are not sex organs.

Appreciating the beauty of a woman's breasts is no more wrong or sexual than appreciating the beauty of her face or her eyes. Her breasts are part of her beauty. But they are not sex organs.

I stumbled on your blog today and, as a 25-year inactive Mormon, I have been quite intrigued by your blog and found most of your blog quite interesting. This post, though, makes you appear to be, on the whole, just a rebellious Mormon child.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Blowhard!!!

Thanks for commenting, and thanks for not being spam (which is what it almost always is when a new comment appears on an old post like this...)

I totally agree with all of your points -- right up to that last bit (which, naturally, left me going "Wha...? Making light-hearted conversation about nudity makes me a rebellious Mormon child?").

I never know how to respond when a commenter lists off a bunch of points that agree with what I said (or don't contradict it) and then throws in the surprise ending "And that's why I totally disagree with you!" It happens more often than you'd expect... ;)

That said, are you interested in being listed in Outer Blogness? If so, which of your blogs would you like me to list?

TRiG said...

Another thought about context of nudity. I was once on a beech in Brittany where I saw a boy of about eleven years old coming down from the street (this was a townfront beech), stripping, putting his speedos on, and going for a swim. So it was perfectly fine for him to be naked on the beech. He made no attempt to hide behind a towel as he got changed. But it wasn't okay for him to stay naked.

When you stop to think about it, that's actually quite weird.

I've never been to a naturist resort, but I've been through one, once, when I was kayaking down the Ardeche with my family. I have vague plans to visit Cap d'Agade. the naturist town. I live in Ireland, where such things are rather less accepted.


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey TRiG!!!

It seems weird at first blush, but I don't think it's that weird. That's basically what I do with my kids when swimming -- if there's no obvious changing room, I just have them change out in the open.

If you think there's nothing morally wrong with nudity -- just that it's impolite to parade around naked -- then it makes sense. In this case you have a compelling reason to be naked for a second, so it's not a big deal.