Page last updated at 06:47 GMT, Saturday, 1 August 2009 07:47 UK

Breast practice on the riviera

St Tropez

There was a time when French beaches were full of topless women - but no longer. As cities empty, and France makes its annual migration to the coast, Paris-based journalist Regan Kramer - a member of the feminist Les Chiennes de Garde group - asks why the breast is now back in the bikini.

In the early 70s, American and British women would struggle to stay well hidden behind their towels as they changed into or out of their bathing suits.

Even undoing their suit tops as they lay on their stomachs poolside could attract a reprimand.

So it's no wonder that the French Riviera, with its brazenly topless women, was something to fantasize about back then - both for the women who dreamt of finally feeling the sun on their hitherto hidden breasts and for all those who were happy just to look.

It all started in Saint Tropez in 1964.

Although initially banned, going topless caught on quickly and spread throughout France in under a decade.

'Being able' to go topless gradually evolved into feeling obliged to do so

It was hailed as feminist progress. Women could go topless, "just like men" - even though that was never really so, as it was always more complicated for women, who had to decide first if they would do it at all, and then only "horizontally" (i.e. while sunbathing) or "vertically" (swimming and walking on the beach) too.

Still, going topless suited the era, coming, as it did, just a year before another feminist breakthrough, the legalisation of the Pill. Like contraception, toplessness (at both the beach and municipal pools) was seen as a way for women to assert and control their own sexuality.

So what happened? Why is it that you hardly see women going topless in France any more? Or if you do, they're more likely to be in their 50s, veterans of feminist battles who are damned if they're going to give up any of the rights they fought for.


Actually, a lot happened: Aids, for one, which put its damper on the sexual revolution in general.

Of course, since this is France, somebody had to write a serious book about it, and a small group of radical feminists had to stage a protest

Advertising, for another, as more and more women came to feel harassed by the "porno-chic" trend that put nearly-naked women on billboards everywhere.

"Being able" to go topless gradually evolved into feeling obliged to do so, and eventually, the prevailing feminist perspective changed from revelling in a new-found freedom to refusing to give in to the endless pressure to flaunt a "perfect" body.

Even ozone depletion has played a role, as many women now say they're worried about exposing their pale breasts to the sun's potentially cancer-inducing rays…

Of course, since this is France, somebody had to write a serious book about it, and a small group of radical feminists had to stage a protest.

Historian Christophe Granger recently wrote a book called "Les Corps d'été" (Summer Bodies) which describes the evolution of the "love triangle" between the French, the sun and nudity over the course of the 20th Century. This summer's perfect beach book, n'est-ce pas?

Snowball effect

In the meantime, far from the Riviera, Les Tumultueuses (Tumultuous Women), a group of radical feminists, has staged several topless actions at Parisian public pools.

It seems simply to be fading away like a suntan in autumn

At their latest outing, Natacha, one of the group members, explained: "The point of our action is to denounce the ways in which men and women are treated differently. Women's bodies are systematically sexualized in a way that men's bodies aren't."

When managers threatened to call the police (who had indeed been called in to the group's two previous actions), Natacha pointed out that, "Nobody gets upset about the topless women you see every day on newsstands, even though those images are degrading. But when it's real women, it's a problem, and the police are called in."

The women handed out tracts with their slogan "My body, when I want, if I want, as it is," a play on the 60s pro-choice slogan, "A baby, if I want, when I want".

Yet Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe has slapped a ban on topless sunbathing at Paris-Plage, the artificial beach installed along the Seine every summer - leading many feminists to comment that France seems to be slipping in terms of women's right to reveal what they please. (The Islamic veil, on the other hand, is permitted.)

Interestingly, no other French beach has actually banned toplessness.

It seems simply to be fading away like a suntan in autumn, a process that is hastened by a sort of snowball effect, as it takes a critical mass of topless sun-bathers for most women to feel comfortable trying it.

As one 18-year-old Parisian put it, when asked if she went topless at the beach: "Are you kidding? You don't walk around like that in front of people!"

But when asked if she would do it if everybody else was, the reply was tempered to a more wistful: "Why not? It could be fun."

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