Secular modesty rages in France

StTropezFranceOK, try to forget the burkinis controversy for a minute. It seems that this is not the hottest swimwear controversy in France this summer.

Or perhaps “hottest” isn’t the right word.

You see, Time magazine recently ran a shocking little story about a rising tide of totally secular modesty on those infamous beaches in the south of France. The headline: “In France, a New Generation of Women Says Non to Nude Sunbathing.”

This is quite the national scandal, as you can see in the top paragraphs:

For decades, the French have relished any opportunity to mock Americans for their supposed childish Yankee puritanism when it comes to matters of sex. These days, though, France is experiencing its own blush of youthful prudishness as an entire generation of younger French women says “Non, merci,” to the summer tradition of topless sunbathing.

Since France’s summer vacation season kicked off in early July, the French press has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the shrinking number of topless women on the nation’s beaches. As eagle-eyed reporters have made quite clear, the prevailing trend among sun-loving women these days is to use both pieces of their bikini. Le Monokini, C’est Fini! , shouted Le Parisien in its report from a Mediterranean beach. “Nude Breasts Are Less Trendy” concurred free daily Metro France.

There are concerns about skin cancer, of course, and a few other twists in the plot. Some young women are offended by the ridiculous standards of beauty offered in modern advertisements. Amen.

However, the key word seems to be “puritanism” because, of course, the deep river of American modesty — surely you have seen it on MTV and in current fashions — is rooted in fundamentalist Christianity’s lock hold on life in this theocracy.

So in America, modesty is linked to religion. But not, apparently, in France. You see, the waves of coverage of this issue are almost completely faith-free. Young french women are becoming more modest and there seems to be no moral or religious content to their decisions, at all. We hear that values are becoming more “conservative, traditional and familial,” but that is all.

Check this out:

A survey titled “Women and Nudity” by polling agency Ifop captures the mood. It found that younger French women not only have a problem with nudity — but actually consider themselves prudish. Fully 88% of the women questioned qualified themselves as pudique — a term that can mean anything from “modest” or “prim” to “priggish.” And they aren’t joking. Though 90% said they get naked with their husband or partner, 59% avoid being nude around their children. Sixty-three percent said they refused to undress around female friends; 22% said they considered a woman in her underwear already naked.

I said that this was shocking. There’s more:

With sensitivities like those, it’s little wonder the poll found French women had strong opinions about public nakedness. Nearly 50% said they were bothered by total nudity on beaches or naturist camps, and 37% said they were disturbed by publicly exposed breasts or buttocks. Forty-five percent of respondents reported they’d prefer to see a lot less flesh hanging out in full view — male or female.

Those attitudes got even more pronounced with respondents aged 18-24. A quarter of women within that group described themselves as very pudique, and 20% saw any nudity as tantamount to indecency.

Believe me when I say that there has been quite a bit of press European coverage of this cover up — click here, here, here, here and here (The Business Insider?) for a few samples.

So what might be going on here? There is some evidence that the birthrate is rising in France, and not just among ethnic groups. Birthrates are often linked to religious beliefs, with statistics falling with secularization and rising with religious fervor. Modesty in front of their children? Interesting.

And what about the growing population of Muslims? Is there some chance that public nudity may offend more people these days in an increasingly diverse France?

Then there is this interesting twist, in an essay on this scandal in The Daily Beast, which is not exactly a Religious Right source. If burkinis are anti-France and nudity is pro-France, then what pray tell is going on right now?

What could be more French, after all, than breast-baring in the nation that gave the world Brigitte Bardot and the Grands Tetons? Hell, the national symbol, a fictitious woman named Marianne (who represents the eternal struggle for Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite) appeared on France’s old 100-franc notes with her breasts exposed. Even France’s most popular far-right political party, which has often played up its links to the Catholic Church, once put up anti-immigration advertisements showing burka-clad women invading beaches where French women took in the sun topless.

Fascinating. How could anyone ever think that religion news is boring? What could be stranger than an outbreak of completely secular modesty in France? Now that’s news.

Photo: Somewhere in the south of France. It was hard to find an illustration for this post that could be used in a family-friendly blog edited by notorious traditionalists.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • nudiarist

    Beware of unscientific polls and viral Internet stories. The fact is that topfreedom for women is a non-issue in France, having been firmly established decades ago. The real cultural struggle in France today revolves around naturism (nudism), which is booming with most inland resorts being booked solid. In Cannes authorities had to take measures to keep nudists out of sight from the Yacht Club because they were becoming more visible. Cap d’Agde is a seaside town with a huge family-oriented nude resort.

    No, France is not going Puritan, this is just media-driven nonsense. Those unscientific percentages quoted here are all over the place and make little sense. Bottom line is if 45% of French people want to see less flesh, that means 55% want to see more.

  • Jerry

    We here that values are becoming more “conservative, traditional and familial,” but that is all.

    Since I make that mistake as well: “hear” not “here” although it’s a great Freudian slip based on you being one of them notorious traditionalists.

    I do have to wonder what is going on in France though. Maybe we’ll see a followup story entitled “none dare call it religion” (for those old enough or educated enough to know what I’m alluding to).

  • Maureen

    If it’s secular to show flesh in rebellion against religion, why wouldn’t it be secular not to show flesh in rebellion against older people always running around nekkid, or your mom making you take off your top?

    That said, questions about safety in public, or whether there are younger men being more offensive in their ogling, or even if younger French women have witnessed or been subject to more abuse as kids — that all would be stuff to ask.

  • Northeasterner

    I think the discussion could really be more about aesthetics than morals. Having been to a nude beach or two in my time, the first word that comes to mind is “ugly.” Most people look better wearing a swim suit.

    Also, nudity tends to encourage bad behavior like exhibitionism, ogling, harassment and the like. All things that make a day at the beach less pleasant. My guess is that “pudique” may be more about good taste (something the French excel in) then any shift in public morality.

  • MichaelV

    “Bottom line is if 45% of French people want to see less flesh, that means 55% want to see more.”

    Or the same amount of flesh. Or don’t have an opinion. Or just didn’t give one.