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(This article first appeared in STITCHES – Journal of Medical Humour in 1995. )

On a recent trip to Europe to celebrate my graduation from medical school, I discovered the romantic city of Nice.  Of course, Nice is famous for its topless beaches and I found myself debating whether or not to “take the plunge”, so to speak.

When my husband and I took a walk down to the seaside to check it out, I noticed that only about 20 per cent of the women on the beach were actually topless. Of those, several fit the “over 60” category – French women who were obviously very comfortable with their rubenesque forms complete with pendulous breasts and the kind of leathery skin that looked as though they had spent a lifetime in the aging rays of the Mediterranean sun.  

I don’t consider myself to be a prude, although you won’t find me playing volleyball in a nudist colony.  I’m as comfortable with my nakedness as the next Canadian girl, (read: critical of my thighs, butt, stomach, and desirous of losing 10 pounds), but I have been known to slip my bikini top off while sunning by the pool in my back yard – if I’m sure the neighbours aren’t home.  Something about anonymity is emancipating.  I know that were I in any province in Canada (even on the opposite coast), revealing my “attributes” on a public beach would not be an option.  The terror of a community newspaper headline, “Local Doctor Bares All” becoming a reality is definitely a deterrent.  However, something about being an ocean away from my social circle, the incredible azure sea and the fact that I surmised I wouldn’t be the most laughable body on the beach, tempted me to do the unthinkable –  go topless.    

There is a curious etiquette in operation on the topless beaches of Nice.  Generally, French men have absolutely no qualms about voicing their approval at the site of any attractive woman walking down the street.  I actually heard “Ooo la-la” when I walked with my husband through a busy shopping district.  But on the topless beaches it is very different.  It’s as though there is an unspoken code of conduct – one does not “ooo” and “ahh” on a topless beach. There are no whistles, no catcalls, not even an “ahem” can be heard when a woman is removing her bikini top.  It’s almost as though the men have decided that their silence will ensure the continuing comfort of the ladies so that they don’t feel ill at ease removing their clothing.  

silver framed hippie sunglasses on concrete

That said, I also noticed that every male on the beach (and they ranged from early teens to late 70’s), had on dark sunglasses – the kind that hide your eyes so well no one can possibly see where you are focusing. This accoutrement is an essential for discreetly observing the ladies on the beach.  In fact, the curious thing is that whenever a woman would remove her clothing, all the men on the beach seemed to have their heads turned in the opposite direction!  Were they missing all the action?  It’s interesting that our field of vision is at least 110 degrees.  Obviously, one’s head needn’t be turned in the direction of what one is viewing.

So there I am, spreading out my blanket on the stony beach, getting ready to expose my lily-white bosom in public for the first time. I announced to my husband who was mildly bemused, “here goes nothing,” half expecting to hear some fanfare or at least a drum roll.  Off came the bikini top.  The soothing rays of the sun gently warmed my flesh.  No big deal.  I glanced out of the corner of my eye in the direction of a group of men who were strategically positioned smack in the middle of the majority of the topless sunbathers.  They, of course, were looking in the other direction – oblivious to the “Canadian Orbs” that just “came out”.  I felt a pang of disappointment.  Very soon, practicality set in and I realized that I’d have to protect my “girls” from the sun’s harsh rays.  Sunscreen application became a conundrum.  Would it be permissible to have David apply it?  No.  That might be viewed as sexual behaviour.  I didn’t want to draw attention to them . . . er, us.  I hastily applied the sunscreen to myself and then lay down on my back, desirous suddenly of being inconspicuous.  I amused myself imagining what some onlooker from the deck above the beach might be thinking – rows and rows of golden titties and then, in the middle of nowhere, these “snowbird breasts” shining like a beacon.  

green bikini costume and big seashell lying on sand
woman in black bikini lying on sand

All was going quite well.  I was feeling very comfortable.  Then, out of nowhere, a long-legged, tanned, waif of a French girl decided to do her afternoon sunbathing right beside us.  I tried not to look as she slipped off her silky wisp of a mini-dress to reveal a thong bikini bottom, perky little breasts and not an ounce of adipose on her entire body.  She chose to lie on her stomach exposing her buttocks to admiring eyes (which, of course, weren’t actually “looking” in her direction).  I was dumbfounded.  There was no way I could ever don such a covering that left so little to the imagination.  If my breasts were a bit naïve when it came to exposure, my buttocks were totally virginal.    

Naturally, I was surreptitiously trying to catch my husband looking in the direction of this virtually naked nymph – but alas, he had learned the omnidirectional sunglasses trick, too.

After a time, I had become hot and was ready to take a dip. This proved to be another predicament. Could I actually go swimming in the Mediterranean Ocean “sans top”?  I agonized over the question for several minutes – I should just slip my top back on. It was one thing to lie on a beach towel in the buff, it was quite another to stand up and walk down to the water in full view of the entire beach.  I couldn’t possibly do that.  And what about coming out of the water?  Everything would be “shriveled up” and “at attention” as it were.  I mulled it over for a while, noting several topless women going in and out of the water and one very large woman who had been standing glancing down the beach for an interminably long time.  After tossing the idea around with my husband, who seemed acutely uninterested, I decided to go for it.  I stood up, sucked in my gut, stuck out my chest and walked down to the water, wading in as quickly as possible.  

Free woman in blue ocean

The water was wonderful!  The sensation of the cold fluid buoying up my breasts as I swam was lovely and invigorating. Then, it was time to come out. Once again, I felt some trepidation at having to expose myself.  What if everyone looked?  Worse still, what if nobody did?  Finally, I summoned the courage to stand tall, suck in that gut and wade out of the ocean in much the same manner as Bo Derek did in the movie “10” (a film I never saw, but the trailer stuck in my mind).  I gingerly traversed the 50-ft back to my beach towel, slicing my bare feet on the jagged rocks in as dignified a manner as possible.  I didn’t even notice who was looking.  I quickly re-established my tanning position – face down this time – while noting, much to my chagrin, that “Miss French Thong” next to us had turned over onto her back to polish up her perfect tan.  

The novelty quickly wore off.  It was no fun not being the centre of attention.  Besides, my “girls” weren’t used to so much sun.  No use overdoing it the first day.  I abruptly announced to my husband that I had had enough sun and we were leaving.  I put on my bikini top, pulled on my shorty-shorts and proudly walked off the beach, silently hoping that no one from our hotel would recognize me!  

When I returned to Canada, I took great delight in shocking my mother, sister and several friends with my story of “topless” sunbathing.  Canadians really are a bit “hung up” about nudity. I think it took a lot of guts and I’m glad I did it.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to remember when you’re 80 years old.  Who knows, maybe I’ll be one of those unintimidated seniors who enjoys baring her bosom while vacationing in the South of France. 

Vive la France!

Other “slice of life” articles you may enjoy by Shannon Lee:

The Lighter Side of 21st Century Technology

The Unfortunate Case of President James Garfield

Take My Garden, Please!

All In A Day’s Work