When I told people that my family was traveling to the South of France this summer the typical response was “What fun! Bon vacances!” This is usually how I respond when someone tells me they are going on a trip. “Have fun, take pictures, I can’t wait to hear about it.” And I am not just saying this. There are few things I enjoy more than hearing friends tell me about their travels and seeing the joy spread across their faces as they share the pictures of their journey with me.
But a few people, upon hearing we were venturing to such a risqué locale, looked at me and asked if we planned on bringing the kids to the beach. I gave my head a scratch, and cocked my head slightly to the right, saying, “Of course we are! It’s St Tropez, the Pampelonne beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world. It’s a world of white sand and blue seas with white fluffy clouds and sails littering the horizon.”
“Why,” I wondered out loud, “would I not go to the beach? They sell sunscreen in France, there aren’t many shark attacks. Is there a pirate problem in the Med that I am unaware of?” Crikey, have I not done my research?
But then came the reply “the beaches are topless.”
“Oh, right, that. No, we go to the beaches, we have taken them before. I mean boobs are boobs right? Half the population has them.”
Then came the “yup,” accompanied by the one eyebrow lift, the universal expression of judgment. Because if you don’t frequent the botox bar, when you are secretly thinking I would never do that, ergo I am a better parent, I know what you are thinking.
I think the beaches in Pampelonne are one of the loveliest places I have been. Granted my travels are limited to Europe, the USA and New Zealand, but still, they stand alone in my mind. It isn’t just their beauty but the stress free lifestyle. I was not skipping the beaches to spare my children the imagined trauma of seeing breasts. Breasts which exist, ironically, to sustain and feed said children at the beginning of their lives.
Here we are visiting the topless beaches of Saint Tropez and my kids have yet to wake up in the middle of the night screaming “save me from the ta-tas!!” Additionally they are seeing real breasts, as opposed to the playboy silicone breasts I am so used to seeing in the media at home. The French, it turns out, aren’t terribly disposed towards altering themselves with the knife. I’ve asked several locals about this observation and they responded that “oui,” they don’t flock towards the surgeons office as frequently as other cultures do.
I am not passing judgement on plastic surgery. Absolutely no judgement, and I think that if I wasn’t so terrified of rare complications perhaps I would have done something by now. But I found it terribly refreshing to see so many women in their forties, topless on the beach, faces plastered with huge smiles. They were clearly not looking at their stomachs, perhaps a teensy bit pooched from carrying kids, or at their breasts the perkiness literally sucked out of them, thinking how unattractive their bodies were. Not at all. They were smiling, playing with their kids, laughing the laugh only some who eat carbs can muster.
I saw two eighty something year old women sunning themselves topless on the beach. Laughing and discussing the books they were reading. I thought what a better way to live than hidden under a cover up discussing the ins and outs of the Dukan Diet.
Our family had just settled into our comfort zone with the bare breasts when our friend suggested we rent some paddle boats down the beach from Cabane Bamboune. “But don’t,” she said, “look to the left.”
“No muss,” I replied, “we’ve seen buckets of boobs, it’s all good.”
“That’s all well and fine,” she said, “but the beach that spans the hundred yards from the Cabane to the paddle boats is a nude beach.”
“Uuuuuohhhhhhhhh,” I said. “Full frontal you mean…”
“Oui oui,” she said, no pun intended.
So we explained the situation to our kids, emphasizing the fact that bodies are miracles and basically a house for our mind and soul. My husband is a surgeon and we like to talk about our bodies and their functions with a scientific bent. “Do you guys want to go to the paddle boats? Can you handle nudity?”
Together we decided it would be fine. We didn’t plan on quite as many naked forty to eighty year olds walking the beach. And I think the wrinkles might have been what shocked them the most. I could see their little shoulders in front of me shaking as they struggled to contain their laughter. Well, in my middle child’s case it wasn’t so much laughter, as it was shock. But they quickly refocused on the boats down the beach, as they anticipated sliding off the back and into the blue seas.
As we drifted across the choppy water the kids asked what would happen if someone took their clothes off at the beach in America. We said we weren’t totally sure but that it would probably be illegal, it would be “indecent exposure.” My husband and I looked at each other and knew what came next.
“What does indecent mean?”
“Well, unacceptable, shocking, not conforming to standards of what you should wear.”
“So our bodies are indecent?”
We went on to explain that in no way did we believe that anyone’s body was indecent. But that every society has different cultural standards of what is and is not acceptable as it pertains to states of dress or undress.
But our conversation got me thinking. Are the shame “snapchat,” pictures taken by mean-spirited frenemies as ubiquitous in France as they are at home? Or does the exposure of boys and girls to breasts from an early age de-mystify the breast, rendering the stolen images powerless.
When I asked a few people here this question they couldn’t answer. They had never heard of such a thing. Why would anyone do that they asked? This included a friend who lives in Britain. A quick troll of google doesn’t really answer this question but it does reveal that regardless of the “breast” issue, Paris and France has its own social media issues. No place is perfect.
I have spent the last few days wondering about the power of making something taboo, as I see the kids become completely immune to topless women. Without doubt some people will read this with one eyebrow raised and it may fodder much talk amongst the eyebrow raisers. But at the end of the day a breast is a breast, a body is a body. A body that is healthy is an amazing body and something to be immensely grateful for. This is something I am guilty of forgetting all the time. Live and let live, naked, clothed or somewhere in-between.