During the year I spent in Nice, I lived within a short walk of the Promenade des Anglais. Everyday I wandered down to the beach, drawn by the vibrant blue water and the liveliness of the beachgoers. I loved watching the families play in the surf; the teenagers chatting over their towels; the proud, bare breasted women enjoying the feeling of the sun’s warmth on their skin.
Before I came to Nice I had been living as a college student in St. Petersburg, Florida, never more than a short drive from some of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S. While I spent a lot of time near the Gulf of Mexico, I rarely swam in it. I pretended to be afraid of the ocean, but deep down I knew my fears were more focused on my negative body image than on drowning. I hated wearing a swimsuit. I hated being seen in a swimsuit. Whenever I slipped on whatever modest swimwear I had chosen, whether it be a one piece or tank-ini or boy shorts, a chorus of body shaming voices would howl through my thoughts. My body transform into a hideous Picasso-esque composite of every possible body flaw I suspected I had. The sun, surf, and sand were always less tangible than the self-hate.
But in Nice, the experience was different. A far wider spectrum of people enjoyed the beach in far more revealing swimwear than I was accustomed to seeing in Florida. No one seemed to be self-conscious. Young and old alike revealed fat rolls, scars, cellulite, and amputations. There seemed to a general social consensus that the beach was a space in which people could simply enjoy their physical bodies in nature. All of the sudden, I understood the term “naturist” in a new light– the profound joy and sense of self-acceptance can result from simply being an unclothed body. Inspired by what I saw around me, first I became comfortable wearing a two-piece swimsuit, and then like many French women, I opted to ditch the top.
Being topless at the beach felt great. Never before had I felt so at ease in my own physical self. Sometimes I would see octogenarian women strolling topless down the Promenade de Anglais and I would want to cheer.
This was in 2005. Flash forward a decade and the beach in Nice is a far different place, not only because of the burkini. “Le Monokini, c’est fini,” announced Le Parisien, in 2014, ringing out the death knell of topless sunbathing in France. (Monokini being the name given to a woman’s bottom only swimsuit.) Polling done by the magazine the previous summer had revealed that only 12% of French women felt comfortable going topless at the beach. This was in stark contrast to the French beaches of 1980’s and 90’s in which almost all women sported “le topless.”
The bold statement put forth by Le Parisien instigated a lot of social debate. Even though many women stated skin cancer concerns as a primary reason for abandoning it polling conducted by Le Parisien also discovered more and more French women citing dissatisfaction with their bodies. Unsurprisingly record numbers of French youth– male and female– alike, now self-identify as “pudique” or modest, the French equivalent to what we might think of in the U.S. as “never naked.” We may laugh at the never naked character on “Arrested Development” but how many Americans actually feel comfortable changing clothes in front of friends of the same gender or showering in the locker room at the gym? Very few. According to multiple media outlets over 90% of American women and up to 40% of American men have a negative image of their body.
Let’s face it. Skin cancer was a smoke screen. Lathering up boobs in sunblock will always be easier than lathering one’s back, and no one was talking about hiding shoulder blades from the sun. A deeper cultural change occurred in France, one that upset a lot of French people. Always wary of American imperialism, this return to “modesty” was treated as resulting from the influence of U.S. consumer culture, with its hyper-sexualization of the body and emphasis on narrow beauty norms.
A national discussion related to “le pudeur” or modesty began in earnest, with social and cultural critics assigning this new found modesty not an increase in religiosity or desire for personal privacy, but instead to other factors related to technology and global consumer culture. The ubiquity of modified bodies in Internet and the presence of smart phone and other camera devices on the beach were also identified as factors that had led to the demise of “le topless.” As a whole, media and cultural critics agreed alike that rejection of “le topless” was not a return to true modesty and (I cringe as I write this) “family values” (as if body shaming women can ever be considered a family value) but instead a reflection of women’s desire to not appear ugly. Search the term “pudique” in Google.fr and lots of self-help and parental advice guides come up. Many French people, especially older generations, perceive this return to so-called modesty as extremely negative.
Like many people around the world, I was outraged by the photographs of French police officers hassling burkini-clad women on the beach in Nice. I value freedom of religious choice and expression, and think that is great that Muslim women who wish to cover themselves have a new option available to them that makes its easier for to more fully enjoy the beach and water spots. I want to live in a world that values choice and diversity. The burkini, like many other apparel items, is one such choice.
But what the international discussion of this burkini issue has failed to address is the fact that many people in France fear that the prevalence of burkinis on French beaches could lead to all women feeling further pressure to cover themselves. French society is still dealing with a significant shift in social norms around what is considered appropriate beach attire for women, which has been accompanied by an increasing number of women expressing discontent with their bodies. The pain that has accompanied this cultural transition deserves to be recognized. It’s not helpful when organizations like the United Nations call burkini bans “a stupid reaction” to extremism. The issue needs to be acknowledged as more multifaceted and complex than simple Islamophobia. In a recent poll by the BBC, while a solid majority of the French people polled, 64% expressed support for burkini bans. Even though prejudice against Muslims is a problem in France, a Pew Research report conducted after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris found that roughly 29% of respondents had a negative impression of Islam. 29% is too high, but it is not a majority and not even close to 64%. Other factors have contributed to French discomfort with the burkini.
Personal and social norms are very malleable. Only a year after I left France, I was swimming in the ocean in New Jersey with an ex-boyfriend and his family. It was one of those public beaches where legions of East-coasters gather to be pummeled by icy waves, and while in the midst of getting pummeled, my swimsuit top snapped off and was dragged away by the current. Terrified to be seen topless, I dove after it, breathing in mouthfuls of salty water and struggling against the waves. Somehow in a short time, I had gone from fully comfortable to letting my boobs hang out on the beach, to risking drowning to cover them.
When the French express fear of their norms changing, I think we should listen better, more compassionately, and longer before judging their concerns.
I would never condone intolerance against Muslims and I definitely support overturning burkini bans. But in this female body shaming world, we also need to stand up for the right of women to be as unclothed as they wish without judgment. The ideal future, one that now feels unreachable, is one in which all women feeling comfortable with their bodies, and all women feel they have the choice to expose or cover themselves without shame.