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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, August 13, 2006

No Tears for Brassieres

In the last couple of weeks, France, like the US, has gotten some respite from the July heatwave that had dominated the summer.

With the return of cooler air, we can pause and give thanks for at least two things. First, while almost fifteen thousand died in the French heatwave of 2003, the nation was better prepared this time. The virtually Australian temperatures this year have caused no widespread tragedy in these froggy lands.

Second, the intense heat finally solved the heretofore perplexing philosophical riddle of French bralessness.

Though I hid this from my French colleagues who were near expiring from the continuous sweat of July, it wasn’t really all that hot compared to an Australia Day barbeque in the outback. But it has been hot by French standards, and Flame-Haired Angel and I hadn’t previously experienced that here. Our inaugural summer -- the year following the devastating desiccation of 2003 -- was spent nearly shivering beside unused fans we had preemptively bought as survival equipment. And last summer was so mild that each day the mercury crept above 25 degrees Celsius was an exhortation to rip one’s clothes off and worship the sun.

And so it was, with two consecutive mild summers that the mystery of bralessness kept its secrets.

The depths of this mystery, and my search for the Rosetta Stone of French underwear norms, go back a ways: to California and 2001. That was when I first envisioned my immediate future in … China. I had just signed up to join the Shanghai office of a French telecommunications company, and I was almost on my way. I had untold professional and cultural adventure ahead of me.

As I packed, however, I had something else on my mind. I was young, single, and about to be thrown into a population of women whose common denominator precisely matched my predilections: petite, brunette, long-haired and small-breasted. If I had a type, that was it.

That they were Asian was neither here nor there to me. While in China, I would meet many Western men that were in Asia because of Asian women. These were the sort of men who have a favorite flavor of ice cream and never stray from it. At first, I found it hard not to judge them – and the unfortunate ex-pat expression for their condition: “Yellow Fever”. But, ultimately, who was I to decide what characteristics would make a good mate for anyone else? If the only women in these men’s fantasies had Asian eyes, then I guess they were in the right place.

I never suffered similarly. My titillation at the prospect of being literally surrounded by Chinese women had nothing to do with their Asian-ness. What distinguished this population of petite, flat-chested brunettes to me was their uniformly lissome ubiquity. If China is a sea of people, then it was the kind of sea my fantasies could drown in.

As it turned out, however, I was only ever to enjoy the charms of those lithe bodies second hand. And before you go all lurid, I simply mean that I watched friends date locals. Because I never did. Not a one.

Between California and Shanghai I was waylaid by love in the form of a busty, blue-eyed, flame-haired Australian. By the time I arrived in China, my search for a life partner was over, and previous weeks’ fantasies of romps through an entire population of breast-less brunettes were simply superfluous.

Even so, committed though I was to my long-distance chastity, one doesn’t change one’s tastes simply because one is sated, nor literally go blind when blinded by love. So it was with working eyesight that I imagined visual splendor awaiting me in Shanghai: every sidewalk a feast for the eyes. With the city’s legendarily hot, sticky summers, I harbored not a scintilla of doubt about the millions of pert, tiny breasts that would be virtually bared beneath the thinnest sheaths of local silk. It was still a developing nation, after all, where one wouldn’t spend money on a garment she obviously didn’t need. The certain bralessness that awaited me was a tiny superficial solace to the heart-breaking distance of the antipodes, where my heart now resided.

What I found upon arriving in Shanghai can only be described as a travesty: nine million flat-chested women sweating into their padded bras. Perfect little natural breasts everywhere -- my every fantasy made flesh -- but not a nipple to see. Even the diaphanous spaghetti strap numbers that look so beautiful on bare-shouldered, gamine Asian bodies, only indicated a badly fitting strapless contraption lurking below, there to hold up essentially nothing. Never in the history of human haberdashery had a nation needing so little titular support given so much to so many that were so small.

The entire nation, though newly free, was still a bastion of the unemancipated mammary. The country’s women had come so far, and yet made so little progress. The ancient tradition of foot binding had, it seemed, just moved chestward.

Chinese women, I came to learn, might be privately adventurous, but the public sphere is a different matter. Plus, in a country obsessed with getting rich, bras and breasts were both signs of affluence: breasts meant “well fed” and bras because, well, you wouldn’t spend money on one unless you were rolling in at least enough cash not to worry about your next meal. As a result, the locals might dress alluringly but bras were mandatory equipment both for safeguarding one’s modesty and displaying one’s means. In the entire time I lived there, I saw one Chinese woman going braless. She turned out to be a visiting American.

So, I simply gave up on surreptitious Sino-centric nipple gazing.

The better part of three years passed. I was a blissfully married man delighted with the romp that was my marriage. Sidewalk beauties received only asymptotic attention. And, to be frank, I became a little bored with the insane repetitiveness of just a single type of beauty to the exclusion of all others. It wasn’t just three years of brassiere-blunted visual disappointment; it was the unending physical homogeneity of Shanghainese women. The very thing that had initially excited me about the prospect of millions of them -- the ubiquity of their look -- had dulled my titillation with the bludgeon of sameness. If variety is the spice of life, then even Shanghai -- where an unlikely proportion of the women were uncommonly beautiful -- had become, to this inveterate appreciator of beautiful women, a bland place.

(Australians have a wonderful term of endearment for men who appreciate women with such dedication. They call us “pervs”. I believe it signifies “pervasive appreciation”. Aussies have such a delightful way of shortening things.)

But, now, I was getting ready to leave the women of China and their absurdly unnecessary brassieres. I was de-camping from Shanghai. For Paris.

Hail Paris!

We arrived in winter and, even with the city’s famously beautiful women entarped under winter coats, the extraordinary variety of passing Parisian pulchritude just floored me.

Riffing on this theme at the time, I wrote:

I hadn’t actually noticed how bored I had become with stunningly beautiful Shanghainese women until about three weeks ago, when I started walking in Paris. Tall ones, short ones, black, white, brown, olive ones. Breasts and bums in every possible combination of contour and display. Women with hips! (I didn’t realize how much I love hips.)

So, hips, yes. But, really, my re-fired fascination was slightly further north. There were breasts everywhere! It was unexpectedly exciting, and I hardly made my enthusiasm a secret. I wrote so much about breasts in my e-mail encyclicals, one friend replied in tetchy protest: “Enough with the tits already! We get it. You like tits. Enough.”

While never hath a truer word been spoken, my immediate reaction was, “’Enough’? Is that possible?”

But quantity wasn’t even slightly the point. In this city that is nothing if not an exultant paean to the possibilities of beauty in all things, I was just, you know, taking in one of its forms. Surrounded for the first time by French women, what man wouldn’t turn a thought, at some point, to the lure and legend surrounding them?

In the popular imagination, French women hold a place simultaneously nuanced and blatant. On the one hand they are all sophistication, refinement and elegance: their manner, their language, their clothing, their high culture. But no one can deny that French women also have an overtly sexual ticket to the zeitgeist. The stereotype holds that pervasive, frank eroticism exists just behind the scrim of elegant clothing and precise coiffure. In our imaginations, the striking sophisticate graduates smoothly into the sultry seductress and then, perhaps, into the liberated, self-confident s…, uh, vixen.

Growing up, I don’t think many of us -- speaking for the men, here -- much fantasized about French women, per se. The Benny-Hill-French-Maid shtick was already a twee anachronism of Victoriana. But that doesn’t mean French women didn’t inhabit our sexual imaginations. I just think we accepted them as a distantly exotic reality, pre-established by legions of fantasies before our own. Their erotic allure was only reinforced by the succession of Gallic sirens paraded before our hopeful semi-conscious on the silver screen: from Brigitte Bardot through Belle du Jour Catherine Deneuve, and on to Charlotte Rampling, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Emmanuelle Beart, Sophie Marceau and, now, perhaps, Eva Green.

Which is why the whole issue has vexed me for the better part of three years. The problem with bralessness in Paris, as I saw it, was simply this: there wasn’t any.

Here I was, having moved from a city of legendarily beautiful but modest women to a city of even more legendarily beautiful un-modest women. But there still wasn’t an unrestrained breast in sight. It was like being in a maddeningly repetitive dream in which, every place I go, the best bra salesman in the world has just made a killing.

These are women, I thought, who are willfully perpetrating a cruel bait-and-switch on the men of the world. We have watched the movies. We have seen the good pictures from the fashion shows: the ones where they’re wearing only pants and a hat. We know that these women -- while our mothers sported swim suits fashioned from wool blankets -- were cavorting in the first bikinis. And we know that today they’ve even dispensed with the top half of those.

So why the hell was there not a single braless woman walking down the damn sidewalk?

This summer being my third in Paris, I knew what to expect. I was inured to the possibilities and girded against hope. I simply accepted the reality. I didn’t any longer find it even strange. In fact, being the self-styled smarty-pants type, I had formulated a complete theory to explain this most unfortunate fact of Paris life.

You see, it isn’t just about underwear; it’s existential. In a national poll a couple years back, 87% of French men and women said they believed lingerie was an important part of life. As a result, French women spend more on underwear than women anywhere else in the world: 18% of their clothing budget. Even women in richer countries, per capita, don’t spend a fraction of what French women lay down to deck out their danglies.

The undies industry in France is, as a result, healthy, to say the least. It erects palaces just to sell the stuff. The first time I took Flame-Haired Angel into a swanky French lingerie department, the Valentine’s Day after our arrival, I almost swooned. That shop made Victoria’s Secret look like K-Mart for crack whores.

So, you just know that with all that great underwear and all their great style, French women, if they’re shooting for a good look, they aren’t going to leave their bra at home. It would be like owning a Ferrari, but deciding to go on foot in order to impress your date. Underwear is simply a part of the uniform in the serious work of seduction. And isn’t that what French women are supposed to be all about?

Apparently only up to a point. This summer has wedged a wonderful caveat into my neat little theory. It seems French women value their over-the-shoulder accoutrement of seduction just a little less than they value their comfort. For, unlike their Shanghainese sistren, they are unwilling to sweat profusely into their silk C-cups.

It reminds me of growing up in Canada and going winter survival camping, as a boy scout, in the far north. (Bear with me.) We were taught the north woodsman’s method for determining how extreme the cold was. You spit and, depending on how far between your mouth and the ground you hear the spit freeze, you can roughly guess the temperature.

Turns out bralessness in France is just like that, but in reverse. It’s all about the temperature. When you see a couple of women walking down a Paris sidewalk bra-free, you know the temperature has topped 30 Celsius. And as the ratio of the braless to the brassiered slowly climbs, it’s a clear sign it’s hotting up even more.

And, thus, the great mystery was solved. The key turned out to be nearly poetic. As the mercury rises, so the bras fall. It seems the hotter it gets, well, the hotter it gets.

So, there’s a silver lining in global warming for us, after all. At least for half of us.

Comments on "No Tears for Brassieres"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (10:56 AM) : 

Shame on me.. Only finally managed to read this great story... Loved it (by association)... Loved the fact you put Eva Green in there (even if only as a maybe)... ;)


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