Posted by Jay Livingston
I’ve been leaving breast-blogging to Sociological Images or other sociology blogs. A year ago, I came across an interview with French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, whose research interests include topless sunbathing. In 1995 he published Corps de Femmes, Regards d'Hommes, based on 300 interviews supplemented with observational research at the beach.
I was going to blog it with a title like “For this you can get a grant?” But I merely filed it away.
Now, a year later, a French magazine reports that younger women at the beach are leaving their tops on. The story went mostly ignored in France, The US and UK press were much more enthusiastic. They played it up as a trend towards prudishness among the young, as if to say, “See, they've finally come around to our way of doing things.”
Time magazine for example, says,
Younger women disinclined to baring themselves make up the majority of female sunbathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women.Time has no data on this. If they sent some lucky staffer to Cannes for an informal count, they’re not saying. Time did check a recent a IFOP survey of 1000 French women (“Les femmes et la nudité”) which oddly enough did not ask women if they went topless at the beach. The Time article, in a desperate effort to show a cultural shift, does a really bad job of reporting the data. There were some small differences between younger and older. More of the 18-35 women said they felt uncomfortable seeing topless women at the beach than did the over-35s (31 % vs. 20%). But when asked their level of “pudeur personelle,” the youngest women (18-24) were indistinguishable from the over-35s.
(For a slightly larger view, click on the picture. Maybe NSFW – if your co-workers have really good vision.)
In either case – bared or covered – the French frame the decision over female anatomy as a matter of female autonomy. Last year, Kaufmann said of the decision to go topless, “le phénomène de la topless reste un choix qu'il exprime le désir d'être libres et de communiquer cette liberté.”* This year he sees not going topless as a rejection of fashion. “The practice has become common, and therefore less compelling as a fashion.”
It would be interesting to compare the situation of bare breasts in France and in the US. Here, topless beaches are few. Instead, the image of women baring their breasts is that of Girls Gone Wild or Mardi Gras – girls getting drunk and flashing a crowd of shouting boys (does anyone remember Rude Norton?).
How different from the French beach scene Kaufmann describes, the men
avec des yeux pas particulièrement expressifs, qui ne démontrent pas d’intérêt, mais qu’ils coulent rapidement sur le paysage féminin de la plage de manière attentive. . . .. Pour montrer ses seins, une femme doit se sentir à l’aise.**There may also be French-US differences in the matter of quality vs. quantity. Kaufmann says that the unwritten rules of the beach permit that only “beaux seins” be exposed. Asked to define his terms, he says, “Selon les interviewés, de beaux seins sont ceux des jeunes filles: plutôt petit, dur, bien attaché au thorax.”
Plutôt petit. Rather small. In the US, surgeons do nearly three times as many breast augmentations as breast reductions. In France, the numbers are reversed. Maybe that’s why when the IFOP asked women who, among six celebs who had posed nude, represented the most gracious female nudity, Pamela Anderson got only 2% of the vote, behind Kate Moss (6%). Laetitia Casta was the big winner, especially among the 18-24s, followed by Emmanuele Béart. (If you are not familiar with these referenced sources, you're on your own. We're not that kind of blog.)
* “The topless phenomenon remains a choice that expresses the desire to be free and to communicate this freedom.”
** “with eyes that are not particularly expressive and that show no interest, eyes that flow quickly over the feminine landscape of the beach in an attentive manner. . . . To show her breasts, a woman must feel at ease.”