The English language is liberally sprinkled with euphemisms, enabling us to avoid direct mention of unavoidably difficult or embarrassing situations. So it is that most British adults, at some point or other, will have experienced an “intimate examination”, code for a doctor or other professional’s perusal of a further euphemism, our “private parts”.
The scenario is a familiar one: you arrive in the room where this trauma is to take place and you see, out of the corner of your eye, a bed on which lies a folded towel. You avert your gaze and try to appear nonchalant even though the colour is already rising to your cheeks. The doctor / nurse / beautician then announces that you are to remove some of your clothes. Sometimes it can be a little difficult to ascertain exactly which clothes because the person addressing you is speaking in euphemisms and at all costs you want to avoid the discomfort of forcing them to deal in concrete terminology. Next they either leave the room or draw a curtain and you do your best to remove the correct clothes, being careful not to be too zealous, for there is nothing more humiliating than total nudity when only semi-exposure was required. As you struggle with jeans, and boots that suddenly seem to have shrunk, you start to panic in case you get caught mid-way through getting undressed, which is even worse than being naked. You try not to grunt with the exertion, particularly if the only barrier is a curtain. Then you arrange yourself as delicately as you can on the bed and drape the towel provided over as much flesh as possible presumably in order to create an air of mystery. Sometimes you rearrange the towel several times before you achieve a tolerable result.
It is, of course, a total charade, for when the professional re-enters the room they then proceed to violate the sanctity of the towel by delving beneath it in a manner that, however hard they try, can never be discreet or mysterious. We all know this. They all know this. But yet the charade persists and we feel that somehow, as a result, dignity has been preserved.
Needless to say it is different in France. A few months after our arrival, I had cause to visit a dermatologist because of a funny-looking mole. The encounter began conventionally enough when we sat down on either side of her desk and discussed my medical history. As usual, out of the corner of my eye I saw the bed. I also saw, to my confusion, that there was no towel. No matter: the mole was on my upper back; the towel had probably been omitted because it was not needed in that zone. After a few minutes the dermatologist invited me over to the bed, where she instructed me to remove all my clothes. No euphemisms were used so the instructions were, for once, abundantly clear. Nonetheless, surprised by the requirement for total nudity, I wondered whether my French language skills had let me down, so I asked her to repeat herself. She looked mildly amused and said that I was indeed obliged to be naked: she was going to examine every mole on my particularly-moley body very closely.
I waited for her to leave the room (I had noticed that there was no curtain). There was a prolonged and awkward silence. Then the awful realisation dawned upon me that she was expecting me to strip off in front of her. Not wishing to appear at all prudish or incompetent, I forced myself to get undressed as efficiently as I could, trying very hard not to meet her frank gaze as I did so. Then, naked, I was suddenly seized with embarrassment about the muddle of clothes I had left on the floor, so I made matters worse by bending over and folded them in a rather undignified manner. Finally ready, I got onto the bed where, for the next fifteen minutes or so, the dermatologist was as good as her word and loomed up close to each and every mole with a magnifying glass.
After my appointment with the dermatologist I felt buoyed up, as if I had just performed a piano concerto to a standing ovation, instead of merely having survived close scrutiny of my naked body without the ornament of a towel. My euphoria got me thinking about the benefits of the French approach to bare skin.
This approach is not just apparent in doctor’s surgeries, but pervades every aspect of French daily life. To give but one small example, in England I have seen parents tie themselves in knots about their small girls’ requests for bikinis in the summer (in the UK, bikinis are part of the increasing sexualisation of children). In France, it is difficult to find a small girl in anything other than a bikini, or sometimes just the bottom half of a bikini, by the side of a swimming pool. Fascinated by this difference, I asked one of my French friends whether she worried about the sexualisation of her daughter as a result of her choice of swimwear. She looked rather perplexed, for she had no notion of the bikini being a “sexy” thing to wear, and felt that it was self-evident that there was nothing charged or shameful about a bare stomach. There was just no inherent link in her mind between nudity and sex.
This matter-of-fact attitude is not limited to women. At our girls’ swimming lessons, for example, the male swimming teachers stride around wearing the skimpiest of budgie-smugglers. They are not, however, at all self-conscious, and, amongst the mothers at the poolside there is never any tittering or innuendo about that the fact that there is little more than a lycra belt between their genitalia and the general public. Faced with such brazen near-nudity, in England, the maternal chatter on the sidelines would have resembled nothing more than an all-female screening of The Full Monty. In France, everybody knows that we have bodies underneath whatever outfit we wear, so why be coy about it?
I am grateful to France for enabling us to bring up our girls in an environment that is designed to curb the development any sense of shame about their bodies. They are young enough for this to make a difference to them. On my own account I continue to make valiant attempts at least to appear insouciant about nudity. I worry that perhaps my over-familiarity with that comforting towel has taken its toll on me, though: you will note that my annual encounter with the dermatologist and her magnifying glass is now somewhat overdue.