Thursday, 23 July 2009

The right to bare breasts

When the heat is on here in Lyon, sometimes the only thing that makes life bearable is a trip to the outdoor pool. There are many things that strike a British person as a little funny when they visit a French pool. One is that topless bathing is allowed - at our outdoor pool at least. Women of all ages and body types appear to be quite happy bearing their chests as they sunbathe (though I've yet to see anyone who hasn't replaced their bikini top to actually go for a swim.) That said, there are more women with their chests covered than not, a trend which is apparently growing here in France.

I personally don't sunbathe topless. For one thing, I prefer one-piece swimsuits to bikinis - I find they flatter me much more. Perhaps more significantly, I am just too paranoid about any unwelcome attention I might get (though I have to say that I've never seen any blatant oogling going on around our pool). But now I'm wondering whether I should address my discomfort with the issue, buy a stick of sunblock, and bare all. Should I learn to embrace the right to go topless as an important feminist issue, in the same way that it has traditionally been within the French feminist movement?

There's no denying the inequality in dress codes for men and women: in Britain and America, at least, men's chests are acceptable in public, but women's are considered to be strictly for 'private viewings', so to speak. France's tradition of topless sunbathing is supposed to address this imbalance. As for me, the fact that it is partly a fear of catcalls or unwelcome stares that puts me off topless sunbathing is a sign to me that something is amiss. It's proof that society makes me (and others, for surely I'm not the only one) feel uncomfortable about our bodies in a way that men are not made to feel. My fear that I might be increasing my chances of being on the receiving end of predatory comments from men is perhaps exaggerated, but is based on a lifetime's experience of patriarchal society in which women are the object and men the subject of a kind of mass gaze.

Carole Cadwalladr couldn't be more wrong when she states that the best thing women can do now is to cover themselves up. She argues that female nudity has become hackneyed and overused, specifically in the world of advertising, claiming that this has lead to the naked female form becoming banal and uninteresting, if not downright tacky via images of glamour models and in lads mags. Her column fails to see that this is simply another manifestation of the same social symptom which the those first feminist topless sunbathers were fighting against back in the 60s. Back then, a woman's breasts weren't hers to control - society did that for her, and told her cover them up. Today, society has appropriated women's breasts in another way, and made them a tool of titillation and marketing persuasion. In both cases, control over the way her body is used is still not in a woman's own hands. The answer isn't to hide away and ignore the issue, but to redress it...metaphorically speaking. When a woman's decision as to whether she goes topless is not influenced by either a fear of transgressing social mores (and attracting scandal) or a fear of being associated with over-sexualised commercial images (and attracting predatory sexual attention), then we'll have made some progress.

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