Being Naked in France

One of the less-than-lovely parts of living as an expatriate is the paperwork involved with getting one’s visa in order. In France, being a long-term resident and benefitting from the national healthcare program means going to a mandatory medical visit for a physical. So on Tuesday morning, I woke up long before any human being should ever get out of bed to be in Cherbourg by 8 AM, and I scurried to my first appointment, an examen radiologique, before the sky had begun to lighten.

Long story extremely short, I successfully completed my visa requirements and am now a legal long-term resident of France! After the sun came up, I realized that it might also be nice to spend the day in the lovely port city of Cherbourg.

the first rays

The first rays

Eating alone in unfamiliar places is one of my favorite things to do. I take my time, salivate over multiple courses, and love every minute of it. I found this adorable two-person operation of a crêperie along the docks.

Apéritif: a peach kir

Apéritif: a peach kir

Une galette vegetarienne: tomato sauce, caremalized onions, mushrooms in cream, and grilled leeks with salad and cheese!

Une galette végétarienne: tomato sauce, caramelized onions, mushrooms in cream, and grilled leeks with salad and cheese!

The most simple of delicacies: a sugar crêpe.

The most simple of delicacies: a sugar crêpe.

Walking along the docks; I never realized how comforting the sound of seagulls could be.

Walking along the docks; I never realized how comforting the sound of seagulls could be.

Reach for the sky

Reach for the sky


Okay readers, this is the end of the line for you if you just wanted to hear about my day in Cherbourg. I hope you enjoyed these pictures of my trip and see you next time!

If you’d like to continue with the subject of French perceptions of nudity and its link to sex, then scroll down. Don’t worry, I’m not getting personal, just warning you that the rest of this post will include some observations and opinions on a PG-13 topic. 

As mentioned before, I had an examen radiologique as part of my physical in Cherbourg. Dark and sparse, like every other x-ray room I’ve ever been in, I didn’t note much of a difference between this doctor’s office and American ones.

Then the nurse asked me to take off my top.

I waited a millisecond for her to turn around, or point me in the direction of the divider I would stand behind, then realized that wasn’t going to happen.

“Euh, is there not a paper thingie for me to put on?”

Coming from a theatre background, I’m used to changing clothes in front of people. I’m not shy, but there are certain things I’m just used to. One of those things is that people in doctors’ offices always give you an awkward minute alone to change into a paper vest and then return to the examination room after you’ve installed yourself on the table and looked at the anatomy posters for a bit. It seemed so strange to take off my top directly in front of the nurse and then quickly press my chest against the x-ray film. She even touched my bare back to guide me to the correct spot! Personal bubble=popped.

My awkward moment at the doctor’s office reminded me of last week’s sex ed class. When asked to chaperone some students on a trip to see “a film” with the school nurse, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t be going to see The Hunger Games. Yup. I got conned into mediating a sex education talk. We watched this full-length movie about several fifteen year olds who make a pact to lose their virginity together, complete with partial nudity and scenes of the young actors doing the deed.

I was totally scandalized. 

Now, I did go to a religious private school in an affluent area, so my high school experience was somewhat different from the typical one, but I think the content of this film would not have been welcome in an American classroom. As I hunkered down in my seat, trying not to look embarrassed as I watched people get naked on the big screen, I realized that absolutely no one around me was having the same experience. In fact, all of my students seemed quite comfortable. There were even a few couples hanky pankying in the dark rows. If my high school boyfriend and I had been subjected to an experience like this in our day, we would have sat on opposite sides of the theatre and had difficulty looking each other in the eye for the rest of the week.

After the movie ended, we brought up the lights and began a discussion with the students about their observations. The word “abstinence” was never uttered; rather, the nurse discussed contraception and the characters’ emotional states throughout the film. Of course, a few kids made crude jokes and tried to act like they were more at ease than the likely reality, but the fact remains that most of these sixteen year olds were able to have an honest conversation with school officials about something that their American counterparts (at least in my neck of the woods) would hardly have been able to get out. Heck, I could hardly keep myself from giggling, and I’m twenty-two. My high school sex ed consisted of one painful assembly in which a paid speaker basically gave us the Mean Girls speech (“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die…now everybody take some rubbers.”)

The difference in the way that Europeans view nudity is clear: they simply don’t think about it. Being naked doesn’t automatically link to sex in the French mind, and so ads and films feature far more skin than would be shown on American tv. The French are obviously pretty comfortable with their bodies, but how does that tie into their perceptions on sex? I don’t have to tell you this; the stereotype of hypersexualized Frenchies committing serious PDA underneath the Eiffel Tower is universal, and with good reason.

But here’s the shocker: The average age to lose one’s virginity in France is 17.2 for men and 17.6 for women (from a 2008 article here), while American teens are getting it on at age 17.0 for guys and 17.3 for women. (2012 stats found here). That means that, on average, Americans are actually losing their virginity slightly earlier than the French, even if they aren’t talking about it. However, the rate of teenage pregnancy  in the US is almost three times that of France (from AFY study here). 0.4% of French adults are living with HIV/AIDS, while 0.6% of Americans are.

Not trying to be a legitimate resource here or an expert on the topic (clearly), but it seems to me like we might be doing something wrong. American cultural taboos on talking about our bodies and the amazing things they can do won’t change the fact that teens are going to have sex. American teens aren’t getting the information they need to be fully prepared for when they do inevitably decide to do it, and are therefore more likely to, in the words of Coach Carr, get pregnant and die.

As I shivered against that x-ray film with the top half of my body exposed to a woman I’d met thirty seconds before, I realized that I was just as uncomfortable as my sixteen year old self would have been.


5 comments on “Being Naked in France

  1. […] welcome back. Take a look around, re-read a few of my old favorite posts here, here, and here, and stay tuned for new blogs every […]

  2. Lara says:

    You make many good points. I am almost led to believe there are other ways of doing things correctly than the American way?!

  3. Rhonda says:

    Very interesting post. Yes, the Puritans left more than bad fashion behind them; our sexual taboos cause our young people– and, society in general, harm.
    What we don’t know CAN hurt us.
    As for the rest of your post, a delightful day in Cherbourg…worth a few awkward minutes in the buff!

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