The Slow Death Of The Topless Sunbather

Despite what some people might claim, the decline of topless sunbathing is not a sign of female liberation or a blow for body positivity.

In recent years, there have been several notably gleeful newspaper articles and online think pieces about the death of topless sunbathing at European holiday resorts. The consensus seems to be that it is a fashion that is (thankfully) dying out, rejected by younger generations – and having just returned from my first coastal holiday in decades, I can confirm that this is definitely the case. While there were a handful of exceptions, there was a clear age difference at work on the beaches of the Costa Brava – pretty much every woman who went merrily topless was over forty, while the younger generations were all keeping their bikini tops firmly on. Even the younger women determined to reduce those tan lines to an absolute minimum often seemed to be repositioning their tops awkwardly to reveal as much flesh as possible while still staying ‘covered’, even as the fifty-something women around them casually whipped their shirts off and lay down without a care. Both groups seemed ideologically removed from the other as if their respective behaviour was entirely unthinkable and incomprehensible. This was true even of French tourists, for whom topless sunbathing was long seen as a statement of national liberation (and where outrage was caused in 2020 when police in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer asked topless sunbathers to cover up after a couple complained about them).

It’s worth noting that all the articles about this cultural shift have – of course – been written by journalists from Britain, a country so sexually hung up that its TV broadcasters now blur out topless photos once glimpsed in the background of 1970s sitcoms like Porridge and where unfettered sunbathing has always been seen as morally dubious and proof that those continental types were unhealthily obsessed with and suspiciously lax about sex. These articles have a bit of everything for the British reader – nationalist superiority, tutting about morally bankrupt foreigners, celebrating a return to old-fashioned ‘decency’ and pushing whatever particular social agenda the writer might have onto the cultural shift. But that doesn’t mean that the shift isn’t real.

The newspaper columns, generally written by allegedly feminist writers (male and female) have almost all celebrated this shift in fashion as some sort of female emancipation, freeing women from the demands of the lecherous male gaze and making a stand for women’s rights somehow or other. Given that many of these columnists are right-wing writers for the Mail or the Telegraph, we might raise our eyebrows at their convenient displays of feminist ideology, which often feel like old-fashioned prudishness dressed up in modern social trends – and it’s hard to make any real sense of these arguments. While I’m sure some men do have eyes on stalks checking out sunbathing hotties on the beach (most likely those men from countries and cultures like the UK where such things remain rare and exotic sights), I can’t see how wearing skimpy bikinis covering a small area of the body makes much of a difference to that. If anything, it surely adds to the tease factor for the beach voyeur. And was this really ever a major issue anyway? I couldn’t see any signs of men (or, let’s be fair here, women) leering at their fellow sun worshippers – or even taking much notice of them at all. The sheer ordinariness of unfettered breasts on beaches surely robs the situation of any erotic frisson. Even teenage boys – the very hormone-driven characters that you might imagine would be driven to distraction by both topless sunbathers and barely-there bikinis – seemed entirely indifferent to the people around them. Perhaps it just goes to show that if you don’t treat nudity (on whatever level) as sinful and dirty, it becomes so normal that no one gets worked up by it. I suspect that for many of those who want to demonise such behaviour, this is exactly the result that they don’t want. They need to see the human body as inherently forbidden, sinful and corrupt, and the idea of anyone being ‘naked’ in public – especially where there are children present – without it causing unrest or mentally scarring all involved is too much for them to stand. Let’s be honest – there is nothing remotely ‘feminist’ about telling women that their breasts are obscene.

The suggestion that many of these columnists like to make is that covering up your breasts is some sort of liberating experience, freeing you from the male gaze and the media-driven demands of having the body beautiful – the ‘beach body’, as one much-abused ad campaign from a few years ago put it. It’s a bizarre idea that requires twisting the whole concept of individual freedom and body consciousness into weird and nonsensical directions and honestly seems like an insult to the generations of women – the actual feminists – who fought for the right to go topless in the first place, back when men really were dictating how they should dress on the beach. The idea that treating this particular part of the body – a non-sexual organ that feminist writers have otherwise been demanding that we stop sexually objectifying – as something that needs to be covered up and that by doing so, you are somehow or other encouraging ‘body positivity’ is madness. The men and women on the beaches I visited were of all shapes and sizes and ages, and to suggest the plus-sized middle-aged plus women were somehow encouraging male objectification while the slim twenty-somethings in skimpy bikinis were supporting body positivity and diversity is ridiculous.

No, I think we know what is really behind this shift and why these newspaper columnists are all in favour of it. It feels as though the shift to covering up bare breasts is very much part of the wider move towards moral prudishness that Millennials and Gen Z in particular have taken as a reaction to previous generations. This is the generation that, so we are regularly told, is either disinterested in or actively opposed to sexual freedom and expression, alongside their disdain for alcohol. They are, we are regularly informed, the tut-tutting generation, keen to lecture everyone and disapproving of everything. Certainly, it is also the generation of ‘free the nipple‘ – but I think that we can say the disapproving wing of this particular group is much more vocal than the libertine wing. Is it, then, no surprise that they want to revert to a degree of beach modesty – only to a certain degree, of course because many of them also have a narcissistic streak a mile wild, and what they say in public and feel in private might not always be the same thing. But while a string bikini can be justified as merely practical fashion for sunbathing or swimming in the sea, going topless in a world where images of bare breasts can see your Instagram or Facebook accounts closed for ‘pornography’ seems a step too far. It is, now more than ever perhaps, a Statement.

There are no doubt other reasons for the shift as well – the increase in a religious demand for modesty has been cited by some (though again, that hardly explains those tiny bikinis), and it’s entirely possible that the journalistic claims of toplessness being no longer fashionable have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I fear that the main issue for both the cultural shift and – more to the point – the determined celebration of this shift – is simply one of neo-prudishness amongst the generations that have never had to fight for these freedoms and so both take them for granted and have a curious contempt for them… and, of course, those people who have always thought that women should remain covered up at all times.

The only positive we can take from this is that the generations to come might reject the miserablist attitudes of the people who came before them – but by then, it might be too late. I suspect the right-wing religious moralisers and the perpetually angry leftist RadFems are delighted by the various capitulations of the new generation of sour-faced finger-waggers, especially as it gives them the opportunity to push through repressive moralising laws that drag us back to the 1950s. Freedoms that fall out of fashion – or worse still, that can be represented as not being freedoms at all – are easy to stamp out because few people dare to speak up for them. Modesty might now be a personal choice but we should not take it for granted that it won’t become something that is forced on everyone.


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  1. The key reason ladies are increasingly hesitant to bare their bosoms on the beach is that someone will come ’round with a smartphone, and their breasts will go from the beach to the internet, never to be unseen again.

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