Topless sunbathing falls out of vogue among French women

David Chazan
Legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot was known for only wearing bikini bottoms - Rex Features

French women used to be famed for sunbathing topless on Riviera beaches, but the practice is no longer considered chic and few are disposed to bare their breasts these days, a new survey has shown.

The 1960s idea of liberating yourself by burning your bra now seems outdated and women are more concerned about not attracting unwanted male attention, according to François Kraus, who directed the survey of 5,000 female respondents.

“You can say there’s a MeToo effect on the beach,” Mr Kraus said. The movement prompted by the sexual assault and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, has had a huge effect in France.

French women have formed their own campaign against sexual harassment under the Twitter hashtag, “balancetonporc,” which translates as “denounce your pig” and encourages women to go public with the names of men who have groped, threatened or harassed them.

“A new factor is that among under 25s, there’s a fear of leering looks and 51 per cent of them fear being assaulted,” Mr Kraus said. 

The number of women who regularly sunbathe topless has plunged in the past three years from 29 to 19 per cent, according to a survey by the French Institute for Public Opinion (IFOP) published on Wednesday.

Concerns about sexual harassment and skin cancer have turned some women off going topless Credit:  E+/pixdeluxe

In 1984, 43 per cent did so. More middle-aged women are seen topless in France than younger women. Janine Mossuz-Lavau, an academic, said that for French women in the 1960s and 70s, “going to the beach topless was a way to show that they were liberated from patriarchy, sexual restraint. But the current generation consider themselves sufficiently liberated not to have to prove it.”

Another reason for the waning popularity of topless sunbathing is fear of skin cancer after many public health campaigns have hammered home the risk of overexposure to the sun.

Michelle Leclerc, 23, said: “Le bronzage [tanning] — no longer seems innocuous the way it used to when our mums were young. You don’t want to be pestered, but also it seems a bit tacky to take your top off these days and you certainly don’t want to be photographed by someone on a mobile and the picture shared on social media. And some women are concerned they may expose themselves to  negative comments about their bodies.”

On the Costa del Sol, however, topless tanning is still all the rage. The survey showed that nearly half of Spanish women have bared their breasts on the beach.

“In Spain, displaying your body is a political statement against the puritanism of the era of [the dictator Francisco] Franco,” Mr Kraus said. 

In Germany, 34 per cent of women have gone topless, compared to to 22 per cent who say they have done so at least once in France, 19 per cent in Britain and 15 per cent in Italy.

Women’s beachwear has become controversial in France. The current heatwave, with temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius, has reignited a row over the full body burkini swimsuits worn by some Muslim women. 

“Our survey shows that the French are more uncomfortable with the burkini than with a completely naked woman,” Mr Kraus said. “There is an element of Islamophobia, but also a sort of misunderstanding as for the past 50 years, the beach has been the place where you take off your clothes.”

Beachgoers are not alone in being concerned about being pestered or photographed if they take off their tops.

Nudists who have had a special section reserved for them in a Paris park for the past two years have complained that women are being harassed by voyeurs this summer. Some have complained about “perverts hiding in bushes” at the Bois de Vincennes site.